openDemocracyUK

A Mixed Constitution

A proposal for a modern mixed constitution with a randomly-selected Parliament
Keith Sutherland
15 February 2010

If you pause to think about it, it’s logically impossible for a fused constitution (where the executive is drawn from the legislature) to be a democracy, as this would require our elected representatives to be (a) competent and experienced (b) wise and well-informed and (c) representative of the diversity of the electorate. Although Burkeians would retort that (c) is false as MPs are trustees for – rather than delegates from – the electorate; in the aftermath of the parliamentary expenses scandal there isn’t much trust left. 

Even in the unlikely event that that we elected MPs who combined (a) and (b), the work of Surowiecki and others have demonstrated that effective group decision making requires that uneducated – or even plain stupid – people should be included alongside the experts. This is because experts are just as likely as the rest of us to be victims of ‘group-think’; what is required for effective decision making is diversity and independence. And, as Thomas Sowell has shown in his new book intellectuals are usually disastrously wrong in their prescriptions for the ills of society.  

But no-one would want the great departments of state to be run by stupid and incompetent people, so a fused constitution (like ours, or Ancient Athens) cannot be a democracy. Aristotle’s solution was for politeia – a mixed constitution – and the modern equivalent of this is called demarchy. In a demarchic constitution (a) government ministers are appointed on merit alone and held to account by (b) a randomly-selected parliament, counselled by (c) a diverse and balanced chamber of independent advocates. This tripartite distinction (which corresponds to the aforementioned three roles of elected MPs in a fused constitution) needs to be unpacked. 

a) Government Ministers Appointed on Merit Alone

Let’s just cast our minds back to Year Zero (1997). Until Gordon Brown’s creation of the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee it was assumed that monetary policy was the prerogative of elected politicians. However the creation of the MPC has resulted in a long period of low inflation and stable interest rates. Just imagine how much better the country would be if Brown had created a Fiscal Policy Committee at the same time, mandated to uphold the ‘golden rule’ of balanced books over the financial cycle. Similar cases could be made for the other departments of state. (Note: such a system could only work in a ‘post-ideological’ period, like our own, where voters are more interested in administrative competence than the construction of a New Jerusalem). 

Although such a system appears to be the antithesis of democracy, the dearth of executive talent in the Commons has meant that modern governments increasingly have to rely on the appointment of life peers as ministers. It should also be remembered that currently three out of five civil servants work for administrative agencies (headed by appointed chief executives) rather than elected politicians, so this suggestion is not such a radical departure from existing practice.  

b) A Randomly-Selected Parliament 

The legislature would be selected at random from the eligible population, just like the lottery for jury service. The introduction of legislative proposals would be restricted to government ministers and the manifesto commitments of the majority party or parties in a general election. (The majority party/ies would not form a government and would still have to win the legislative debate in front of the randomly-selected parliament, rather than simply herding their tame flock of sheep through the ‘yea’ lobby.) The experiments of Fishkin and others  has shown how randomly-selected ‘legislatures’ can be very effective (given the balanced advocacy necessary for informed decision making). 

All ministerial appointments would have to be approved by the randomly-selected parliament who could also remove a minister via a vote of censure. As an example of how this might work in practice, few MPs have currently experienced active military service; whereas defence ministers would find themselves held to account by randomly-selected MPs whose children were currently on the front line. Similarly the government subterfuge over immigration policy revealed by Andrew Neather and David Goodhart would have been revealed considerably earlier, given the widespread popular hostility to unchecked immigration. Ministers would be far more accountable under such a system than is currently the case. 

c) A Diverse and Balanced Chamber of Independent Advocates 

A randomly-selected legislator would not be expected to have any knowledge about the issues involved, so parliamentary debates would be carried out in a similar way to  trials – ie by competing advocates in front of a ‘political jury’ in the High Court of Parliament (reverting to medieval nomenclature). The advocates for the bill would be the relevant government ministers or, in the case of a manifesto commitment, the majority political party/ies. The opposition arguments would be made by members of a large and diverse house of advocates, modelled loosely on the current House of Lords – the only chamber of parliament that still enjoys informed and meaningful debates. Randomly-selected MPs would simply listen to the debate then determine the outcome by secret vote. 

The selection of legislators by lot is the element of demarchy that has received the most attention in the literature, but a working system requires all three elements and impenetrable Chinese Walls between each one. And, lest one think this is all just speculative philosophy, Newid is a new political party that will be fighting the Welsh Assembly election on a demarchy ticket. 

M.H. Hansen, the foremost historian of Ancient Greek political institutions will be presenting the annual British Academy Lecture on the need for mixed constitutional elements in modern democracies on February 25th. 

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