A democracy in trouble

John Jackson
1 March 2006

The patrons of freedom fighters, having won freedom, often seek to control how it is to be used. They strangle the baby with its own umbilical cord. That is the mistake which the Power commission in the United Kingdom has made.

The Power inquiry, an independent investigation into the condition of democracy in Britain, was set up in 2004. The members of its commission (chaired by Helena Kennedy ) hosted meetings around Britain and heard submissions from a wide variety of interest groups, professionals, and concerned citizens. The commission published its report on 27 February 2006

For details of further events and to find out how to get involved, click here

Its report – the fruit of much work, thought and hope, attractively presented and written in rich, often witty, easily understandable language – says at the outset that the disengagement from politics it has examined is really about people "having no say" and "the feeling that there is no choice". It then identifies and recommends thirty adjustments to the country's present constitutional arrangements which, if all made over time, will cure the problem.

There is just one problem, and it is a gaping one. It does not seem to have entered the commission's mind that "we, the people" should have a say in what those adjustments should be and how they should be formulated. The commission has not grasped that if we are to unite and liberate the creativity in the fragmented and quite angry society that is Britain today, a process embracing genuine popular participation from the outset is much more important than the end result.

The commission's very first recommendation well exemplifies the flaw: "A Concordat should be drawn up between Executive and Parliament indicating where key powers lie and providing significant powers of scrutiny and initiation for Parliament." Who is to draft this concordat? A body made up of senior and experienced parliamentarians and "a fair proportion" of "political and constitutional specialists".

The draft is then to be debated and voted on by parliament. What kind of parliament is not clear. This is like telling the inhabitants of a housing estate that security lies in the installation of an alarm system designed by a committee of elderly criminals and retired policemen and not to bother their heads with community-based ways of discouraging youngsters from becoming burglars.

The Power commission justifies itself by erecting, irrelevantly and disingenuously, the bogeyman alternative of a written constitution and then saying "a Concordat … is far more likely to be agreed and initiated than a written constitution". The commission has plainly kept a wary eye on those whose hands are on the levers of power and forgotten about the rest of us.

Also in openDemocracy on the Power inquiry:

Ferdinand Mount, "The Power inquiry: making politics breathe" (February, 2006)

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Even worse, the commission explains that it got the concordat idea from the judges who, following the sacking of the then lord chancellor, Derry Irvine, negotiated a concordat with the government "setting down the separation of powers and preventing the encroachment of the Executive". This happened "without fanfare" – that is, secretly. What would a litigant seeking to establish that the government was in breach of the Human Rights Act (1998) have said had he known that the judiciary on whose impartiality he relied was in private negotiation with the defendant on other matters in which the judiciary itself had a vested interest? It was all done, no doubt, with good intention – but it concerned every citizen in the country. The judges belong to and serve "we, the people": they are not a separate estate.

In its report the commission says: "We, the people, have to stake our claim on power." Amandla! Twice they refer to the need for a campaign. They are right on both counts: the claim will be made and there will be a campaign. It will be a campaign conducted in every possible lawful way and, at the right time, on the streets. Thousands will march for the right to participate directly and by representation in the formulation of a new constitutional settlement. No one will march in support of the proposed concordat.

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