If politicians genuinely respected “the people’s
will”, they would let us express it between elections.
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 24th
They promised sovereignty, but at first it was
unclear which variety of sovereignty they meant. Were the politicians who swore
we would regain it when we left the European Union referring to parliamentary
sovereignty or popular sovereignty? Now we know they didn’t mean parliamentary
sovereignty. Boris Johnson’s government has sought to trick, rush, ignore and
prorogue Parliament at every turn.
“People v Parliament” is his pitch to the nation. So where do the people come in? If Johnson is a champion of popular sovereignty, why does he propose no improvements to a 19th Century model of democracy, that permits no popular engagement other than an election every few years, and a referendum every few decades?
There is a tension between
parliamentary and popular sovereignty. A lively, meaningful democracy would
achieve a balance between the two. It would combine parliamentary
(representative) democracy with participatory democracy. But no such balance is
Representative democracy is a remarkably blunt
instrument. Hundreds of issues are bundled together at every election, yet the
vote tends to swing on just one or two of them. The government then presumes
consent for its entire programme, and, if it commands a parliamentary majority,
for anything else it wants to introduce in its term of office. We don’t accept
presumed consent in sex. Why should we accept it in politics?
I’ve often been asked, when I complain about a
government policy, “so why don’t you stand for election?”. This suggests that
the only valid political role a citizen can play is to become a representative,
meaning that only a tiny proportion of the population has a legitimate voice
between elections. This is the shallowest and weakest of the possible
conceptions of democracy.
I don’t want to abandon representative
democracy. I want to see it balanced by popular sovereignty, especially the
variety known as deliberative
democracy. By contrast to the adversarial nature of
representative democracy, in which politicians try to dominate and vanquish
their opponents, deliberative democracy means drawing citizens together to
solve problems. It means creating forums in which we listen respectfully to
each other, seek to understand each other’s views, change our minds when
necessary, and create the rich, informed democratic culture currently missing
from national life.
the best example is the participatory
budgeting programme in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, particularly during its
most effective phase, between 1989 and 2004. During these years, citizens were
able to decide how the city’s entire investment budget should be spent. The
process was designed by government and people working together, and was allowed
to evolve as citizens suggested improvements. The budget discussions were open
to everyone, and some 50,000 people a year participated.
being captured by corrupt politicians and local mafias, the people’s decisions
ensured that the money went to where it was needed most, greatly improving
sanitation, clean water, green space, health and education, transforming the lives of the poor. Porto Alegre became the
Brazilian state capital with the highest ranking on the human development
index. The more
people engaged, the wider and deeper their political understanding became.
Short-termism was replaced by long-term thinking: essential if we are to
confront environmental breakdown.
There are plenty of other ways in which
deliberative democracy can change our lives. In Ireland, a citizens’
assembly on abortion law turned an angry debate into a
considered one, tested competing claims and ideas, and led eventually to a
referendum. The Better Reykjavík programme
allows the citizens of Iceland’s capital to put forward ideas for the city’s
improvement, that other people vote on. The fifteen most popular ideas every month are passed to the city
council to consider. The programme has remodelled the city in fascinating ways.
conventions can be used to draw up principles of government, on which the rest
of the population can then vote. The best models are perhaps those developed by the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and
Ontario. Members of the
convention are drawn by lot, and informed by experts, field trips and
submissions from other citizens. The UK seems to be in urgent need of one.
But, for all the rhetoric about the people’s
will, nothing of the kind is on offer here. The so-called “citizens’ assembly”
on climate change proposed by Parliament is a cynical caricature of participation. It has a restrictive
agenda, a narrow range of advisers and no time for effective deliberation. Digital tools
opportunities for fine-tuning political decisions, but our cod-mediaeval system
– all black rods and serjeants-at-arms – is stuck in the age of the quill pen. The only
new form of participation we have been granted this century is an enhanced
right to petition Parliament, introduced
by Tony Blair in 2006. Did it seem radical and innovative? Only
until you remember that a similar
concession appears to have been made by Edward I in
The European referendum, that apparently
represents the people’s will, was reduced to such a crude choice that no one
knows exactly what the majority voted for. Rather than encouraging an informed,
nuanced politics, it has made our system even more adversarial, binary and
see the point of Brexit, if it meant returning power to the people. But Johnson
is as contemptuous of popular sovereignty as he is of parliamentary
sovereignty. He seeks sovereignty of a different kind: autocratic control over
both Parliament and people.
I would love to see Labour placing radical democratic reform at the heart of its manifesto, seeking not to take power but to give it away. I suspect its offer will be limited, until we can build movements big enough to force our governments to let the people speak. Participation in politics is a not a gift. It is our right.