I'm not going to address the issue (Nuclear Power Generation) at the centre of the court ruling. Obviously it's important. But everybody else will be talking about that. I want to focus on the implications for the charade that passes for British Democracy. And, if you're not British, ask yourself the question, is my country's "democracy" any better?
The relevant background is short and sweet. In 2003 the present Government told the world that Nuclear Power was an "unattractive option" but didn't rule it out. They did, however, say that if things changed, their policy wouldn't change without full consultation with the British people. Last April they told us that things had indeed changed and, because they'd promised it, they duly launched a so called consultation exercise to debate the idea of building new nuclear power stations. They allowed just 12 weeks and boasted that 5000 people had taken the opportunity to participate.
Greenpeace took them to court because the Government had not provided the relevant information prior to or during the process which would have enabled people to debate the issue properly. Specifically they had not revealed the economics of their proposed Nuclear build nor their plans to deal with Nuclear waste. This, Greenpeace argued, rendered the entire consultation process meaningless. The judge agreed.
These are direct quotations from his judgement:
"something has gone clearly and radically wrong"He concluded:
information given on waste had been "not merely inadequate but also misleading"
"There could be no proper consultation, let alone the fullest consultation, if the substance of these two issues was not consulted on before a decision was made,"
the information given to consultees had been "wholly insufficient for them to make an intelligent response"
"There was therefore procedural unfairness and a breach of Greenpeace's legitimate expectation that there would be the fullest consultation before a decision was taken."The Government had the choice to appeal the decision, but they also had the sense not to. Rather than tough it out and make themselves look even more foolish than they already do, they wisely chose damage limitation and made it instantly clear that they were accepting this slap on the wrist and would hold a brand new "consultation exercise". After all, apart from a few months delay, it wouldn't actually affect anything - least of all the decision.
As Prime Minister Blair put it later that day: (see the video link above)
"This won't affect the Policy at all. I mean it will affect the process of consultation but it won't affect the Policy."Which couldn't have been clearer and could have been designed to confirm exactly what Richard Littlejohn said on BBC's Question Time even later the same day. In answer to the question "Why did it need a legal challenge?" (to get the government to acknowledge it had failed properly to consult) he said:(mp3)
I think it needs a legal challenge because we think we live in a representative democracy but what we actually live in is what Lord Hailsham called an elective dictatorship. When the Government says we are going to consult you, it says we're going to consult you until you agree with us and if you don't agree with us, we're going to do it anyway. We've seen that with the road pricing petition this week. A million people signed up and said we don't want it, yet Douglas Alexander, the Secretary of State for Transport says "well we're going to ignore them anyway"(actually it was a little over 1.4 million at the time and when I clicked on the road pricing link just now, it was up to 1.57 million - you've got till the 20th of Feb to add your own "signature")
Littlejohn's comments on democracy are, as you may have spotted elsewhere, fully in line with my own rantings.
Have you any idea what it feels like to admit to agreeing with someone like Richard Littlejohn? For American readers I can only suggest that it's like having to admit agreeing with something that Bill O'Reilly has to say (although Littlejohn is somewhat brighter). Now that's OK if it's on a trivial issue like the weather, but on something as important as "Democracy" it comes a bit of a shock I can tell you.
Be that as it may, what he said accurately describes the sorry state of our so called democracy. Unfortunately, from there on Question Time was all downhill. We had two senior politicians, one from the "rabid right" and then one from the "loony left" BOTH DEFENDING the Government's right to make decisions regardless of public opinion - whether gathered through consultations or any other means.
First Norman "on your bike" Tebbit, legendary right wing attack dog who was pulled from the rubble of the Grand Hotel when the IRA tried to blow up Thatcher in Brighton in 1984. Yes, he's still alive. Takes more than a collapsed Hotel to kill a creature of the night like Norm. This was his contribution:
"I have to say, there are times in Government when you do have to just get on and do things, because you cannot get an agreement right the way across the spectrum. If you try to get an agreement, at the moment, on what we should do on energy policy, by going out to consultation on single proposals, whether we should be nuclear, whether we should do this, whether we should do that, you probably wouldn't get anywhere and sooner or later the lights would be going out."This is "management's right to manage" writ large. There is not the smallest attempt to suggest that Politics is - or should be - a democratic process. Indeed it categorically opposes the democratic notion that policy should at least command majority support. Tebbit doesn't object to agreement. He just doesn't require it. If it can't be agreed, then whoever has sufficient power and authority to make a decision in the absence of agreement is entitled, nay, obliged to make such a decision and implement the resulting policy.
While we're on the subject, "management's right to manage" is almost defensible within the standard capitalist paradigm. If I own the company and I offer you a job on certain conditions, you are free to agree to the conditions and accept the job or piss off to some other employer. If you accept the job and one of the initial conditions was that I had the right to make decisions and manage my business, then, basically, you haven't got a leg to stand on if I proceed to do just that. Anal Randian's argue that this is an equal and fair contractual relationship because you the employee have a "free choice" as to whether or not to accept my conditions for your employment.
It might indeed be a fair and equal relationship if, and only if, the employer's need for labour was roughly equal to labour's somewhat more urgent need for the basic necessities of life. This can never be true of course because a) although they treat it as such, the need to make profit can never equate to the need to eat and b) there are inevitably fewer entrepeneurs than employees. So the entrepeneurs always have greater choice than the employees which, in turn, means they can always set the conditions in their favour rather than the employees. Rarely in history has this advantage of the owning class ever been overturned.
The "Black Death" in 14th century Britain created one of the exceptions. All of a sudden there weren't enough peasants to run the landowners' farms and demand for their labour exceeded supply. For the first time they were able to demand higher rewards or up sticks and find a new "master" who was prepared to pay the new "rate for the job". The aristocracy were so appalled at this effect of market forces that they passed new laws making it illegal for the peasants to behave this way.
Today the few exceptions are less dramatic. Skilled workers with rare skills can much more easily negotiate terms significantly superior to those conceded to unskilled workers. But even skilled workers make profits for their employers (or they don't keep the job for long), so it's always the employers who come out on top - with one proviso, of course, which is that the business must be successful. Failed businesses can cost their owners considerably more than the cost to ex-employees. They rarely do, of course, because skilled businessmen often know how to protect themselves even from failure.
But back to the origin of "Authority". From exactly where do modern western politicians derive their "right to manage"? On what basis can they argue that they have the right to make business decisions which affect an entire nation as though they owned it?
Historically, of course, their predecessors did own it. Or at least, they "legitimised" their ownership under the terms of the laws they themselves drew up - after the event - to justify the centuries of theft, conquest, intermarriage and other forms of acquisition, fair or foul, which resulted in their sovereign authority over a sizeable territory.
But that era was supposed to have ended when we downgraded Monarchs from absolute to constitutional (or got rid of them altogether) and handed the reins over to "representatives of the people". How is it that today's government still exercises almost the same level of authority over its citizens as it used to do when it was an agent of absolute monarchy. How has "representative government" managed to retain the authority of a dictatorship?
How has the concept of policy being arrived at on the basis of - at least - majority support (the minimum requirement for Democratic "People Power") been so comprehensively excluded from a political process which persists in calling itself democratic??
You might have thought we'd hear answers to such questions together with some stirring opposition to such authoritarian nonsense from a "leftie".
Roy Hattersley was once considered to be on the centre right of the Labour party, but the party having moved so far into Thatcher's territory, he is now seen as left of centre and one of the "Old Labour" diehards. Roy's Spitting Image literally spat. You'll hear why when you listen to him speak. But don't that distract you. Remember that, politically, Hattersley and Tebbit can be said to represent the full spread of the (electable) political spectrum of the British ruling elite. In other words, someone like Hattersley is now about as far to the left as you can vote for with any hope of electoral success, while the Tebbit tendency is about as far right as electable Tories go. They are - in the general naive public view - political opposites. This was Hattersley's take:
"Apart from what Norman said about the Poll Tax, which was clearly nonsense, I agree with him entirely and we agree in this area because we both believe in ideological politics. We believe in politicians who believe things and do them and then say we're going to do it because it's right and if you don't like it, kick us out at the next election.Incroyable.
Dimbleby: So you think the consultation process is flawed? We shouldn't do it?
Hattersley: I think much of the idea of Consultation is Public Relations. I don't believe its genuine. I don't think it can be. Again I think Norman is right to say there is no alternative to having a degree of Nuclear Power in this country. Every sensible minister, every sensible spokesman for the opposition knows that has to happen and to go for the consultation process seems to me to be a mistake of how policy should be run. The politician should say "this is what we think is right. You elected us to do what we think is right. If you disagree with us, defeat us at the next election. It's the only way you can run a democracy like ours."
You could not ask for a finer illustration of the problem. Hattersley is completely correct. The consultation exercises are pure PR and, as the Prime Minister has so unambiguously confirmed, consultation has no effect on Policy. Politicians are, as Littlejohn reminds us, merely elected dictators and the only sanction we have, as Hattersley says, is to swap dictators at the next election.
Hattersley even clarifies, clearly without a trace of irony, just how futile and limited that sanction is. On the particular issue at the focus of this current consultation charade, he is, again, quite rightly, pointing out that both sides of the two (and a half) party system are determined to impose Nuclear power on the UK, regardless of what the people think. So how, exactly, does an opponent of both sides' policy cast their vote at the next election?
It would be nice to imagine that the Liberal party could benefit - but not realistic. All that will happen, is that participation in the election of our next dictatorship will drop even further than the miserable 59-61% we've managed on the last two occasions. What, after all, is the point of casting one vote every 5 years, if all it does is change the dictatorship and has no serious effect on policy?
As Hattersley says "It's the only way you can run a democracy like ours."
Which is why it's about time we replaced "our democracy" with a real one, where citizens nominate and debate the issues, and then vote on the policy proposals so that We The People make collective decisions and agree on the way forward. Not a difficult concept. The Athenians managed it two and a half thousand years ago and they didn't have the obvious benefit of the web.
Though it's been made completely clear that the new consultation is pointless in terms of policy, I nurture the vague hope that this episode, added to the 1.5 million opponents who signed up against the Road Pricing proposal and the 1 to 2 million who marched against the Iraq war, together with several dozen less high profile examples, will go some way to making the average British citizen start to think about the issue of basic democracy and what it ought to mean. Perhaps some of them will even find material like this on the web and start realising how badly misled they have been and are being. If enough of them start thinking like that, we might actually be able to do something about it.
If that is the outcome of the Greenpeace victory, we'll have to thank the FSM that, with all its flaws, British Justice is, at least, in somewhat better shape than British Democracy.
Update 23 Feb. Yesterday Blair was subjected to 35 minutes of fairly hostile questioning by John Humphrys. I only got round to listening to it in detail today and most of it is predictable drivel such as his standard denial of the link between our presence in Iraq and the unprecedented wave of home grown MIFT But just over half way through he actually said something which woke me up. It could have been designed to support the argument I've made in this Blog. You can download all 33 seconds of it here. But this is how it went:
BLAIR: I believe, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, across the whole of the region, that what we need is a policy based on democracy, on freedom and on justiceThe prosecution rests
HUMPHRYS: Our idea of democracy...
BLAIR: I don't know that there is another idea of democracy.
HUMPHRYS: Well, if I may say so, that's naive (in the view of many people)
BLAIR: Well surely the only thing about democracy is that you're able to elect your government or not. You may have different forms of democracy. You can have proportional representation. You can have federal systems or not federal systems, but the one basic fact about democracy, surely, is that you can get rid of your government if you don't like them.