Sunday, February 18, 2007

This is British Democracy

Governments have suffered embarrassing defeats in the past but rarely as comprehensive as the quashing order won by Greenpeace. (here is a copy of Real Video BBC coverage of same) The scale of their victory stunned even them.

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"

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"
He concluded:
"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.

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 justice

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.

The prosecution rests


frontieruk said...

I'd like to say this comes as a surprise to me, but as per normal where the government in the UK is concerned all I can say is "meh"

Politics as with every form of control of the masses from history has always been in the favour and control of those who write the laws and usually they deny it, at least their was some honesty from a government who has continually lied throughout their stay in power.

frontieruk said...

Just to further your arguements. Here's a copy of an e-mail I received over the weekend.

The e-petition to "scrap the proposed introduction of ID cards" has now closed. The petition stated that "The introduction of ID cards will not prevent terrorism or crime, as is claimed. It will be yet another indirect tax on all law-abiding citizens of the UK". This is a response from the Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

The petition calling for the Government to abandon plans for a National ID Scheme attracted almost 28,000 signatures - one of the largest responses since this e-petition service was set up. So I thought I would reply personally to those who signed up, to explain why the Government believes National ID cards, and the National Identity Register needed to make them effective, will help make Britain a safer place.

The petition disputes the idea that ID cards will help reduce crime or terrorism. While I certainly accept that ID cards will not prevent all terrorist outrages or crime, I believe they will make an important contribution to making our borders more secure, countering fraud, and tackling international crime and terrorism. More importantly, this is also what our security services - who have the task of protecting this country - believe.

So I would like to explain why I think it would be foolish to ignore the opportunity to use biometrics such as fingerprints to secure our identities. I would also like to discuss some of the claims about costs - particularly the way the cost of an ID card is often inflated by including in estimates the cost of a biometric passport which, it seems certain, all those who want to travel abroad will soon need.

In contrast to these exaggerated figures, the real benefits for our country and its citizens from ID cards and the National Identity Register, which will contain less information on individuals than the data collected by the average store card, should be delivered for a cost of around £3 a year over its ten-year life.

But first, it's important to set out why we need to do more to secure our identities and how I believe ID cards will help. We live in a world in which people, money and information are more mobile than ever before. Terrorists and international criminal gangs increasingly exploit this to move undetected across borders and to disappear within countries. Terrorists routinely use multiple identities - up to 50 at a time. Indeed this is an essential part of the way they operate and is specifically taught at Al-Qaeda training camps. One in four criminals also uses a false identity. ID cards which contain biometric recognition details and which are linked to a National Identity Register will make this much more difficult.

Secure identities will also help us counter the fast-growing problem of identity fraud. This already costs £1.7 billion annually. There is no doubt that building yourself a new and false identity is all too easy at the moment. Forging an ID card and matching biometric record will be much harder.

I also believe that the National Identity Register will help police bring those guilty of serious crimes to justice. They will be able, for example, to compare the fingerprints found at the scene of some 900,000 unsolved crimes against the information held on the register. Another benefit from biometric technology will be to improve the flow of information between countries on the identity of offenders.

The National Identity Register will also help improve protection for the vulnerable, enabling more effective and quicker checks on those seeking to work, for example, with children. It should make it much more difficult, as has happened tragically in the past, for people to slip through the net.

Proper identity management and ID cards also have an important role to play in preventing illegal immigration and illegal working. The effectiveness on the new biometric technology is, in fact, already being seen. In trials using this technology on visa applications at just nine overseas posts, our officials have already uncovered 1,400 people trying illegally to get back into the UK.

Nor is Britain alone in believing that biometrics offer a massive opportunity to secure our identities. Firms across the world are already using fingerprint or iris recognition for their staff. France, Italy and Spain are among other European countries already planning to add biometrics to their ID cards. Over 50 countries across the world are developing biometric passports, and all EU countries are proposing to include fingerprint biometrics on their passports. The introduction in 2006 of British e-passports incorporating facial image biometrics has meant that British passport holders can continue to visit the United States without a visa. What the National Identity Scheme does is take this opportunity to ensure we maximise the benefits to the UK.

These then are the ways I believe ID cards can help cut crime and terrorism. I recognise that these arguments will not convince those who oppose a National Identity Scheme on civil liberty grounds. They will, I hope, be reassured by the strict safeguards now in place on the data held on the register and the right for each individual to check it. But I hope it might make those who believe ID cards will be ineffective reconsider their opposition.

If national ID cards do help us counter crime and terrorism, it is, of course, the law-abiding majority who will benefit and whose own liberties will be protected. This helps explain why, according to the recent authoritative Social Attitudes survey, the majority of people favour compulsory ID cards.

I am also convinced that there will also be other positive benefits. A national ID card system, for example, will prevent the need, as now, to take a whole range of documents to establish our identity. Over time, they will also help improve access to services.

The petition also talks about cost. It is true that individuals will have to pay a fee to meet the cost of their ID card in the same way, for example, as they now do for their passports. But I simply don't recognise most claims of the cost of ID cards. In many cases, these estimates deliberately exaggerate the cost of ID cards by adding in the cost of biometric passports. This is both unfair and inaccurate.

As I have said, it is clear that if we want to travel abroad, we will soon have no choice but to have a biometric passport. We estimate that the cost of biometric passports will account for 70% of the cost of the combined passports/id cards. The additional cost of the ID cards is expected to be less than £30 or £3 a year for their 10-year lifespan. Our aim is to ensure we also make the most of the benefits these biometric advances bring within our borders and in our everyday lives.

Yours sincerely,

Tony Blair

Harry Stottle said...

Yeah, I got the same email - as did all of us who signed that petition. What we should all do, of course, is reply with our own counter-arguments. But with only 28,000, it wouldn't be worth the effort. Now, if the imbeciles pull the same stunt with the Road Pricing petition and try to email the 1.7 million who have now signed up, and we all reply - well that could snarl up their system for months!

But all that is trivia. The painful question is, given that 1.7 million managed to perceive the threat to their interests and get off their arses for five minutes to "sign" the road pricing petition, why were only 28,000 alert enough to sign up for the much more serious threat representented by the ID Card? Are We The People really We the Sheeple and are we really that shallow that, in general, we'll only "act" when the "pound in our pocket" is threatened??