Friday, August 21, 2009

Democracy 2.0

One of the biggest grips I have about the way that British politics operates is that there is such extraordinary inertia in the process of reform- pressure grows over a period of decades before necessary changes are made to our system of government. Though we are taught about the Reform bills of the nineteenth century as creating the a democratic franchise for the Parliament, the fact is that the modest reforms of the Reform bill of 1832 took decades of agitation before it was enacted, after having been first proposed by Pitt the Elder in 1786. It was still nearly 40 years before the unfinished business of 1832 could be addressed by the Reform Act of 1867. Some have defended this extraordinarily conservative approach to change as being protective of order and political stability- the idea that British politics is- and ought to be- based on an evolution rather than the potentially revolutionary consequences of more rapid political reform.

As the United Kingdom continues to slip further in the economic and political rankings of the nations, it strikes me that the failure to innovate in politics- as in much else- is costing our people very dearly. The need for change is becoming more urgent, yet there is little that is being done to prepare society for the changes that information technology is bringing. Privacy can not be safeguarded and the citizen of Britain has no right to know, let alone challenge information that may be held concerning them. Our 19th century Parliament continues to vote very slowly in lobbies rather than use any time saving electronic vote registration.

By contrast to all of this, there is the debate in Estonia.

I have been asked to take part in a conference inf the university city of Tartu to examine direct democracy. The point being that here in Estonia more and more people are choosing to vote online, as they do so many other things, such as banking, which is practically universally online, shopping and socialising. The growth on online voting for Parliament, the European Parliament and local government is making it increasingly practical for specific questions to be submitted to referendum. The question is whether this would bolster Estonian democracy or leave it vulnerable to greater populism.

The key, I suppose is to notice that the Estonians are already way in advance in their use and understanding of new IT and communications technology. Privacy protection is built into the structure of data handling and yet the presumption is that all state, as opposed to personal, information is public. Comparing that with the secretive nature of the British State, and the increasingly obtrusive surveillance of British citizens by their own state suggests that Estonia has already lapped Britain several times in the race to develop and use these new technologies in a safe and secure manner.

As Estonia considers the practicalities as well as the virtues of direct democracy, the rickety unreformed British constitution looks like an increasing anachronism. Evolution that takes decades to achieve the slightest progress does not look like a particularly good idea any more. Flexibility and openness are virtues that the new century will prize a lot more than the inflexible fustiness of British Constitution whose democratic centre, the House of Commons, can no longer police its own affairs, let alone legislate effectively for the nation.

The political class of Britain, isolated from the real experience of non political life, can not administer effectively, and the nineteenth century constitution even fails to reflect the wishes of the people. The result is political constipation and increasingly this results in incompetent and corrupt government.

Systemic reform is essential- yet still the political class refuses to acknowledge that it is they themselves that lie at the heart of our national decline. Change will come, but unless the hacks of party and Parliament become far more aware than they are now, that change could finally be more revolutionary than evolutionary.

It is just a shame that it will be too late by then for us to restore our national self respect and influence.

9 comments:

Newmania said...

Ha ha ha , as if the Liberal Party would support direct voting .We would be out of the EU stop International Aid , start locking up criminals for good and stop immigration in its tracks abortions would be harder to get and etc.etc.

Joe Otten said...

There is an unsolved problem with electronic voting - that a computer cannot be seen to be acting faithfully. It is intrinsically a black box, that we are expected to trust has not been corrupted or broken.

It's not a problem if the votes are published as they would be with divisions in the house of commons - but for public elections with a secret ballot, there is no way to check that your vote has been counted.

That's not to say fraud with paper ballots is impossible. But it would be very hard to alter or replace a large number of physical ballot papers with nobody noticing. Subvert the right computer and the whole election is yours.

Old Holborn said...

An excellent article.

When I can vote on my own behalf on bills in Parliament, why on earth do I need a representative to do it for me (or be whipped by a party)?

It is scaring them shitless and it is coming.

Anonymous said...

And what is wrong with requiring MPs to turn up in person to hear a debate and vote? Is it such a hardship. Perhaps you prefer the Italian system where blocks of voting keys in empty seats can be switched over for those who can't be bothered to turn up. It is certainly more technological and the Italian system is so brilliant isn't it.

Cicero said...

a couple of misconceprions here: I am not suggesting that MPs should not vote in person, just that the 20 minutes or so that it takes is a ridiculous waste of time.

Newmania- I am quite prepared to take the dabate on all those issues to the country, and given that the last referendum on Europe we voted 2-1 to stay in, I am not so arrogant as you are to prejudge the result of any given debate.

Joe: that point is well taken, but the structure of the systems in Estonia gives a validation tag to each vote, so it is as sure as it can be that the vote is not fraudulent

Anonymous said...

"the Reform bill of 1832 took decades of agitation before it was enacted, after having been first proposed by Pitt the Elder in 1786."

Sorry, a bit of pedantry. Do you mean Pitt the younger? His father was almost a decade dead by 1786.

Joe Otten said...

Validation tag - it sounds comforting. You can always design in safeguards in the software. What you can't do is be sure that the software on the system is the software that is supposed to be on the system.

The advantage of a steel box for paper ballots over a computer is that a steel box is limited in what it can do with the information it contains, and a computer isn't.

Dan said...

Oh yes a 'validation tag' - how much more Orwellian can you get?

Anyone who thinks on-line voting is a solution for low turn outs is fucking moron - which is why it has been propsed by every Labour minister from 1997 to the present day. It's a shame this evil corruption of democracy has been given so much credence - and spread to the should know better Balts.

Newmania said...

Newmania- I am quite prepared to take the dabate on all those issues to the country, and given that the last referendum on Europe we voted 2-1 to stay in, I am not so arrogant as you are to prejudge the result of any given debate

As you well know CS the ‘last referendum’ ( on the Constitutuion) was avoided on the delightfully simple grounds that it would have been lost and the previous one was fought on the grounds of a “ Common Market “. In a recent survey ( See Liberal Conspiracy) International AID was the number one most popular choice for cuts and the surveyed evidence about alarm at immigration made it the number one concern prior to the economy blacking out the sky.
Your humble belief that ‘superior intellect’ possessed by you and those who agree with you , would sway the British people behind the progressive wish list , is , frankly , the sort of conceit one generally outgrows with spots.
Anyone who looks with other than Nelsons eye can see the current political separation from the voter skews policy to the left by counting working class ‘interest’ votes as progressive votes despite the loathing of the working classes for the progressive agenda . Open Primaries , referenda and direct accountability not only reveal the card trick the left play but additionally make the prospect of further “Post Democratic “ moves to PR a very distant one .
The two winner are the left of Labour an the Conservative Party ..

Why do you think they are doing it ?