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.