THE LONDON FIRE, LOCAL PEOPLE AND LOCAL GOVERNMENT

A year ago, on this day, was the catastrophe of the Grenfell Tower fire in London. 72 lives were lost.

In Britain, we have a political system that does not give local people representation. 72 lives were lost.

I repost my comment, first published in the Daily Telegraph.

On the inferno in London’s Grenfell Tower on 14 June we know

  • that residents, local people and safety experts had long warned about the state of fire security in this and similar blocks,
  • that known techniques are available that would likely have prevented a fire inside one flat from engulfing the building.

The residents were not heard? We need to understand: Why?

The explanation is no double complex, but in the final analysis the answer must be that residents did not have the power to get their concerns acted upon. It was not that their fears were not known or not valid, but that the step from knowledge to action was not taken.

The reason they did not have power behind their concerns is also no doubt complex, but already on the day after the calamity it was observed that at least part of the reason must be systemic. Better precautions could and should have been taken to secure the block. The fact that such precautions were not taken shows that there is a fault in the system of governance. Decisions that should have been made were not made.

Grenfell Tower is in a borough (Kensington and Chelsea) of about 160 000 people. In a political unit that large, the distance from the little people in the little neighbourhoods up to those who are in charge is a very long. It is hard for any small group to be heard. These residents had people speaking for them in the local council, but that voice was only one of many in a large district and did not carry much weight.

Furthermore, this council, as British local councils generally, is itself bereft of power. Councils have some limited responsibilities which they exercise pretty much as administrative agencies under direction from Whitehall. They are not actually local governments. They manage some local affairs, but they do not represent local populations. In his book The British Constitution, published in 2007, the late Anthony King, concluded: “Local government is no longer, in any meaningful sense, a part of the British constitution.”

Your local concerns compete with those of others and if yours are to prevail there must be power behind them. This is the iron law of democratic governance. Those who govern deal with the matters they must deal with. Other matters are squeezed out. The people in Grenfell Tower and its neighbourhood did not have political representation because they are a small and peripheral group in a very large district and because the council at the head of that district is not a local government in the business of representing local people.

This absence of local political representation is visible in many areas of British life. In recent years, for example, we have had terrible flood catastrophes. These have also been the result, at least partially, of failures to take precautions. That has resulted, again, from systemic failures in governance. There has been no clearly defined localised responsibility. Local councils have had little and ambiguous authority in the matter. Flood protection throughout the land is the responsibility of Whitehall in London and the national Environment Agency. That’s a long way to go to get someone who is responsible for innumerable rivers to take an interest in yours.

Local populations are at the mercy of such attention as distant authorities may elect to give them. Local councils may by and large do the jobs assigned to them well, but such management is also all they do and can do. They are not attuned to acting as the local population’s representative, and local populations are not attuned to turning to their council for representation. There is not the relationship between council and population that is the fabric of local government. This is reflected in the dismal participation in local elections.

In Britain’s architecture of governance, there is a whole layer missing. There is, as Professor King found, NO LOCAL GOVERNMENT. In the case of Kensington and Chelsea, once a catastrophe outside of the council’s remit hit, such local authority as there was simply disintegrated, first into paralysis and then falling apart in resignations.

The absence of local government is one of several defects in the constitution, in need of urgent repair. This void should be filled with local units of government that are different in two ways from today’s councils. They should be both smaller and have more responsibility. There should be nearness between local people and their authorities and those authorities should have the power and responsibility to give their populations representation.

Our national politicians want us to think that Britain is a well governed country. But it is not. A well governed country has the apparatus to deal with the population’s concerns. In Britain, part of that apparatus is missing. A vital link in the chain of command from people in the localities to governors up high is missing. Britain has the most centralised system of government of any country in Europe (devolution notwithstanding, which for local government proper means yet more emasculation). We are on our own in believing it is possible to deliver good governance without local governments. As we have now seen in even the wealthiest borough in the centre of the capital, that is a failing enterprise.

REFORM – THE IMPERATIVE NOW

All democracies are imperfect. They need constantly to be improved. Continuous and never-ending reform is part and parcel of the democratic enterprise.  If leaders and citizens think that their democracy has made it and found the Holy Grail, it is doomed.

There are two reasons behind the imperative to reform:

  1. Democracy is a process of trial and error. We must be sensitive to failures and mistakes and seek better ways. Circumstances change, for example in domestic economies or world affairs, and democratic governance must adjust.
  2. For confidence in democracy, citizens need to see that leaders are attuned to shortcomings and willing and able to work for improvements. They need to see that leaders deal with problems. Otherwise they will, with justification, see democratic governance to be incapable and gridlocked.

Professor Robert A. Dahl, in On Democracy (1998), recommend that democratic countries engage, every twenty years or so, in a thorough process of constitutional reform.

Democracy is now under threat. That goes to both values and capabilities. This misfortune (hopefully temporary) has many causes. One cause is a tendency to sclerosis in reform. If we look to the United States, to Britain, to other European democracies, to the European Union, we see dysfunctions not being dealt with. It is not dysfunction itself that is the rot, but that problems are not confronted and taken on. It is time for us in America, Britain and the EU to follow Professor Dahl’s advice and look very seriously into the ways we do governance.

The standard model today is representative democracy: citizens elect representatives to make and implement policies on their behalf. Reform can follow two paths. We can seek to repair what is deficient in the representative system, such as the organization of elections, the procedures of parliamentary decision-making, the methods for the nomination of candidates for election, the financing of candidacy and campaigns and the like. Or we can seek more far-reaching innovations towards alternative forms of democracy: participatory democracy, referendum democracy, deliberative democracy and the like.

These are not strictly alternative strategies, but there is a complicated dialectic between them. There is no known alternative to the representative system, but that system as we now see it operating on the ground needs pretty serious repair to regain credibility. If we concentrate on alternative innovations, there is a danger of making the perfect the enemy of the good. The search for alternative models can even contribute to further undermining the credibility of the representative system without offering any practical alternative.

Representative democracy is a model that has very much going for it. That needs to be preserved and improved, not replaced.

There is a back-to-basics message here. It would seem, as things now stand, that the recommended strategy of reform would be, first and basically, to improve the representative system, and then, on that basis, to think of innovations as add-ons in support of the representative system.

THE NEW COLD WAR

In the early years of the 21st Century, the world looked stable. There was economic progress. Democracy was advancing. The global order was collaborative under American leadership and the custodianship of the Washington institutions.

Fast forward to 2018 and this outlook has changed dramatically. China has not become “like us.” Russia has reverted to authoritarianism. Instead of collaborative order, we have confrontational turmoil. Autocracy has made itself assertive and confident, and is increasingly rewarded with respect. Western Europe is in the grips of the politics of anger. Democracy has been pushed on to the defensive, and democratic countries are riven by internal divisions and self-doubt. America elects Trump. Britain goes for Brexit.

Russia and China under their present leaderships have in common that they are ideologically committed and determined authoritarian regimes. Both entertain strategies of foreign policy that go beyond the normal pursuit of national interest to reach deep into the influencing of the cultures and policies of adversaries. While Moscow in this respect is a spoiler, Beijing’s aim is to build and protect respect for its model of party-state governance.

The stability of the early years of the 21st century has been displaced by a new Cold War, now on two fronts. Russia is setting itself on a course of neo-imperialism. China is intent on regaining its position of “Middle Kingdom” dominance in the world. Both are pursuing their aims with the confident determination that is enabled by the backing of nationalistic ideologies.

There is such a thing as the free world where citizens enjoy liberty of expression and information, the protection of rule of law, and mutual trust. This world needs to stand up to the authoritarian advance. The democracies need to come together and find their voice up against assertive autocracy.

But that coming together is not happening. The European Union is unable, unity being undermined by economic sluggishness, populism and Brexit. America is withdrawing from international solidarity and leadership. The confidence and determination that is conspicuous on the authoritarian side is equally conspicuous in its absence on the democratic side.

It is easy to say that we in the free world should stand firm in defense of our values, and it is easy to suggest ways in which this should be done. But if the European Union and America are unwilling or unable, where is inspiration and leadership to come from? Who in the world will now defend liberty? It would seem that before we can rise to the challenge from the authoritarian super-powers, we on our side need, first, the recognize the fact of that challenge and then, second, to look to ourselves and get our own democratic house in order.

 

THE ENGLISH ILLUSION

British political thinking (or more likely English, as so often when something is said to be British) will have it that governments need to be strong in order to deliver. They must have a solid base and autonomy of action, and they must be in charge. It is the strength they have behind them that determines what they can get done.

Because of this prevailing view, Britain holds on to an election system in parliamentary elections – first-past-the-post in single representative constituencies – that is likely to preserve a near-to two party system and to produce a majority in Parliament behind one of the two major parties although none of them are likely to obtain a majority of votes. Smaller and aspiring parties call for a change in the election system towards proportional representation, but that is consistently blocked by agreement of the major parties. They obviously want to stick with what is to their advantage, but they justify that with the argument that the present system makes for governments that are able to govern.

Furthermore, because of the same prevailing view, British parliamentary democracy has been set up to work by rules that give the government control of Parliament’s agenda. It may sound strange to non-Brits, but in a system in which the sovereignty of Parliament is the Holy Grail, that sovereign Parliament is not in charge of its own agenda. The Leader of the House is a member of the Prime Minister’s cabinet and in charge of arranging work in Parliament according to the expediency of the government. The defence of this odd arrangement is that the government, to be able to deliver, must be free to get on with its business without having to deviate according to the whims of a Parliament that might decide on other priorities.

Other democracies work differently. In many of them, coalition or minority governments are the norm. Some, such as Germany and the United States, have detailed constitutional designs of checks-and-balances that deny their governments the autonomy that in the British view is essential. If we look to the record of effectiveness in different systems, it does not seem, to put it carefully, that Britain stands out in any advantageous way or that governments in muddled (through British eyes) systems do worse in delivery. Comparing the effectiveness of governance in Germany and Britain, for example, it’s clearly Germany One, Britain Nil.

But that does not sway the prevailing view in Britain that remains wedded to the theory that government delivery depends on government strength.

That theory may seem to get some support from other quarters. Today, many see dictatorial China as a system that has the edge in ability to deliver, and the Chinese leaders are not shy in promoting their brand of authoritarianism as superior to dithering democracy. Strong-man autocracy is making itself attractive not only in China but also in, for example, Russia, Turkey, and some of the new democracies in Europe where democratic culture is so far not strongly entrenched, such as in Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland. In America, President Trump gives the impression of looking to his Chinese and Russian colleagues, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, with a mixture of admiration and envy.

Here again, the record does not give much support to the theory of government strength. The best evidence is in the World Bank’s “Worldwide Governance Indicators,” of which include “government effectiveness.” The highest scores are for the countries of North America, Western Europe and Oceania, all democracies. There are no non-democracies in the top range of this indicator. In East Asia, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan all have high scores for government effectiveness, while China, the darling of democracy’s detractors, is in the middle range, in a group of countries that includes, for example, India, Kazakhstan, South Africa, Argentina and Mexico.

The reason the evidence is not in support of the theory of strength is that what matters for effectiveness in government, once a government is in position, is not how much force it has behind it but how it is able to deal with those who stand in front of it and on whose obedience and acquiescence it depends, from its own officials, via organisations of business and civil society, to the mass of ordinary citizens. It comes down not to muscle but to behaviour.

In Britain, we would be better off obeying evidence that theoretical doctrine. That should lead us to constitutional reform. British parliamentary democracy, contrary to the English illusion, does not do well in delivering for us. Such reform should include, first, new working arrangements in Parliament to give Parliament control of its own agenda, and second, a new election system of proportional representation.

 

WHY BREXIT WILL NOT HAPPEN (yet again)

We’ve come a long way since the referendum, more than a year and a half ago (23 June 2016). We know more today than we did then. We know that leaving the EU is not a simple matter of cancelling a club membership but a very complicated business with consequences for all aspects of national life. We know that it will take more time than then envisaged so that a “transition period” of perhaps two years has been agreed after the date of formal exit.

If the decision were to be made today, it would be made on the basis of knowledge that we did not have then. A referendum today might still have had the same outcome, or it might not, we cannot know.

When we get into the spring of next year, we will know more again. We should then know more about the relationship between Britain and the EU when/if Britain leaves. Someone will then have to judge whether it is then in Britain’s best interest to leave, knowing what we then know. What that someone will then conclude we cannot know now – but someone will have to make the judgement.

That someone is Parliament. MPs may or may not like it, but it will be Parliament’s burden to judge what is in the nation’s interest, the facts being what they will then be. The referendum notwithstanding, leaving or not will be Parliament’s decision.

If Parliament were to decide that Britain should not leave the EU, would that be undemocratic, given the 2016 referendum? The answer is, no. Parliament is the supreme authority in Britain’s democracy and the custodian of the nation’s well-being. It was Parliament that triggered Article 50 of the EU Treaty (on 29 march 2017), and it is Parliament that must decide what is best at the end of the negotiation process, on the basis of the facts as they will be then. It is standard for Parliament to change its mind. If a law has been passed that turns out to work poorly, Parliament will change it. That is not “undemocratic” just because the original law was passed democratically.

If Parliament at that time were to conclude that it would be best for the country to change its mind, it is possible that it will call another referendum. That would not be necessary for democratic reasons – it is in Parliament’s authority to decide – but Parliament might for political reasons see no other way.

What judgement Parliament will make in a year’s time, we cannot know. But Parliament is well aware of the burden it carries in having to make the judgement. This is being worked on in Parliament day in and day out. The action leading up to the final decision is and will be in Parliament.

Parliament’s final judgement will depend on the facts as they will then be known. The ongoing debate matters but the facts will decide. We are already seeing that changing facts result in changing constellations in Parliament. There is now a majority in Parliament for a deal in which Britain remains within a custom union with the EU.

My guess is that Parliament in a year’s time will decide that it will be best for Britain to remain a member of the EU. It will turn out that leaving will be too costly, in six ways:

  1. It will be too costly economically. The EU gives Britain seamless trade and economic collaboration with its biggest and most important markets. Introducing impediments on that trade and collaboration will bring burdens onto Britain’s economy.
  2. It will be too costly in terms of other collaborations, such as in science, education, health care, security, culture and more. It will be costly for Britain to make itself a second-class partner in collaboration.
  3. It will be too costly in terms of risks to Britain’s own union. Brexit will give the nationalists in Scotland the arguments they need to push through independence. A division of some kind of border will re-emerge between Northern Ireland and Ireland. The Irish settlement will be put in danger and the question of all-Ireland unification will return to the agenda.
  4. It will be too costly for Britain’s standing in the world. Britain on its own will be a small country in a big world, without much influence. Europe unified is a world power. By leaving the EU, Britain gives up the clout is has as a partner in the European block.
  5. It will be too costly in terms of the younger generations’ future. The European lifestyle of mobility, multi-nationality and borderless living in education and work will be made less available to young people in Britain.
  6. It will be too costly in terms of the damage imposed on friends in Europe. The European Union is a political project. The aim is to transform Europe from a continent in enmity to one of nations tied together in the security of bonds of collaboration. By turning its back on this project, Britain does damage to a cause that matters deeply to friends on the continent.

 

DECISION AND DELIBERATION

Decisions made by a democratic National Assembly (or Parliament or Congress) have democratic legitimacy. That’s what we want in a democracy, decisions that are valid because they are made democratically.

However, strangely enough, the democratic legitimacy of decisions correctly made can sometimes be a problem. Whatever the National Assembly decides, must be correct because it is democratic. If someone is able to get the National Assembly to make a decision in their favour, say in a matter of taxation, they have won, because the National Assembly has put the stamp of “democratic” on that decision.

One agent who has an interest in getting the National Assembly to make certain decisions is the government. Governments have agendas they want pushed through, and they want to do that with as little trouble as possible from the lawmakers. National Assemblies are therefore under pressure to produce certain decisions and to do so without resistance.

The potential problem here is that this may push the National Assembly into making badly planned decisions because the government is desperate to get those decisions made that it has promised the electorate and to get the Assembly’s stamp of “democratic” on them. Such bad decisions are a big problem: since they are democratic, it is very difficult to overturn them and the country is stuck with potentially serious consequences of mistaken decisions.

Such mistakes happen. A case in point is Brexit. Then Prime Minister Cameron was able to get Parliament to sanction a referendum in a quick and easy decision without giving him any trouble or resistance in the matter. That was clearly a mistake. The country is now tearing itself apart and is unable to extricate itself from the mistake that has fallen down upon it. (Although it is my belief that Parliament will eventually find a way of correcting this mistake, it is, as we are seeing, very difficult to overturn a decision that has the legitimacy of a referendum behind it.)

The lesson is that National Assemblies should be able to make good decision and protected from making bad ones. Their decisions should be democratic but they should also be good, productive and workable, and certainly not counterproductive.

National Assemblies need assistance to manage the difficult combination of democratic and productive decisions.

They need the assistance, first of all, of protective procedures. Procedure is a boring matter for those of us interested in politics, but terribly important. National Assemblies need to impose rules upon themselves whereby they force themselves to not making decisions without careful scrutiny of consequences. They must avoid knee-jerk decisions because such decisions are in high risk of being bad. They must give themselves time and they must take themselves through routines of scrutiny. The Brexit decision, for example, was taken by Parliament without any preliminary work on what the consequences might be, and we are now paying the price.

They need assistance, secondly, in knowing what is in the interest of the people. One might think a good way of doing that is to ask the people, for example in a referendum. But we now know, from modern psychological research (such as by Daniel Kahneman who won the Nobel Prize in Economics for his research), that this is too simple. You and I and all of us are prone to making mistakes about our own good because there are mechanisms of bias at work in our minds. Our instinctive preferences are not necessarily what we really want. It turns out that people often change their minds and correct their preferences if they are given the opportunity to reflect and work on them with some care.

From this, political scientists are concluding that the popular will is not something that just exists in the population but what emerges from what they call “deliberation.” The German theorist Claus Offe has suggested that National Assemblies should have the support of more sophisticated information about “the will of the people” than raw expressions of preferences. He suggests “deliberative panels” consisting of a random sample of the population – he calls them “citizen deliberators” – charged with working their way through appropriate procedures from raw preferences to “reflective preferences” in important political matters. He thinks the panels should be constituted by some kind of lot among all citizens, that their task would be to help both citizens and lawmakers to form considered judgements, and that their authority would be exclusively advisory for National Assemblies.

As often, original ideas on first encounter seem odd, but this suggestion is really quite common sense. The reason we have National Assemblies, is that in a big population we for practical reasons must appoint a sample of the population to make decisions for us. If preferences depend on deliberation, the same logic would apply to the pre-decision process of forming preference. We will not get proper deliberation unless we design proper procedures to do it.

As for additional panels to advise the National Assembly, that’s the rationale of for example the House of Lords in the British Parliament and of various other “upper houses” in other national legislatures. Offe’s idea is slightly different, in how the panels are made up and precisely what they would do, but the idea is much the same.

 

WAS MACHIAVELLI A DEMOCRAT? IS HE RELEVANT TODAY?

Relevant, perhaps, but a democrat? Was he not the author of a book of tyranny? Perhaps not quite.

In The Prince, the most famous how-to about governing ever composed, Niccolò Machiavelli speaks to the man set to govern the state of Florence. His message is straightforward: if you are to govern, you better be effective.

Well, exactly who he is addressing himself to, and why, and what he means to say, is a bit of a mystery. He does preface his tract with a letter to “the Magnificent Lorenzo de’ Medici,” but when he started to write it he did not know that Lorenzo would be selected by the Pope (in 1513) to be the new Florentine leader after the collapse (in all but name) of the Republic. Perhaps he wanted to flatter the young and inexperienced prince to get himself a job, but it is likely that his friends advised him to hold back and that he never presented his text to Lorenzo or anyone else in his circle. Perhaps his intention was not at all useful advice but rather to confuse the autocrat with inconsistent and counterproductive ideas and thus entice him to failure. Machiavelli was after all a man of and for the Republic who had every reason to resent the new regime. Or perhaps not. Although a man of the Republic, he was also desperate for job and position, and in need of income, and probably very ready to compromise on his principles if he could get himself back into government service. He wrote the tract quickly, finishing it the year after he was deposed from his post as second chancellor to the Republic, having endured a spell in prison and under torture. Could it be that he wrote it in anger, or to get some resentment off his chest? We do not know. However it came about, it is a tract full of mystery and contradictions.

Machiavelli had good reasons to occupy himself with effectiveness. Italy in general and Florence in particular were in decline, suffering from internal disarray and threatened and to some degree subjugated by foreign powers. That, he thought, was the result of weak and inept governing. So when he reflected on the doings of the new the prince and the need for effective rule, what he had in mind might have been less the glory of the prince and more the standing of the state. Even if not a Republic, Florence was still Florence and needed the order of being governed. His message, then, was one of effectiveness for a purpose. He thought that effective rule was necessary if the ruler were to have any chance of winning the goodwill of the people and hence for the cohesion of the ruler and the ruled that would make for a solid state. It is in the interest of those who are ruled that the rule they are exposed to works. Otherwise, not only the state but also the lives of its citizens are in peril.

For Machiavelli, then, effective rule is a noble ambition. But it is also, in another piece to his puzzle, a difficult ambition. The world is not an easy place, people are not easy to deal with, the times were brutal and turbulent. Rule in such a way as to create order is difficult.

From this comes his many and well known recommendations for ruthlessness on the part of the ruler. There is no escaping his cynicism on the use of hard means, to put it carefully, but was he an apologist for tyranny? The reason, or at least one reason, he was a man of the Republic, was that under republican rule, where there is a division of power and where those in power are answerable to at least some of the people, there is ideally no need for tyranny. He also thought that kind of rule was the best basis for a stable state. Although republican rule is not democratic, that is as close to democratic thinking as was available at the time.

However, in the setting in which he reflected and wrote, republican rule was not going to happen. The problem to hand, then, was how to secure effective rule when power was in the hands of a ruler whose position rested not on the institutions and conventions of the state, but on a foreign authority (that of the Pope). The prince had been parachuted in by the enemy, yet that same prince was the only hope. That kind of ruler does not have the luxury of being able to trust that the people trust him. It is to rule under those circumstances, or so we may think, that Machiavelli’s hardest recommendations apply.

Those of us who are concerned today with the future of democratic government have much the same reasons to occupy ourselves with effectiveness. Democracy is challenged and in some ways in decline in quality and delivery. Movements of anti-politics and anger are taking hold. The core democracies of Britain and America are in a terrible way, in crises of identity and gridlocked governance. Their predicament is not unlike that of Machiavelli’s Florentine Republic: the constitutional institutions function poorly, in Britain and America’s case in particular their national assemblies, Parliament in Westminster and Congress in Washington. Cohesion of the rulers and the ruled is much wanting, as is goodwill from people to governors. Admirable constitutions are falling into disrespect and are weakened by internal divisions, lack of confidence and poor leadership. External powers of non-democratic persuasions are asserting themselves. In Europe, authoritarian Russia, with customary paranoia, is busy stirring up disorder in the democratic part of the continent, and winning admiration for “strong government” in particular in some of the younger democracies. In China, a re-constituted People’s Republic is on a mission to make totalitarianism work, racking up followers in democratic countries who either admire authoritarian force or hate democracy, or both. However you read The Prince, it is a reminder that the elementary condition of good government is effective government. We today need to be reminded that this is as true of democratic government as of any other kind. The purpose of democracy, after all, is not to be democratic but to provide for safe and effective government.

For more on Machiavelli, read Erica Benner: Be Like the Fox: Machiavelli’s Lifelong Quest for Freedom.