What democrats can learn from the Classics

An opinion piece in today’s Guardian makes the case for the teaching of Latin and Greek in schools. Traditionally elitist subjects in the UK and US, Charlotte Higgins argues for the classics as a means of widening horizons:

The value of classics today is incalculable, but it is nothing to do with turning out nice Oxbridge chaps to run the civil service. Classics no longer unlocks a world of privilege, but it does give us the keys to an intellectual playground of breathtaking beauty, wonder, and rigour; it gives us the tools to help us understand who we are. It is wrong that so many schoolchildren are denied that opportunity.

I completely agree with what she says. Learning about a world based on completely different assumptions was what really drew me to classics when I was young (I studied it at university). From a political point of view, I’d add to her list the benefits of studying the Athenian democracy.

For 200 years, Athens maintained a directly democratic system in a world that only knew tribalism and monarchy. Though there are reasons why it couldn’t work now, and shouldn’t have worked then, and wasn’t very democratic really, my dear old Athenians have still had one big effect on my outlook on life. They provide a worked, practical example of my belief that the big mass of people, with information, with real power, and with a sense of common purpose, can be trusted – much more than politicians and officials today think they can.


Reinventing democracy

At the start of May, there’s a forum on the future of democracy taking place in Grenoble. Sounds like a fascinating event, although on the academic rather than practical end of the conference spectrum.

Pierre Rosanvallon, Professor at the College de France, has written an explanatory article for (of course) Le Monde, which is well worth reading. He sets out the themes and issues of the conference – here’s the money quote:

Un nouveau cycle doit de la sorte s’ouvrir dans la vie des démocraties, aussi décisif qu’avaient été ceux de la conquête du suffrage universel au XIXe siècle, puis de la mise en place des Etats-providence au XXe siècle. Il faut maintenant donner à nos démocraties une assise élargie, il s’agit de les comprendre autrement et d’enrichir leur signification. Elles sont à réinventer.

Trois dimensions apparaissent à cet égard essentielles : l’extension des procédures et des institutions au-delà du système électoral majoritaire ; l’appréhension de la démocratie comme une forme sociale ; le développement d’une théorie de la démocratie-monde.

Or, in quick summary:

After the triumph of universal suffrage in the 19th century, and the creation of the Welfare States in the 20th, a new cycle of democracy needs to begin. We need to give our democracies a bigger space for action, to think about them in different ways, to enrich their image and reinvent them.

There are three essential parts: extending institutions and procedures beyond the majoritarian electoral system; appreciating that democracy is a social form; and developing a new theoretical basis for transnational democracy.

The Myth of the Rational Voter

caplanUS economist Bryan Caplan’s ‘Myth of the rational voter‘ is well worth a look.

Caplan probably doesn’t tell us anything that would surprise us much, but the way that he addresses the conflict between the notion of rationality that underpins the idea of homo economicus and the evidence from the way that people actually vote is interesting.

He identifies a number of types of irrationality – the willingness to sentimentalise and allow loyalty to get in the way, for instance – ‘rallying around the flag’ in a time of war, even if the war may not be in the national interest.

He looks at the way that voters simply get the facts spectacularly wrong before they vote on a subject (Americans, Caplan points out, believe that the US spends a huge amount more on foreign aid than it actually does – yet it votes accordingly).

Elsewhere, he echoes Matthew Parris’ views on the public perception of immigration – not understanding the more obscure economic benefits, and among his conclusions, he urgently entreats the political elites not to flatter the majority but instead to stand up to them.

I’m not sure that it’s a message that the public are very keen on at the moment.

Home PgDn

Time for a look at Chapter three of the Conservative local government green paper, Shift Control.

This chapter is the section of the green paper that focuses on democracy, so there’s a lot to talk about. The chapter says that a Conservative Government would:

  • provide citizens in all our large cities with the opportunity to choose whether to have an elected mayor;
  • give people the power to instigate referendums on local issues;
  • make the police accountable to the people they serve through directly elected commissioners, crime maps and
    quarterly beat meetings;

  • put the power to judge the behaviour of councillors back in the hands of their citizens by abolishing the Standards
    Board, and repeal the rules that prevent councillors representing their constituents’ views on local issues;

  • permit local authorities to devolve unlimited funding to ward councillors; and
  • let local people choose the organisational structures of their local councils.

Directly elected police commissioners deserves a fuller treatment elsewhere, so I won’t discuss it here. I’d only say that the obvious problem is one of competing mandates. Standards Board issues are democratic, in the sense that elected politicians should not be subject to disbarment by unelected civil servants – leaving such issues to the judicial system is by far the better approach.

Devolution of some money to ward level – as a power not a duty – isn’t a bad idea in itself, but the green paper suggests that money will be parcelled out to councillors directly. Participatory budgeting may be relatively untried, but an opportunity to extend it has been missed here. Participatory budgeting also provides a check on process: if individual councillors have sole responsibility for spending, the possibility of ward-level slush funds can’t be ruled out.

Allowing referendums on council governance structures might be a good idea if people knew or cared what their council governance structure was. More likely to be used is the alternative proposal to allow changes based on manifesto commitments. One problem in the proposals is that any referendum would take place at the same time as local government elections. This hasn’t been thought through. If Blanktown Council holds a referendum on whether to create an elected mayor, it has to be before the election cycle or there could be a four-year wait until the proposal is implemented. Far better to have the referendum held on election day in the year before the change comes in.

It’s also not clear what would happen to those places where directly elected mayors already exist. Would a council elected on a manifesto of getting rid of them be able to do so? This is important because elected mayors are sometimes independents, and sometimes from a different party than that controlling the council. It would be unfortunate for democracy, to say the least, if an respected independent mayor could be chucked out by collusion between a local government old guard on the council.

Quite contrary to the anything-goes spirit of the above, another proposal is to force big cities to have referendums on elected mayors whether they want to or not. This is probably the weakest idea in the chapter. Caught – as the government are – between a desire for elected mayors and a reluctance to impose them, the Conservatives have come down in favour of a double fudge. Rather than letting councils be, or imposing mayors, they are going to force councils to hold a referendum (in which most if not all councillors will campaign for a no vote). Then, beyond that, they are proposing to do this on the basis of current authority boundaries. In the case of Manchester, Nottingham, Newcastle, at least, the boundaries are historic irrelevancies. Far better to follow the London model and have directly elected subregional leaders (call them mayors if you like) that cover strategic issues across a range of unitary authorities.

The idea of local referendums triggered by 5% of electors sounds great until the first local referendums for expelling immigrants, leaving the EU, or reintroducing hanging start coming in. There need to be several safeguards on this proposal – first, referendums should be restricted to local government issues (not just issues that affect the locality); second, there should be a participation threshold, of say 20%, for a result to be considered valid; third, the option to hold the referendum outside the normal electoral cycle should be removed: this means that referendum votes would get higher and more representative turnout.

SysRq F12

Part three of a series of articles looking at the Conservative local government green paper, Shift Control.

This time, chapter two. This chapter is about localism, and promises that a Conservative Government would:

  • give local residents the power to determine the balance between the level of council tax and the level of services

  • drastically reduce the centrally imposed bureaucratic burdens that drive up council tax;
  • hugely enlarge the freedom of local councils to act in the best interests of residents by giving them a ‘general
    power of competence’;

  • return to local councils the freedom to determine how they carry out their statutory regulatory duties;
  • abolish all process targets applied to local authorities, and free councils from intrusive and ineffective inspection
    regimes by abolishing the Comprehensive Area Assessment; and

  • end all forced amalgamations of local authorities.

I’ve italicised the parts that are relevant to democracy issues.

The general power of competence is something that local government has been asking for for some time. It would give local government more of an independent legal standing – they could implement good ideas without seeking specific legislative support from Parliament. The wellbeing power is something that comes close, and lessons from that suggest that there are real institutional barriers to its use. On the basis of that experience, the Conservatives would probably need to provide more than a power on its own, particularly at a time when existing services are being constrained by financial pressures.

Ending forced amalgamations of local government probably means ending all amalgamations of local government. On this, the Conservatives appear to be supporting councillors’ views rather than trying to bypass them. I may be wrong, but I can’t think of a unitarisation or merger proposal, at least in recent years, that has had support from the elected members in both councils involved.

This is an interesting battleground for local versus national views. From a civil service perspective, there is no rationale other than bureaucratic history behind some of the current local government boundaries. As the LGA have been saying for a while, they don’t match up with functional economic areas, and they often don’t even match the boundaries of built-up areas, as in Norwich, Nottingham and Cambridge. Politically, local government bureaucracy is a tasty target for Treasury cost-cutting. Against that centralist pressure, the democratically elected members of councils will be steadfastly opposed to any changes to boundaries, or unitarisation.

I suspect that a Conservative government looking for expenditure cuts will find this promise hard to live up to.

The most surprising proposal in the chapter is the idea that voters might get a referendum on local council tax increases. I’m quite torn on this. I’ve said here before that one-off referendums on national issues are not helpful or useful, because you can’t take anything meaningful from the results. At the same time, I don’t have such a negative attitude to referendums that are a recognised part of a process, and take place on a fairly regular basis, as in Switzerland.

The proposal here is that a referendum might take place if the council proposed a tax increase higher than a nationally-set cap. Call it ‘soft capping’. Councils would know that setting a rate higher than the soft cap would risk an embarrassing referendum defeat, as well as incurring the balloting cost, which at least for Broadland DC in Norfolk, is about £50,000 per referendum.

Part of this proposal is political cleverness – abolish hard capping and replace it with something almost as effective. I suspect that soft capping enforced by local referendums is a little bit better than capping enforced by a distant Government minister. Not better than no capping at all, but the chances of that happening under any plausible Government are very, very small.


The Local Democracy blog may be a bit quieter than usual this week as a couple of the contributors will be away. However, I posted a long-ish article on the Liberal Conspiracy weblog yesterday timed to coincide with the Convention on Modern Liberty.

The commentariat and their version of democracy


Simon Jenkins - paid to adopt the easy high-ground?

I’d like to start a national campaign – if you’ll join me in it  – in which the columnists who denounce the actions of elected politicians are obliged to step forward, say what they are in favour of themselves, and defend it.

If this were to happen, I’d ask for The Times / Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins to be first on the stand:

In the Guardian the other day, he started a piece on ‘localism’ thus:

“When I hear a politician proclaiming his localism I count the spoons.”

I have to say that, when I read a member of the professional commentariat claiming some sort of superiority over elected politicians, I count mine. This isn’t an attack on one political position against another. It’s a general dig at politicians.

Jenkins – perhaps more than any commentator I’ve read in the UK broadsheet press – specialises in a promotion of populist direct democracy without ever actually coming out and formally making the case for it.

He presents himself as a plain-and-simple democrat when in fact he is advocating a widespread use of referendums instead of the election of representatives. I’ve never seen him stick his head above the parapet and defend plebiscites against the many moral criticisms that they should attract.

Take this post, for example:

“Have you noticed how the political establishment hates elections? It regards them as vulgar, foreign, exhibitionist and unpredictable. To those in power they are mere concessions to mob rule. If electors did not insist on them, elections would have been abolished long ago as Victorian gimmicks to appease proletarian sentiment.”

That article requires a very close reading before you realise what’s wrong with it. In every case here, when he advocates ‘elections’ he actually means ‘referendums’ – read the article and see if I’m wrong about this. And if he had used the correct word, then I suspect that a large proportion of his readers would have sided with the politicians who ‘hate elections.’ But the intention of the piece can only be to sneak an argument for referendums in under the guise of a more general argument for more local democracy.

So, it was with some relief, initially, that I read his criticism of the Conservatives’ proposals for local government – heavily reliant upon plebiscites as they are. Curiously – for someone who has so consistently promoted this populism, he refrained from endorsing Cameron’s proposals for directly elected officials and numerous referendums. Reprising the De Tocqueville quote that was used here, he concluded that it was not in the DNA of national politicians to promote decentralised government, and that you can tell what they really mean by following the money.

But then it struck me: For all of his calling for more powers to be held locally, his berating of …

“the reluctance of politicians to trust people to reach mature decisions on how they are governed”

…the word ‘councillor’ is entirely missing from the whole 1000+ word article. Very odd in an article that demands stronger local government, don’t you think?

I wonder what we need to do to smoke him out on this one?