A few signposts off

Reboot Britain

Reboot Britain

We can learn things from the way they elect Popes – and the way they used to.

Chris Dillow reprises his ‘extremist not a fanatic’ theme – that it is rational not to care too much about politics – and that politics benefits from our indifference.

And finally ‘Reboot Britain’ will be worth keeping an eye on – it will have a significant strand covering democratic renewal.

I’m hoping that it will provide another run-out for the PICamp project that started very successfully in Belfast last month.

Clive James on liberal democracy

Albert Camus

Albert Camus

Here’s a really good broadcast by Clive James on how liberal democracy works the transcript is here (and, while I don’t know how long this will be available under the BBC’s ‘Listen Again’ terms of use, if you subscribe to the podcast, you should be able to get all of the series).

It’s worth listening to all the way through, and particularly to consider Karl Popper’s notion of “changing the government at the peoples’ whim” – he says it like it’s a good thing, and when you think about it, it is less of a bad thing than all of the other options on offer.

James also quotes Albert Camus on Democracy:

“…the form of society devised and maintained by those who know that they don’t know everything.” Continue reading

Opinion v Knowledge

The spEak You're bRanes blog - an excellent chronicle of UK comments-box idiocy

The spEak You're bRanes blog - an excellent chronicle of UK comments-box idiocy

One of my favourite political bloggers, Shuggy, has a short post up here about opinion and it’s validity (or lack of). My own favourite variation on this is the view that ‘opinions are like a*seholes – everyone has one, but no-one really wants to hear them.’ (an aphorism that I can’t recall the source of now).

Politicians are often a good deal more relaxed about this than Shuggy (he’s a teacher – it’s his job not to be soft on this sort of thing). Opinion draws forth evidence – if I say something that you think is stupid, you may take time to assemble the information needed to prove me wrong.

It also drives conversation, and often contains nuggets of evidence that the keen-eared can pick up on – and this is useful to politicians. The flipside, of course, is that this is the point at which unscrupulous pressure groups have the most traction. Newspapers can weild opinion to devastating effect as we see on a daily basis, but their potency increases exponentially the moment that politicians announce an intention to let opinion shape their policies.

Yet, even without formal petitions, politicians also don’t have the luxury that Shuggy does. In the late 1980s and early 1990s Mrs Thatcher believed that the empirical case for the poll-tax was overwhelming. She ignored the widely held opinion that ultimately damned the policy – namely “I don’t think that I should bloody-well pay it.” Continue reading

The lust for certainty – a sin?

Bless me Father, I've been certain about something...

Bless me Father, I've been a bit certain about something...

In a very good edition of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Analysis’ programme towards the end of last year, the columnist David Aaronovich recounted a programme that he produced in the 1980s featuring the Archbishop of York, John Hapgood.

The Archbishop, as far as I can see, had the kind of views that would appeal to a Guardian reader rather that an Anglican traditionalist.

Jonathan Dimbleby asked him if it wasn’t the case that people needed a bit of certainty about big issues in order to live their lives. the response that the Archbishop gave stunned Dimbleby and Aaronovich. He said…

Has it occurred to you that the lust for certainty may be a sin?

The whole programme is really worth listening to – I think that podcast subscribers get the option to download all of the archives and the transcript is here.

One of my favourite political bloggers, Chris Dillow of Stumbling and Mumbling has written a great deal about the curse that the apparent need for certainty places upon democratic politics.

Continue reading

Distributed moral wisdom – mayors and political parties.

I find it almost impossible to take a blog seriously when its central claim is that any British government in the recent past of forseeable future is really lurching towards totalitarianism. It is with this proviso that I offer a semi-approving link to this post.

The elected police chief – like the elected Mayor – cannot seriously be seen as a democratic step forward, can it? If one were to apply the logic that places ‘distributed moral wisdom‘ at the heart of a functioning democracy, then it is very hard to make the case for elections that foreground single individuals.

Surely, it is very hard to make the case that one vote every four years can endorse one individual’s approach to almost everything in a particular sphere? Surely this is little better than holding a plebiscite on a policy issue that most people don’t understand? Continue reading

Populism, participation and democracy

Over at the Democratic Society blog, Anthony has written a very good post on the balance between decisions that have a democratic flavour to them (in the crudest sense of the word – decisions that reflect the broad stated will of those who express a view) and the need for high-quality decisionmaking.

Why is representative democracy the ‘least worst’ option?

Democracy is the worst form of government except all the other forms that have been tried from time to time – Winston Churchill

Funny aphorisms have a habit of making a case better than any footnoted essay, and Churchill’s view remains the most quoted argument I’ve seen in the defence of liberal democracy. But what is the basis for this argument?

The notion of representative democracy is often open to challenge from other forms. Most of us are attracted to the democracy because of it’s fairness. But fair and incompetent would not be acceptable, would it?

James Surowiecki’s ‘Wisdom of Crowds’ thesis, for instance, questions the quality of decision-making that individual humans make in comparison to a popular distributed wisdom. And while Surowiecki’s view (and similarly, that of many pro-market advocates) can be tested in certain spheres, I think that we can all agree that many of the decisions that we have taken on our behalf by governmental bodies require judgements that are a good deal more qualitative.

About eighteen months ago,* I was listening to a debate about Tony Blair’s premiership.

Alongside The Guardian’s Tim Garton-Ash, a former Labour MP called Tony McWalter was on the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme (with John Humphries in the chair) debating whether politicians should be ‘fighting the forces of evil’, (both discussants agreed that they should).

McWalter’s objection was to the means by which such decisions were reached. Tony Blair, he argued…

“…has a sense of mission that excludes him from taking advice or understanding that moral wisdom is distributed. He doesn’t ask for advice very much.”

“The PM ….doesn’t understand the notion of argument. He has a conviction and he tries to see that conviction through. And that has all sorts of major consequences. His concept of democracy [that Tony Blair discussed with John Humphreys on an extended interview earlier in the week] is that ‘we can can get rid of the government’. He doesn’t understand that democracy is about distributed democracy and that moral wisdom is distributed just as scientific wisdom is. And what he has to understand is that the horrible disfigurement of our constitution – that has an office that is so authoritarian – has got to be broken up and replaced by a system in wich the PM is ‘primus inter pares’ – the first among equals.”

He goes on to say:

“The sheer authoritarianism of Tony Blair’s approach ultimately results in bad government. That is the real problem we’ve got. “

JH: “So what we want is someone with strong moral views, but someone who be tempered by, and will listen to the advice of others?… so there needs to be someone whispering in his ear?”

TMcW: “not whispering in his ear, no. Parliament shouts at him regularly but he absents himself from debates when he should be listening to the representatives of the people. I’ve talked about the PM needing a philosophy. What he needs to do is to read Tom Paine, because Tom Paine says that we need representative democracy.

We don’t just need to get rid of people when we are fed up with them. We need constant contact between the representatives of the people and those who run the country. And Tony Blair has insulated himself hugely from those who represent the people in this country. We need a restoration of a truly representative democracy.”

I think that the term ‘distributed moral wisdom’ is at least as powerful as Churchill’s quip. Not as snappy or funny perhaps, but it makes the case for democracy in terms of it being the best way to make decisions – taking pragmatism, morality and expertise into consideration. But as an idea, it’s one that needs fleshing out.

*This went out on the 24th February, 2007 just after 8.30am. It’s a quick transcription that I did using the BBC’s ‘Listen Again’ and it cuts a few corners, but I’m confident that I’ve not altered any of McWalters’ meaning here