I am currently reading a book called Village Democracy by John Papworth. I have to read it because a very kind person called Peter (see previous blog) gave it to me – and because it may well predate all of the thoughts that I currently have about the failure of western democracy. So far it is a strange read: teasing, challenging, strongly biased, truthful, misleading, majestic in scope yet selective in detail. I do not know whether I will finish it. The book both irritates and intrigues me.
Peter gave me the book because I exposed my own fledgling thoughts on the reform of democracy as we know it to him. I’m sure that you will have your own opinions on democracy, there are probably as many theories as there are varieties of lettuce, though less long lasting. The only thing that we can all strongly agree on is that there is something wrong!
Nevertheless, most of us will defend democracy to the death; after all its part of that indisputable bundle of goodies that all believers in a free society support: freedom of expression, justice, an unfettered press, self-determination, and so forth.
A few years ago I wrote a book called The Battle for Stow. Though it describes the actual historic battle of Stow and in it I repeat the long journey that the soldiers of King Charles I undertook, it is also about the battles that exist in the small town of Stow-on-the-Wold right now. Those battles concern the divisions between local people over issues like: the gypsy fair, an ageing population, religious divisions (particularly the growing numbers of Plymouth Brethren), incomers versus locals and so on. Naturally in my research I approached the local councillors – and that’s what sent me spinning along the path of hierarchical democracy.
Once, talking to a local in Dubai about democracy, I was put on a spot. After explaining that, at a certain age, each man (only men of course) in Dubai has the right to a plot of land and interest free loan from the government, he asked me this question:
“If all the men in England were offered a similar gift in exchange for foregoing their vote in all future elections how many would accept?”
I couldn’t answer. Who could? But it was a question that made me think, and also to fear that the answer would be much higher than I dared to admit. It made me think about the low turnout for many elections, the abysmally poor opinion of politicians held by so many, the much-used phrase “they’re all the same”, the remoteness of Westminster, the awful cynicism towards democracy amongst the young, the disinterest.
I believe that democracy has to have a firm local base, yet turnout for the UK local elections in May this year was less than a third whilst in our most recent national elections it was nearly two thirds! When I talked to local councillors in Stow their most noticeable complaint was that they were powerless. The town councillors have little direct responsibility and no direct influence over those at the next level. Those at the next level have little influence over local Stow affairs because they are swamped by the mass of other councillors and the constraints of party discipline. And so the problem increases as the stakes rise up towards the British parliament and Europe.
I am not a cynic. I do believe that most politicians do what they do to serve the community and to achieve a little personal aggrandisement. Some go off the rails of course, some become corrupt. This is where the press does a wonderful job; corrupt politicians can rarely get away with it for long. The main problem, I believe, is remoteness from those that they represent and indecent closeness to those in power.
This is a big problem and my solution might seem simply naive. It is this. Local councillors should have power over local affairs as far as practical and the power to elect and fire the next level of representatives, and so on up the tree. Local councillors are the people you see in the shop in the pub, on the street, in the church. You know them, you can nobble them. They hold local meetings, they know what is right for their community and if they do not act on that knowledge they know that they will get a flea in their ear and will soon loose their place. Similarly with the next tier, a person elected from and by the local team is going to be in regular touch with them and so on up the tree.