When I used to cover Liberal Democrat party conferences, the late-night curious journalist could wander the hotel in Harrogate or Torquay, push against a glass door and, at 1.30 in the morning, find a dozen of the delegates in workshop mode, discussing the minutiae of land valuation tax or the single transferable vote. The spirit of earnest still flourishes among them. Their assault on compulsory ID cards and biometric passports lifts the heart.
What makes it twitch is Nick Clegg’s invitation to the People to tell the Ministry what reforms it wants. We are getting far too much of ‘the People’ at present. It’s part of the abjection therapy demanded after the Year of the Duck House. ‘The People are wise. The People are good. The People mystically know.’ No they aren’t. No they don’t. The Liberal Democrats seem to expect the generality of people to be as fascinated by the crenellations of constitutional reform as themselves. The People are not stupid, but by and large, they are wonderfully under-informed. And as sure as hell, they are not very interested. Not wanting to be bothered by the government is a large and understandable part of their general view.
The ardent folk behind the glass doors imagine a great awakening: the Prince Charming’s kiss that will rouse us to participatory wisdom is the referendum. But the referendum, even when not used by dictators, is an inherently conservative, do-nothing device. Look at Switzerland. Successive ballots on enfranchising women were held, but obviously they only asked the men. It took Hansli until deep into the late 20th century to think Heidi was up to voting.
And has Clegg even considered the greatest perversion of our politics, the screaming, quasi-monopolistic popular press? Has he considered its role in any future consultation with the People? Can he tell the difference between democracy and populism? Imagine a referendum on biometric passports and ID cards informed by that press. The streak of string-em-up, chuck-em-out, send-a-gunboat thinking which those papers encourage could give Clegg a series of nasty shocks.
The best defence against finger-clicking, central command surveillance, Blair-style, is not an unbriefed, bored and unreflective public. What we need is a proper Parliament. Tony Blair went to a lot of trouble before 1997 to get senior, often independent-minded members out of Parliament and pom-pom girls and boys in. It worked. One ardent new figure was heard to tell a colleague: ‘You shouldn’t be reading the Guardian. It’s disloyal to Tony.’ A parliamentary body of Babes and Duds was to vote as bidden, and voted happily. Where was the argument? Where was the dissent? 1997 brought in a House of Compliance. If they’re serious about democracy, the reforming group in this ministry should leave the People be and start here.