According to David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ speech on 19 July, the government means to ‘foster and support a new culture of voluntarism, philanthropy, social action’. It was Peggy Noonan, one-time phrase-turner for the Gipper, who as George Bush senior’s speechwriter in the 1988 US presidential election campaign came up with the tag ‘a thousand points of light’ to lip-gloss the Bush I prospectus of hollowing out state provision and part-plugging the gap with charity. Bush’s thousand points of light were a bit like the starry welkin, but with the sun switched off. Cameron is now following this lead, the Big Society being the minimal state writ large. It has just floated the idea of soliciting charitable gifts from ATM users; will those be tax-deductible? It’s already cut back sharply on central grants to local authorities and to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, whacked university teaching grants, and farmed out parts of the social care budget to charities – whose government funding is also getting cut.
Now the coalition plans to outsource law-making as well. On Tuesday it signalled that it meant to bring in ‘X Factor-style’ online petitioning for new laws. This latest wheeze hails from the same stable of Mutt and Jeff populism as John Major’s cones hotline and Tony Blair’s ‘Big Conversation’. The Gould-era Blair government was hexed by the popularity of Big Brother and saw political dividends in pretending to smile on government by mouse-click. So, after the focus-pocus of the early years, in 2006 Blair launched interactive petitioning on the Number Ten website. Not much happened, apart from a little ministerial consternation when petitioners gave Douglas Alexander’s road-toll scheme a mass thumbs-down. But in general the demos itself seems to doubt whether it needs more chances to vote. John Prescott’s proposal for a North East regional assembly in 2004 drew an impressive 78 per cent ‘No’ vote.
This time, 100,000 online signatures will win a debate on the floor of the House. A new era of democracy beckons: you name it, we’ll go through the motions of considering it. Safeguards will be installed to stop the virtual parthenogenesis that, for example, allowed Christian zealots to inflate their numbers when browbeating the BBC over its screening of Jerry Springer: The Opera. Petitioners won’t be able to clone themselves, impersonate the dead, or give the dog a vote. But this won’t be enough to insulate the process from fruitcakes and jokers in the population at large, let alone in the blogosphere. Adherents of the Jewish religion registered by the 2001 UK census were easily outnumbered by some 390,000 self-confessed Jedis, a figure bloated by online gerrymandering. Hartlepudlians repeatedly elected H’Angus the monkey as mayor after he had committed an act of indecency with a blow-up doll in Blackpool.
Democracy, or a mockery? Why not both? The long drop, back by popular demand. The iron maiden for paedophiles, falaka for incapacity-benefit scroungers. David Beckham enthroned in Lambeth Palace. Happily, interactive parley will prove a sham. The leader of the Commons, George Younger, hinted that the most popular petitions could become the subject of legislation, without citing a threshold for this or pledging government support for bills thus introduced. If they have to take their chances as private members’ bills they will be prey to veto or filibuster, at least under current procedure. The Commons Procedure Committee is supposedly reviewing this, but a strengthened hand for private members is not likely to figure high among government priorities.
Bush’s ‘thousand points of light’ was more than fleeting claptrap. It grew to be a charitable institute in its own right. Bush duly got elected in 1988, but fouled his nest by signing off on Democrat tax hikes against his Noonan-authored campaign pledges (‘read my lips…’), bottled the march on Baghdad, and rounded off his incumbency by barfing into the Japanese prime minister’s lap. These mishaps, especially the tax hikes, are unlikely to afflict Cameron. By 2015 law-making by mouse will have given way to the next fad off the tube. It may even have dawned that a society whose model of political participation is sofa-spud votes on talent shows can’t be that big, after all.