House of Compliance

Edward Pearce · Forget Referendums, Reform Parliament

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.


  • 24 May 2010 at 4:12pm
    pinhut says:
    --- ‘The People are wise. The People are good. The People mystically know.’ No they aren’t. No they don’t. ---

    On the money. Who could show any evidence that the British people has any grasp of politics? Our society lacks (having mechanisms that work constantly to dissipate it) the daily collective political engagement that would produce not just an coherent outlook, but, at some point, an organised resistance and a revolution, too. Instead, we're mired in individualism.

    Given the above, referendums would slot right in, being an extension not of power, but of, yes, of individualism. For anybody not capable of differentiating these two from one another, you're not in possession of any special truth, but have been converted to its cause.

    Sadder than this addition to the individual cage of a shiny button to push that magically relates to big events far away in Policy Land are those who would greet its arrival as a miraculous exercise in 'empowering the individual', when in fact, it would demonstrate the opposite, that the state believed it now had such control over the general will that it could permit 'free choices' to be made, safe in the knowledge that the parameters are under its complete command. Or, as in the case of the Lisbon Treaty and the Irish people, they could continue having referendums on an issue until they 'got it right'.

  • 24 May 2010 at 6:22pm
    Joe Morison says:
    It's also odd that the Cameroons are keen on this 'people power' (their intention to legislate for elected police commissioners is the most disturbing manifestation of this). It seems so contrary to their old Tory essence, i think it was Balfour who was meant to said something like "I'd sooner take advice from my valet than the Conservative Party conference" - i'd guess that is closer to the Cameroons' instincts than the drivel they are expounding, it probably comes from focus groups.

    As for EP's looking to the Commons as a source of wisdom, isn't it too late? A "proper Parliament", yes; but how do we move from the flock of sheep we have today to that?

    • 25 May 2010 at 6:30pm
      pinhut says: @ Joe Morison
      During the Tory election campaign, they had a board behind them with the slogan

      "Power to people" not the more usual "Power to the People"

      The Tories only favour collectivity when it's goal is to create more individuals.

    • 27 May 2010 at 10:53am
      Joe Morison says: @ pinhut
      My younger daughter would abbreviate 'laugh out loud', i can't bring myself to but that is my response.

  • 25 May 2010 at 8:53am
    Geoff Roberts says:
    All of a sudden, change is in the air. And it's this queer coalition that is causing the waves. But I think you are wrong in pointing at the press as a root causeof the problem. The media are as gabby, one-sided and (ill-) informed as the politicians allow, with off the record briefings, and the like as the entry to the corridors of power. The political system in the UK is in crisis because successive governments over twenty-odd years have consistently pandered to the financial czars, ignored the premise of shrewd bookkeeping - never spend more than you take in, and failed msierably to respond to the changes in the socio-demographic structure that have divided the country into haves and have nots - it's as bad as the 19th century in terms of class divisions and the Tories are going to introduce politicies that will cement that structure. fee-paying schools for the privilged few? Bring back Keir Hardie!

    • 27 May 2010 at 10:17am
      Mike Killingworth says: @ Geoff Roberts
      I take it that by writing a comment simultaneously praising Keir Hardie and Thatcherite economics you seek to demonstrate the truth of EP's views about The People?

Read more