AC Grayling: Politics is getting in the way of good government

PUBLISHED: 09:00 11 September 2018 | UPDATED: 10:08 11 September 2018

AC Grayling, Master of the New College of the Humanities, speaks at the #StopBrexit demonstration in Manchester

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Politics is getting in the way of good government and Brexit is the result, says AC GRAYLING in a powerful essay

Did you know that if the House of Commons passes a vote of no confidence in the government, that vote has to be repeated two weeks later in case any MPs have changed their minds?

Did you know that if a government wishes to dissolve Parliament for a new general election, it has to achieve a 66% majority in the House of Commons?

Did you know that if a trade union wishes to call a strike, it has to receive a vote of 44% of its total membership otherwise the strike is illegal?

By now you know that in the 2016 EU (advisory!) referendum only 37% of the total (restricted!) electorate voted Leave – and the Conservatives and Jeremy Corbyn regard that vote as mandating Brexit.

Why the gross disparities in play here? No Confidence votes have to be repeated – there is a very high bar for a general election to be called – there are restrictions on trade union strike action, minimum 40% of the total membership - but a huge, disruptive, damaging Brexit can happen on a one-off 37% vote of an artificially circumscribed electorate in an advisory-only referendum?

Do you smell a rat? A lot of dead rats, maybe?

Why is it that the politicians have barricaded themselves behind high walls – double votes, high supermajorities – to protect their jobs, but can treat a minority vote as mandating a drastic constitutional change – and by the way, a minority vote itself achieved only by means of electoral crimes and fraud, and lies, distortions and dishonest promises by the Leave campaign?

Do you smell a rat here? A lot of dead rats?

What this inconsistency and hypocrisy shows is that there is something very wrong in our constitutional order and our politics. The politicians make up the rules to suit themselves, at the expense of the country. The foregoing paragraphs are a simple demonstration of that fact: they expose the fundamental dishonesty in the political process in the UK. This needs to change. When Brexit is stopped, we need reforms – reforms that will ensure that government is for the people and genuinely by the people and not only and solely of the people by self-serving individuals like Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and their cronies.

Three things make it possible for politicians and the governments they form to practice the cheats and sleights of hand that the foregoing paragraphs expose.

One is the profoundly undemocratic First Past The Post (FTPT) voting system for the House of Commons. Every other election – for the devolved assemblies in Scotland, Wales and (when it exists) Northern Ireland; for city mayors; for the EU Parliament; even for chairpersons of Parliamentary committees – are by one or another form of proportional representation. FPTP only applies to the House of Commons, and it gives majorities in the Commons, sometimes big ones, on a minority of votes cast in general elections. If your vote goes to a losing candidate, it is worthless: you are not represented at all. Proportional representation ensures that every vote counts – that ‘having a voice’ by means of a vote means having a voice that is heard.

The second is the fact that the legislature and the executive are the same people; the government is drawn from the majority in the House of Commons. This is a recipe for disaster, and the disaster – called Brexit – is happening. Let me quote you some of the founding authorities of political philosophy on this subject: John Locke wrote that it is dangerous "for the same persons who have the power of making laws to have also in their hands the power to execute them, whereby they may exempt themselves from obedience to the laws they make, and suit the law, both in its making and execution, to their own private advantage, and thereby come to have a different interest from the rest of the community". Baron de Montesquieu wrote: "When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or in the same body, there can be no liberty."

This is what we have in the UK: the legislature and executive are the same people. They use that power "to exempt themselves from obedience to the laws they make, and suit the law, both in its making and execution, to their own private advantage" – as in the double no confidence vote, the supermajority requirement for calling an election, the restriction on trade union strikes – but the 37% vote causing huge constitutional disruption to our country, damage to our economy, and loss of individual rights, is treated as mandating. Only where the politicians are making up the rules as they go along, to suit themselves, can this gross inconsistency and swindling occur.

The third is the party discipline system. The members of a political party in Parliament are meant to be ‘representatives of the people,’ but the whipping system of party discipline makes them ‘representatives of the party line', not of the people. How? Because if they do not vote as they are told by the party whips, whatever their conscience or judgment tells them, or whatever is in the best interest of the country, they will (a) lose the party’s support at the next election, which means they are deselected and lose their job, and/or (b) lose the chance of promotion within the party and into government office, holding a ministerial post, with a comfortable future with a knighthood and perhaps a seat in the House of Lords – or, if they have the naked, unbridled, crude ambition of a Boris Johnson, a chance of getting into No 10 Downing Street.

Reforming these three corrosive elements of our political system would go a long way to giving us better, more rational government. What gets in the way of good government now is: politics. Party politicking, and the emotions of politics – ambition, envy, hostility, and fear – fear of losing an election, fear of not getting up the greasy pole – subvert and corrupt the process of delivering government that is in the interests of all. Good government and just laws – service to all sections of the community, ensuring equality of opportunity and concern and the safety and well-being of all – these are the aims of government, and politics gets in the way of it. Government is treated as a prize to be won in a political battle. But it is not a prize: it is not the plaything of ambitious politicians: it is a service. MPs and governments are our servants – or are meant to be – but as we see from the foregoing, they use Parliament and government merely as instruments to get their way.

James Madison, co-author of the ‘Federalist Papers’ on which the US’ Bill of Rights was based, wrote of the danger of party politics, which he called ‘factionalism’: "By a faction I understand a number of citizens who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interest of the community." He warned against allowing government to be hijacked by "the cabals of a few". The remedy he proposed was representative democracy where representation is not of the party line but of the voters and the community they constitute.

Imagine a situation in which every vote counts, in which MPs are not controlled by a party machine to vote as that machine dictates, in which the executive is separate from the legislature and fully answerable to it, not – as now – in control of it. Would Brexit be happening if that were the case? It would not.

Nothing is ever perfect in the affairs of humankind: but if, long before June 2016, we had reformed in the three ways mentioned, we would not be in the most self-harming, senseless, irrational act of misgovernment and political ineptitude that this country has seen since the days of Henry VIII.

Fortunately, we can stop Brexit. A People’s Vote will reveal what the better-informed judgment of the people is now that there has been a chance to have second thoughts and to look at what is involved. We know that the majority want to stop Brexit: it will be an act of treachery against democracy if an effort is made to thwart the demand for another full test of public choice in this matter.

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