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Tuesday, 25 September 2012

EU Referendum Blog issues final ‘Harrogate Agenda’

In July, a group of bloggers met in Harrogate to discuss the drafting of a charter of demands akin to that forwarded by the Chartists in the 1830s and 1840s, with a view to enhancing the democratic accountability of national and local government in the UK following the erosion of public confidence in both that has been witnessed in recent years. Today, Richard North of the EU Referendum blog, posted the proposed final wording of their six demands – reproduced below – which the group intends to approve this autumn. Their clear intent is to make government more accountable to the citizenry and to place additional restraints upon the potential abuse of power. Such goals are commendable. With respect to the specific demands, points one, two and six appear sound and unproblematic, yet points three, four and five, whilst in some respects superficially appealing, could pose particular problems.

Point three, with its proposal for the direct election of prime ministers by the public, brings to mind a presidential rather than a parliamentary system, and thus raises questions about how this would mesh with the formulation of party manifestoes and offering the electorate a clear choice (although it must be conceded that in recent years genuine choice has been sorely lacking). Its intent is said to be ‘to enable separation of power’, but surely a more effective means of ensuring a separation of powers would be to retain a House of Lords – perhaps renamed as a Senate – containing elected representatives with a clearly defined role in scrutinising legislation? Whereas an elected Senate would play a subordinate ancillary role, would there not potentially be greater room for a clear clash and potential deadlock between a directly elected Prime Minister and Parliament, each believing themselves to possess a legitimate popular mandate? Furthermore, running a discrete campaign for the election of a Prime Minister would entail additional considerable expense: how would the necessary funds be raised and what limits, if any, would this place upon the type of candidate able to enter the electoral fray? The current system may be deficient, but the suggestion of a directly elected Prime Minister as part of the remedy does not appear convincing.

Point four certainly makes sense with respect to any constitutional changes and international treaties, but could it really function effectively with respect to ‘all legislation’? Do citizens wish to be encumbered with having to scrutinise the minutiae of each piece of parliamentary legislation and either giving or withholding their assent? There may be a certain proportion of the population to whom this would appeal, but even for those of such an inclination, would they have the time to participate in a meaningful fashion? This seems doubtful.

The general criticism made with respect to point four applies to point five: who would have the time or the inclination to engage meaningfully with this? Moreover, how would the circle be squared with respect to the general propensity of individuals to wish to gain something for nothing, or for someone else to pay for the projects or services that they hold dear? Governments should be held to account for their budgetary expenditure and the electorate should have the right to limit the extent to which the former can borrow money, including through dubious measures such as PFI, but how would the business of government and the provision of services be able to function were the electorate to repeatedly reject proposed budgets as unpalatable? The principle of imposing accountability for public spending and limiting the extent to which this power could be abused is a sound one, but how could that be made to work in a practical fashion?

Overall, the Harrogate Agenda contains much that is positive that would contribute towards remedying the democratic deficit in this country, but at present, it is not clear how some of the proposals would work in reality.

1. the people are sovereign: the sovereignty of the peoples of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland shall be recognised by the Crown and the government of our nations. The people in their collective form, by giving their consent, comprise the ultimate authority of their nations and the source of all political power;

local democracy: the foundation of our democracy shall be the counties (or other local units as may be defined), which shall become constitutional bodies exercising under the control of their peoples all powers of legislation, taxation and administration not specifically granted by the people to the national government;

elected prime ministers: to enable separation of power, prime ministers shall be elected by popular vote; they shall appoint their own ministers, with the approval of parliament, to assist in the exercise of such powers as may be granted to them by the sovereign people of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland; no prime ministers or their ministers shall be members of parliament or any legislative assembly;

all legislation subject to consent: no legislation or treaty shall take effect without the direct consent of the majority of the people, by positive vote if so demanded, and that no legislation or treaty shall continue to have effect when that consent is withdrawn by the majority of the people;

no taxes or spending without consent: no tax, charge or levy shall be imposed, nor any public spending authorised, nor any sum borrowed by any national or local government except with the express permission of the majority of the people, renewed annually on presentation of a properly authenticated budget which shall first have been approved by their respective legislatures;

a constitutional convention: Parliament, once members of the executive are excluded, convenes a constitutional convention to draw up a definitive codified constitution for the people of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, which shall recognise their sovereign status and their inherent, inalienable rights and which shall be subject to their approval.

1 comment:

  1. Good evening Durotrigan:

    I am sorry that I didn't reference you when I tagged your blog for the purpose of displaying "The Harrogate Demands"... Richard's site was down at the time of writing my comment, and yours was the next one down the list.

    I was supposed to be one of the original "Harrogaters", but I was not very well leading up to the meeting and couldn't be there, however, I am keeping a very close eye on proceedings, since it seems to be a very good initiative, as long as those that are involved can keep their heads.

    As to your criticisms above...

    Elected PM's has a couple of purposes, separation of powers has become non-existent since the Commons started messing with the Lords, beginning with the 1911 Act, which reduced their vetoing power, where it really mattered, in terms of the budget. The later acts by the Commons that culminated with Tony Blair effectively neutering it completely meant that a new way had to be devised to enable this important division.

    So point 3 is about separating the Executive from the democratically elected Commons, and the point is to somewhat weaken the link between the MP's and the greasy pole which leads an MP to become a minister within the executive. If one is chosen, a by election has to be held to find a replacement. Currently we do not elect a Prime Minister, he emerges through some process or another within the membership of a private club (party).

    As to point 4, there is in my view a bit missing, and that is a precise figure denoting what makes a quorum for calling a referendum. I believe that the Swiss (who employ such a system) require 5% for referendums and 10% for popular initiatives... The effect of this is that the number of either is relatively small, saying that though part of the reason is to discourage government from legislating as if they were permanently suffering from dysentery, and if they are likely to be threatened with a referendum, they will probably be more careful before they splurge. Again, the Swiss federal government is so unburdened that it is actually part-time.

    Ditto point 5.

    I hope this helps.


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