The UK is a wonderful country full of gifted people, cultural assets, magnificent countryside and beautiful cities and towns. For the most part it is a multi-cultural society in which diversity thrives. Talented people come here to set up businesses or contribute to our rich cultural life and make it their home. We should be delighted that they do so; most of us are.
Reading Positive News confirms this picture of our nation.
Yet there is another side to it. We are a deeply divided nation: divided between extremely wealthy and poor; South East and North; Scotland and England. One of the richest countries in the world, we are also one of the most unequal. See Poverty in the UK: a guide to the facts and figures. We are divided over Brexit too, at the time of the referendum, roughly 52% in favour; 48% against but differing considerably between different parts of the UK and generations. The young, whose futures will be most affected, strongly support Remain.
Our politics is broken. As A C Grayling says, “Parliament is now an expensive charade” . For many people, politics is a dirty word. They don’t want anything to do with it. It is nasty. One side against the other; accusations and criticism, followed by denial instead of listening and learning from each other with an open mind. Prime Minister’s question time is a prime example. Two people exchanging insults, to a background of braying supporters. Some MPs shout at each other. Could anything be more infantile? And what an example to the nation. The popular press, with its sensational headlines, behaves similarly rather than offering a sensible, informed conversation.
It is arguable that the bad behaviour in the House of Commons has contributed to both verbal and physical violence in the country as a whole – for example the murder of Jo Cox.
Of course this is only part of the picture. Very good work goes on. Parliamentary committees function extremely well. A large part of the work of the House of Commons and the House of Lords takes place in committees. These committees consider policy issues, scrutinise the work and expenditure of the government, and examine proposals for primary and secondary legislation. Parliament can hold the Prime Minister to account. The Liaison Committee , as a cross-party committee, is very well placed to do this. The new government will face important challenges in the months ahead, deciding the next steps on Brexit before the deadline of 31 January 2020, as well as planning subsequent stages in negotiating Britain’s relationship with the EU.
People Power. In contrast to the state of our democracy, there are hundreds of wonderful, enlightened Non-governmental Organisations (NGOs) supported by thousands, if not millions of people worldwide, working to create a better world and prevent our extinction. For example, the worldwide Extinction Rebellion initiated by Greta Thunberg. The problem is that, with this exception, so many people are not aware of them. Instead of facilitating change, governments too often resist change.
Citizenship It is understandable that people have a distaste for politics. But perhaps it is more useful to talk about citizenship. We cannot have a good democracy without active citizens. Citizenship needs to be taught in schools from an early age. Democracy cannot function well unless people are engaged. But they will not engage unless they believe they have a voice. And that will not be the case if they are not represented because of the out-dated first past the post voting system.
Brexit is a prime example of a flawed approach. It was initiated, unwisely, by David Cameron, instead of working on the underlying causes of discontent. People were misled by untruths, simple slogans, big money and manipulation by social media. It was about gaining power, rather than putting the interests of the nation first. Remainers warned of the adverse consequences of leaving, but failed to make an inspiring case for remaining in the EU. We need to remember our history in creating European collaboration.
The referendum was not only inappropriate; it was flawed in design . It was explicitly advisory. And generally a two thirds majority is required.
And see my blog post .
We face two existential challenges: destruction of all life on the planet, as David Attenborough constantly warns us, and annihilation through nuclear war. Yet instead of working closely together with our European allies we are breaking apart.
Representation. Like many others, my views have never been represented by my MP. We joked good humouredly that we disagreed on most everything. Nor am I represented in the borough. Roughly half British citizens are unrepresented. This need not be so. Under proportional representation, parliament would better reflect citizen’s views. Under some forms of proportional representation such as the Single Transferrable Vote (STV) , there could be six representatives in a constituency, thus reflecting the diversity of voters to a considerable extent.
Proportional Representation and Constitutional Reform. The situation we are in demonstrates the need for both proportional representation and constitutional reform.
The flaws in the referendum demonstrate the need for a written constitution that specifies how it must be done. However we also need a different way of doing politics. Instead of adversarial politics, with one side deciding the way forward, we need collaboration for change, as has so often been argued by Compass . We need tried and tested processes like Consensus Design. Others include Constitutional Conventions and Citizens Assemblies .
Devolution. Power needs to be devolved to the lowest effective level. It needs to be devolved from Westminster to the constituent countries of the UK and down to communities. The distinctive powers of Westminster need to be defined. People will only get involved if they believe they have power. Consulting people is not sufficient; in order to find the best solutions, people need to be fully involved in designing their futures. People are cynical about consultation: “They consult us and then do what they intended”. Citizens Assemblies provide a way of enabling people and reaching consensus. They need to be widely used from now on.
Today there is a dearth of great leadership in politics. I have just finished reading this inspiring book, Citizen Clem. Often referred to as Britain’s greatest peacetime leader, Clement Attlee came to power in 1945 when Europe had been devastated and Britain was exhausted and impoverished. During his tenure as Prime Minister he emphasised the importance of citizenship. After the war, there was widespread consensus about the kind of society citizens wanted.
It was a time of great leaders: Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John Maynard Keynes, William Beveridge, George Marshall and more. In 1942, Sir William Beveridge had produced the Beveridge Report that amounted to a comprehensive manifesto for social reform, including social security, a National Health Service, a full employment policy and other advances. This is what Attlee’s government implemented including massive construction of affordable housing. He also played a major part in creating the Commonwealth.
So what are our prospects over the next five years of Boris Johnson’s Government? Regarding Brexit, Andrew Adonis’s advice is. “Boris Johnson now owns Brexit and has a parliamentary majority. See what he does and then react accordingly”. In his article The Brexit Nightmare, A C Grayling sets out how a return to Europe can come about.
Here are some key organisations for you to join: The New Economics Foundation, Compass https://www.compassonline.org.uk/, Unlock Democracy, The Electoral Reform Society, The Constitution Unit, University College London, Up to Us, The Young People’s Party, For our Future’s Sake, Our Future Our Choice, UK Youth Parliament, Citizens Assembly Project, Make Votes Matter, Black Votes Matter, Counting Women In, 50:50 Parliament, Women’s Equality Party, Voice4 Change, People’s Vote. And Lobby your MP.
To bring about Constitutional Reform we need a massive collaboration. The campaign for PR was begun 136 years ago by the Electoral Reform Society. We now need a massive popular campaign in which all these organisations collaborate together to bring it about at last. We need to get on the streets if necessary.
I am an author, writer and speaker. I give participative talks in communities, universities, schools and at conferences. My latest book The 21st Century Revolution – A Call to Greatness was Oxford Alumni Book of the Month for November 2016. Professor Katherine J. Willis, CBE, Principal of St Edmund Hall and Professor of Biodiversity, Department Zoology, University of Oxford said “I am greatly enjoying it; you write beautifully”.
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