Tuesday, July 10. 2012
Many people say, when I espouse my ideas of doing away with politicians altogether "But democracy is the best system we've got!" I agree it's possible that the system I favour will be worse - but the current one is definitely broken.
Let me take a few classic recent examples.
David Cameron launched, about three weeks ago now, what was supposed to be a discussion on welfare reform. I think a genuine discussion on this topic, from both sides, with the country actually deciding the broad outlines would be a good thing. Unfortunately party politics means he can't, or wouldn't do that. Instead he announced what are essentially the outcomes he wants to see. That isn't a discussion or a debate, it's a policy platform. There are various problems with it but one of the most telling? Apparently Cameron promised he wouldn't touch benefits to pensioners during this parliament despite the fact they're actually by a considerable margin the biggest chunk of the benefits budget in the UK. But for a platform to launch discussion about what might happen in the next parliament, you can talk about it, right? Wrong, apparently - his promise not to touch this parliament means he can't talk about changing it in the next one if by some miracle he's in charge. If we had the alternative I keep proposing we would get a series of proposals yes. But we would get a series of them. On a topic like this I'm sure much more than the 5 minimum I suggest because it's such a big topic. Not just one with no possibility of other debate.
Then we've had the fun with Barclays bank and LIBOR. Through the banking crisis, that our Chancellor still thinks is misnamed, Barclays bank emerged (until last week anyway) seeming squeaky clean and looking like a model of fiscal probity. Unfortunately it turns out that Barclays, or some members of Barclays were maximising their profits by fraudulently manipulating LIBOR - the rate at which the banks lend to each other short term and the basis for many other things, like monthly mortgage interest rates. This is a major scandal of course - and our politicians stood up and postured about how to investigate. The Chancellor announced he wanted a parliamentary inquiry - relatively limited but fast and cheap. The Labour Party opposed this, saying a full blown judicial inquiry into the whole thing - yes more expensive and slower, but a better inquiry, better quality of questioning and so on.
Oddly enough all of the press, even the right wing press, supported the Labour position, a stance enhanced when the stupidity of the government select committee structure - everyone gets a few (I think 3) questions (but it might be against the clock instead, so short questions and answers means you ask more) and then you move on - failed to actually ask any searching questions of one of the now ex-senior managers (Chief Executive) of Barclays about just how this had happened*. This contrasts strongly to Leveson where between a judge and senior barrister most of the serious witnesses have looked VERY uncomfortable - but they are being cross-examined on fine details of evidence by a highly paid expert in the art. And perhaps that's why I should have used ironically instead of oddly to open this paragraph. The main targets of Leveson are the press - but they want to see the bankers hauled over the coals like they've been.
If that wasn't enough though, the coalition forced through their choice despite the fairly clear expression of the will of the people. Good move for a representative democracy: ignore the clearly expressed opinion of those you represent in favour of your party and the old school chums of the people making the decisions. Great.
And the final twist of the knife, if THAT wasn't enough - in the debate the Chancellor more or less accused the Labour Shadow Chancellor of instructing the banks to commit this fraud. He's allowed to say outrageous things in parliament and in fairness this probably wasn't enough that if he'd said it elsewhere he'd have been accused of slander but that's what it amounted to. Yesterday, when questioned in another parliamentary committee, the person at the Bank of England who was supposedly leaned on by ministers from the former Labour government categorically denied it. He agreed he'd had discussions about LIBOR - but pointed out that it IS his job to discuss it with the banks and denied he'd ever suggested they fix the rates. So, the process the Chancellor prefers and trusts has exonerated the people he has tried to blame. Bet THAT'S popular!
If we didn't have a system like the current one, if we have the system I propose, then we have a simple solution. LIBOR-fixing, possibly the wider banking system and its ethics blow up as real problems. One or more recommendation committees are created. They debate, examine and the like - and have the power to co-opt inquisitorial barristers and judges to help them - then make a series of recommendations on which we vote. The system ought to be robust enough to cope with exceptional circumstances like this as well as more routine ones.
*Since I wrote this, more evidence has emerged that suggests Bob Diamond (former chief executive at Barclays) was less than candid with the committee last week and he will be called back. Apparently they "felt he was hiding things but had no evidence to base that on, which they do now." But surely an experienced barrister with that feeling and the time to cross-examine the witness can pull that out - he certainly has for Leveson.
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