As my regular reader knows, my self-esteem isn't high at the moment.
A couple of years ago, at the 20th anniversary dinner for IPPR, Patricia Hewitt paid handsome tribute to the Institute's former and current directors, before adding as an afterthought 'and, of course, we all remember Matthew Taylor and his excellent jokes'.
I was reminded of this last night when I spoke at the official launch of Counterpoint, the think-tank of the British Council. My speech offered three compelling accounts of how the world had changed and what now needs to be done. At the end, there was a polite ripple of applause as the relieved audience looked round for a fresh glass of wine. As I inched towards the exit, someone came over to me and grabbed me by the hand. 'Thank you so much for your speech' he said, 'it was so fast!'
Now today, as I write, I am at Jesus College, Cambridge, attending the Rustat Conference on the Future of Democracy. This small-ish roundtable (actually rectangular, but you know what I mean) event features presentations by some of the country's leading political theorists and … me! I have, of course, done no preparation; indeed, all I have to cling to - like a piece of driftwood in choppy seas - is an idea. It is this: modern representative democracy, as it is practised in England, is based on a false metaphor - that of consumerism. We think the task of democracy is to give us what we want, the customer is always right. In contrast, I want to argue that representative democracy is actually much more about trying to agree what we can't have and coming to accept the reasons why. This, after all, is the question posed by the public spending deficit and by the even bigger challenge of reducing our national carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. But deciding how to make sacrifices is much harder than promising everyone goodies. The way we think about and undertake representative democracy is incapable of supporting this kind of discussion.
So, I think I will argue, an important question is how do we make democracy better able to foster an informed and engaging conversation about trade-offs and sacrifices. Here, in headline, are four ways we might do it:
- Radically devolve power because it is simply easier to understand and manage trade-offs locally (partly because citizens can better see how changes in their own behaviour can improve the terms of the trade-off).
- Use proper citizens' juries to advise on two or three major policies every year.
- Have a significant part of the upper chamber chosen by a ballot of members of the general public. This is so citizens get to see how difficult decision making can be for people like them (and not just for the despised class of professional politicians).
- Finally, require the publication in full of policy advice to ministers so that we get used to understanding that every policy option has a downside and involves a real political choice (and try desperately to persuade responsible broadcasters and newspapers to treat this new openness fairly).
Goodness know how it will go down in this august setting, but I'll be sure to make some jokes and talk quickly!
Fabian Wallace-Stephens (Foresight Lead)
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