I hope my annual lecture last night will prove to be a significant moment. There seemed to be real enthusiasm in the packed room for our putative campaign with Involve to promote deliberative democracy.
There was lots of very positive social media activity too and even the video of the event is already nudging up to 800 views. I will be posting again soon about how we intend to take forward the campaign
This post contains the full text of the speech with one substantive amendment (apart from removing the jokes). As I left the Great Room last night two people made almost the same point to me; ‘that was great and I understand now, but you should have told people at the outset what deliberative democracy actually is’. I have added a paragraph which does this. But their comments highlighted a growing frustration.
Lack of awareness is a fundamental impediment to deliberation. When people understand the concept, and hear about how widely and successfully it has been used across the world, most are enthusiastic. But even people who should know a lot better – like a lot of politicians – not only fail to understand what deliberation means but often confuse it with much less rigorous and creative forms of engagement like consultation, focus groups and on-line polling.
I am usually sceptical when policy advocates blame the media for them being misunderstood. But in this case there is real problem. Most of my twelve annual lectures have received some media coverage ranging from Today programme interviews to newspaper columns to short films on Daily Politics. But even though my lecture this year was arguably more provocative and more concretely focused than other years, our excellent media team could not summon up an iota of interest.
This isn’t just my problem, read this BBC item on a joint local government and health and social care select committee report on funding social care. What you won’t find is any reference to the fact that the select committees had undertaken with Involve a highly innovative and successful citizens’ assembly to help them shape their proposals, and that the committees had said that their recommendations had been strongly influenced by that assembly. This three minute video made by Involve tells you the things the BBC couldn’t be bothered to report.
As our national public service broadcaster the BBC may be particularly culpable but the unwillingness to report deliberation at all, let alone positively, is a characteristic of most of the mainstream media. The excuse no doubt is that it is of no interest to the public. Presumably people are much more engaged in reading and hearing endlessly about the bewildering, depressing and pointless Brexit shenanigans in the cabinet. I’m tempted to argue that it is the media’s job to make important stuff interesting but there is a deeper point.
I suspect the other reason journalists are averse to reporting the successes of deliberation is that it is all about people behaving decently, engaging with detail and reaching consensus. For a media that thrives on polarisation, conflict and opinion where’s the story in that? After all, if we understood that, given the support and opportunity, ordinary people from all walks of life can be thoughtful, constructive and open minded we might realise that formats like BBC Question Time are skilfully designed to make the public look like a bunch an aggressive, ill-informed, dogmatists.
So, enjoy the speech, a lot of what it contains you won’t read anywhere more mainstream.
Chief Executive Lecture 2018:
In 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall still echoing, Francis Fukuyama prophesied the global triumph of liberal democracy and the end of history. Thirty years on it is not history in jeopardy but liberal democracy itself.
China - the rising global power – is thriving with a system which combines economic freedom with political autocracy. There is the growth of what Yascha Mounk calls illiberal democracies – countries with notionally free elections but without the liberal foundations of accountability, civil liberties and cultural openness. The issue with nations like Russia, Hungary and Turkey, and with those exhibiting a backlash against liberalism like America and Italy, is not just how they operate but the tendency for populism - when given the excuse or opportunity - to drift towards authoritarianism.
While the alternatives to the liberal democratic system grow more confident the citizens living in those systems become more restless. Politicians and political institutions in countries are viewed with dismay and contempt. We don’t like them, we don’t trust them, we don’t think they can solve the problems that most matter to us. The evidence, particularly from the US, is starting to suggest that disillusionment with politics is now becoming indifference towards democracy itself.
Will liberal democracy come back into fashion – is this a cycle or is it a trend? Behind the global patterns each country is different, but think of what is driving anger and disillusionment in our own.
Living standards flat-lining for longer than at any time since the industrial revolution. A decade of austerity leaving our public services threadbare and in a mode of continual crisis management. From social care to gangs, from cybercrime to mental health, how many of us think Government is facing up to the problems let alone developing solutions?
Inequality, having risen precipitously in the 1980s, remains stubbornly high, fuelling anger about elites and making not just the economic divide but all divisions worse.
Social media – where increasingly people get their information and engage in political discourse – has the seemingly in-built tendency to confirm prejudice and polarise opinion.
The great intertwined forces shaping the future – globalisation, unprecedented corporate power, technological change - continue to reinforce a sense in people, places and nations that they have no agency. Yet the hunger to take back control which started as tragedy is rapidly becoming a farce.
If this is the warm climate in which disillusionment has taken root and grown it shows few signs of cooling.
For all its many failings, I have always believed that over the long term liberal democracy would carry on making lives better for most people most of the time. As a progressive my guiding star is what Roberto Unger has called ‘the larger life for all’. But for the first time, I view the future with more fear than hope.
There are those who disparage pessimism. To them the backlash against liberalism, the signs of a declining faith in democracy, are passing responses to failure and misfortune. Populism will give the system the wake-up call it needs. In time a new generation of leaders will renew the system. Populism need neither be extreme nor beget authoritarianism – look at Macron.
This underestimates the dangers that face us. It is too reminiscent of those who believed, until the results came in, that the British people would not take the risk of Brexit or that the Americans would reject the madness of Trump. It underestimates too how the turn against liberal democracy in one country can beget it in another. Paradoxically, today nationalists seem more able to collaborate with each other than countries ostensibly committed to internationalism. Chaos spreads more quickly than order. Global treaties and institutions take years to agree, they can breakdown overnight.
Of course, liberal democracy has failed over and again to live up to its own promise. But the fact that things need to change doesn’t mean they can’t get a whole lot worse.
We are also in danger of underestimating the coherence and confidence of liberalism’s critics. Last month Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban made a powerful speech defending his brand of nationalist populism and boasting of his growing alliances across Europe. He appealed to the continent’s centre-right to recognise that it has more in common with conservative nationalism than the EU’s liberal establishment. There are aspects of Orban’s analysis which have an understandable appeal to the mainstream, but remember this is also a man who is unashamedly hostile to Islam, contemptuous of humanitarianism, and who is playing fast and loose with democratic safeguards in his own country.
We may disagree about how malign or dangerous are figures like Orban or Erdogan, or Trump or Salvini, but surely we can agree that those who want to defend the open, pluralistic, inclusive values of liberal democracy must try to make a better case for what we believe?
In part this involves defending the record of liberal societies in improving lives, creating opportunities and keeping the peace, at least between themselves. But it also means facing up to what is going wrong and what must change.
Complex problems are rarely addressed with a single solution. To ever again achieve the remarkable and unprecedented economic and social advances of the three decades after the Second World War, liberal democracy needs profound renewal. But change must start some place. This evening I want to argue that place should be the way we do democracy itself.
The idea that our democracy and the norms, institutions and processes that comprise it are in need of reform is hardly new. Doughty campaigners have been calling for years for specific democratic changes such as electoral reform, reconstituting the House of Lords or state funding of political parties. Their arguments have rarely reached far beyond the folk interested in this kind of thing, but there have been two concerted attempts by civil society institutions to move democratic renewal centre stage.
The first was in the Charter 88 initiative. This is best understood as a response to both Labour’s crushing defeat in the 1987 General Election and the centralising tendencies of the Thatcher Governments. For a short period Charter 88 and its demands dominated coverage of the 1992 General Election. Indeed some people believe it contributed to Neil Kinnock’s defeat by implying a Labour Government would be distracted by constitutional reform.
Then in the wake of the disastrous General Election turnout of 2001, the Power Inquiry was established. The Inquiry was well funded and reasonably high profile but it too achieved little traction after its final report in 2006.
The characteristic the initiatives had in common was their ambition. Charter 88 had ten concrete demands ranging from proportional representation and a reformed judiciary to devolution and freedom of information. Some of the Charter’s demands have been enacted to some extent, but few of its authors would say that today’s democracy embodies their vision. The Power Inquiry was even more extensive, with thirty recommendations ranging from electoral reform to citizenship education, but its call for radical change fell on deaf ears.
The aim of these initiatives to design a whole new political system was intellectually commendable. In hindsight it was also tactically ill-advised. The more demands a campaign makes the greater the danger of alienating people. There is no doubt a correlation between people who want more devolution to cities, an elected Lords and proportional representation but it isn’t absolute. Also, opponents of reform can credibly argue that any Government pursuing such a broad agenda would have little time for the kind of things most people care about more such as improving public services or growing the economy.
We love big ideas at the RSA and we are also obsessed with change: not just where we want to go but how to start the journey. Our analysis has led us to a strategy we call ‘thinking like system and acting like an entrepreneur’. To renew our democracy we need system change but acting entrepreneurially means focusing not only on what we want but on where change may now be most possible. With little political muscle at our disposal the best route to reform is not to set about the whole edifice but to search for a loose brick.
This is the thinking behind the campaign we hope to pursue with our partners from Involve.
It’s why I am not proposing the kind of root and branch reform programme of Charter 88 and the Power Inquiry. Instead our core demand is simple and modest. Every year the Government should sponsor three national deliberative processes on topics chosen respectively by Government, by Parliament and by the public. To make sure these processes are seen to have impact ministers should be required to respond in full to the citizens’ deliberation, outlining to Parliament the Government’s response to its recommendations. Through these initial small steps robust citizen deliberation could in time become an integral part of our unwritten constitution.
Deliberative processes have various forms but here I mean citizens’ juries or assemblies. These typically bring together between twenty and a hundred ordinary people representing a cross section sample of the population. The group spend around three or four days (consecutively or over a couple of weekends) hearing prepared evidence from all sides on a specific topic (anything from abortion reform to public spending priorities) and at the end after facilitated questioning, investigation and debate, the group comes up with concrete recommendations, usually based on consensus. Deliberation is not an alternative to representation but can powerfully enhance it, as I will explain.
But why is the greater use of deliberative democratic methods the best starting point for reform and renewal?
To start with, deliberative processes directly address two of the most fundamental problems with our representative system. These are problems which we were perhaps willing to overlook when politics was more class based, when citizens were more optimistic, and when we had lower expectations of choice in the rest of our lives.
First, representative democracy provides an incredibly blunt mandate. Every five years a government is elected with the support of less than a third of the population on the basis of a take it or leave it manifesto containing hundreds of policies. Then, in power, Governments have to respond to a whole new set of issues. Generally we prefer shopping to politics, but imagine what we would think of supermarkets if we had to elect a single brand every five years and then we were not only compelled to use that store but it could decide what to put in our shopping basket and how much it wanted to charge for it.
Second, the tragic irony of our system is that as soon as someone becomes a formal representative we are inclined to believe this person is no longer a representative of ordinary citizens. Such a perception may seem harsh but it is contains truth, and in one aspect particularly. Generally, politicians and certainly those with any ambition, are in their day to day dealings more beholden to their Parties than to the electorate. Yet in terms of values, habits and make up political parties are highly unrepresentative of the public at large.
Democratic deliberation addresses both flaws head on. First, it can help to provide a direct mandate, not only strengthening accountability but legitimising the kind of difficult choices that politicians try hard to avoid. Issues ranging from drug regulation to road pricing, from the ethics of AI to social care funding - the last of which was recently the subject of a very successful deliberative process designed by Involve on behalf of two select committees.
Second, by bringing the views of ordinary citizens to the heart of policy addresses the problem of representation. Citizens’ juries like legal juries – one of our few historic institutions that have not come under sustained reputational attack – rely on a simple and powerful assumption by the public, namely ‘if I had heard the same evidence I would have reached the same conclusions’.
There are other reasons too. We can show these methods already work all around the world. Something I’m sure Tim and Clodagh will want to underline. Taking deliberation seriously in the UK isn’t a leap into the unknown, it’s finally catching up with what other countries and cities have already shown to work.
Also, there is no reason why deliberation should be an issue that divides us ideologically. Unlike other constitutional issues, like electoral reform or party funding, few people have a fixed view. In the last few weeks as my obsession with the subject has grown, I like to think I have convinced both some Labour and some Tory supporters to take deliberation more seriously.
Also in contrast to other democratic reforms, our proposals are easy to enact. Although I would like to see deliberation set in law, the first few rounds of juries could start now without any legislation.
Deliberation also connects democracy to people’s day to day concerns. Often democratic reform can feel obscure and irrelevant. The low turnout in the 2011 referendum on electoral reform can be explained by the absence of the kind of groundswell of support that citizen deliberation can build, but also because it seemed irrelevant to the issues people care about most.
In contrast, deliberation is never just about the process but also the substantive issue that is being explored. It connects better process to better outcomes. Deliberation is also a gateway reform. Once the role of citizens’ juries is accepted they are the perfect forum to frame and advance the debate for other constitutional changes, just as has happened in Ireland.
At the moment deliberation is not widely understood or accepted. This isn’t only a problem for the layperson. We recently hosted a speech by the Leader of the House – currently presiding over national democracy week. In questioning it became painfully clear that she didn’t even know what democratic deliberation meant.
The proposals I am making tonight can help us develop a deliberative habit. The evidence suggests that once we have that habit we won’t want to give it up.
In the face of populism, public disenchantment with politics, and policy failure, democratic deliberation is a modest answer. But whatever ideals we might ultimately aspire to for our democracy, it is not hope that leads to action so much as action that leads to hope.
Rather than giving in to despair or marching toward another heroic failure let’s aim for something achievable, something that could give us the confidence and the means to build a liberal democracy fit for the opportunities and challenges of our tumultuous times.
This week the RSA, working in partnership with Involve, has issued a call for action on deliberative democracy. The call comes during National Democracy Week and in conjunction with the RSA’s Chief Executive’s Lecture entitled What Democracy Needs Now.