Post-democracy and its Discontents

BILL CLINTON is meant to have said that the most powerful people in American were the members of focus groups. Soon the Brits may be saying the same about the members of Tony Blair’s “People’s Panels”.
If you haven’t been following the Christmas news, it is worth catching up with them, or, better still, getting a place on a people’s panel yourself, because if the Prime Minister aides are to be believed they will have the mandate to find “radical and progressive solutions” to Britain’s problems and provide “a crucial routemap to the future”.
As the name implies, the 100 members of each people’s panel are meant to represent the public. Representing the public was once the job of MPs in the House of Commons, but only fuddy-duddies believe in parliamentary democracy these days, apparently. Instead of holding free elections, officials will assemble a group that reflects the geographic, class, gender and class structure of the nation – taking care, I assume, not to have too many Geordie lesbians and too few Scottish social climbers. The panellists will meet at “summits” where they will advise Ministers on how to resolve contentious issues. Once again, stick-in-the-muds might think that advising Ministers is the job of the Civil Service, but that only goes to show how out of touch they are with the 21st century.
To be fair, I can see why Tony Blair wants a new direction. Democracy is withering across the modern world. Membership of political parties and turnouts in elections are everywhere falling. For years, political theorists have knocked around the idea of government’s using citizen juries to bring legitimacy back to the waning democratic process.
But you only have to look at the issues the PM wants his people’s panels to resolve to realise how undemocratic this “improvement” on parliamentary democracy will be.
Top of the list is whether the NHS should deny treatment to smokers and fatties who refuse to break with their addictions. Suppose the panel says it should. Who is going to demand that the panellists be intellectually consistent and ban treatment for every self-inflicted injury — sexually transmitted diseases that are caught by the promiscuous, for instance?
More important how will they take such a complicated decision? Juries work in the criminal law because they examine minutely the peculiar circumstances of each particular case. Assuming Blair’s panels aren’t being put there to say that the Government should do what it was going to do anyway, they will have to make sweeping recommendations that will affect hundreds of thousands of very different people on the basis of scanty knowledge.
The worst of it is that if friends or relatives of yours died because doctors refused them treatment, you would not be able to hold the panellists to account because no one will have elected them. Perhaps then you will realise that battered though parliamentary democracy may be, there is no alternative to allowing voters to decide who should pass the laws they must obey.

BEING MORE than usually confused this holiday, I ended up on Oxford Street on Christmas rather than Boxing Day. I assumed it would be deserted, but instead found dozens of lost souls drifting along the pavements and staring with forlorn gazes through the windows of the closed stores. Later, a friend who works in retail told me that the thwarted shoppers would have done better to stay at home and join tens of thousands of others on the Net. Apparently, even on one of the two days when the stores are closed by law, their sites do good business as frantic consumers log on to see if they can pick up early sales’ bargains online. Nothing, not religion, breathtaking debts, acts of Parliament, the demands of family or sheer exhaustion can now stop the British shopping.

I’M SURE THE New Year’s honours list will carry many gruesome awards to party donors and political hacks, but New Labour will have to surpass itself if it is going to beat the leaked news that Bono will be given an honorary knighthood. ‘You have tirelessly used your voice to speak up for Africa,’ said Blair. Speak up, Bono has done, but pay up he most certainly has not since U2 moved a portion of its business empire out of Ireland for tax reasons.
Bono demands that governments tax their citizens to pay for aid to Africa while avoiding tax himself. For Bono charity begins in other people’s homes, and it is a minor scandal that any government would consider naming him as anything other than a prize hypocrite.

WHILE MANY right-wingers have complained about the omission of Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher from the list of the 12 greatest Britons released by the new-look Conservative Party, few have noticed a greater insult.
Included alongside Isaac Newton and Alfred the Great is Nye Bevan, the Labour left-winger and father of the NHS. “No attempt at ethical or social seduction can eradicate from my heart a deep burning hatred for the Tory Party,” he thundered at a rally to mark the founding of the NHS in 1948. “So far as I am concerned they are lower than vermin.”
I know that Cameron is trying to make the Tories own up to past mistakes, but isn’t accepting that they are worse than rodents taking self-hatred a little too far?