Regular readers of Next Left will know that I am an enthusiast for something called democratic republicanism. The crisis of political representation at the moment, prompted by the scandal over MPs' expenses, has been described by Richard Reeves as a potential 'republican moment' as new possibilities open up for wide-ranging political reform. Jonathan Freedland has also written superbly on the republican potential of the crisis.
However, republicanism needs to be distinguished from something else: populism. To make the most of the republican moment, we must keep this distinction in mind.
David Cameron's article in The Guardian's 'New Politics' series, for example, might be read as putting forward a republican agenda. In fact, however, much of the agenda he sets out is populist rather than republican.
Let's clarify the difference.
Republicanism not populism: deliberative democracy
Republicans believe in the principle of popular sovereignty. They do not accept that the 'crown-in-parliament' (where Parliament itself is not fully elected) is legitimately sovereign, as is the case under the present UK constitution. So republicans are populists in the sense that they demand a basic constitutional reform that is based on popular sovereignty. (Note: there is of course no indication that David Cameron accepts this.)
But republicans do not celebrate the popular will uncritically. Popular majorites can will some pretty awful things. Republicans, following Rousseau, believe that a legitimate political system is also one in which the people is encouraged to exercise its sovereignty with an eye to justice.
Accordingly, republicans believe in what is these days called a deliberative democracy: a democracy in which political choice is framed by ongoing debate amongst citizens and their representatives over competing accounts of what justice requires. For a republican, then, the question is not simply, 'Does this reform proposal enhance popular sovereignty?' It is: 'Does this measure enhance popular sovereignty and do so in a way that promotes a deliberative politics?'
Some of the ideas which have emerged in recent weeks in response to the MPs' expenses claims fiasco are populist rather than republican in that they do not take seriously enough this deliberative aspect of republican politics.
Here are two examples, both taken from David Cameron's article:
(1) 'Let's have US-style open primaries'.
David Cameron writes: 'One of the reforms I'm most proud of is the widespread introduction of open primaries for the selection of Conservative parliamentary candidates in recent years. I want to see this continue, with much greater use of open primaries for the selection of parliamentary candidates – and not just in the Conservative party, but in every party.'
As I argued in an earlier post, open primaries are a really bad idea. In part, this is because open primaries can be expected to narrow the range of political debate between parties in the long-term and so impoverish the quality of public deliberation. (Anthony Painter would want me to make clear that closed primaries do not necessarily suffer from the same defect, at least to the same extent.)
(2) 'Take power from the judges and give it to the people.'
Cameron writes: '..since the advent of the Human Rights Act, judges are increasingly making our laws....we will introduce a British bill of rights to strangthen our liberties...'
From the republican point of view, this is extremely worrying. Strong bills of rights are crucial to defining the basic requirements of justice. Judicial review is an important mechanism by which society tests its laws against its own basic commitments to justice.
The idea need not be that judges get to throw out a law they judge to be unconstitutional (as in the USA). Rather, the idea is that the raw outputs of legislative decision-making get scrutinised in a way that forces law-makers to return to a law if it is judged questionable in terms of basic rights. Judicial review, operating from a strong bill of rights, is in this way an important mechanism for deepening democratic deliberation.
Now if a British bill of rights gives even stronger protection to basic rights than the European Convention of Human Rights (and in my view there are some areas, such as freedom of religion, where the ECHR is too weak), then Cameron's proposal would be welcome from a republican point of view. However, given the background of Conservative criticism of the Human Rights Act there is bound to be a big worry that Cameron's proposal would in fact weaken the underlying legal protection of basic rights. In this way, it would also weaken the extent to which public deliberation is forced to consider alleged abuses of basic rights.
Republicanism not populism: economic democracy
There is one further important difference between the republican and populist perspectives. Republicanism differs from the 'new populism' in that it sees the need to address power relationships beyond the official political sphere. The problem of arbitrary and unaccountable power in our society is not one confined to the political system in the usual sense of that term.
As some commentators have observed, the controversy over MPs' expenses has drawn attention away from the hugely important issues about irresponsible behaviour by major financial institutions. It remains crucially important that we think not only about how to make political representatives more accountable, but how to make financial institutions more accountable. The battle for democracy, for the republican, has to extend to the economic sphere as well as the officially political one.
There was one point in Cameron's article when I thought he was about to make this point. He writes:
'But the tragic truth today is that no matter how much we strengthen parliament or hold government to account, there will still be forces at work in our country that are completely unaccountable to the people of Britain – people and organisations that have huge power and control over our daily lives and yet which no citizen can actually get at.'
Yes, yes, I thought, he's about to talk about the huge, unaccountable power of major financial institutions!
Alas, not. It turns out to be a premable to a standard Tory blast at the EU and the judiciary....
Our politics has reached a potential republican moment. But we will not make the most (or anything) of this moment if we do not pay close attention to the distinction between republicanism and populism. Cameron's article is helpful in clarifying the quite distinct - and undesirable - populist agenda that could too easily emerge as an alternative to a genuinely republican one.