Monday 13 July 2009

Beyond the crisis: the need for Real Change

From one perspective, politics today looks like a running, rolling saga of crises for various people in various high places.

It began in the financial sector, with major institutions investing irresponsibly and delivering the economic depression we have today.

But after a few months of critical scrutiny, the media's attention shifted to Parliament. The MPs' expenses scandal generated - or crystallised - a widespread sense of disconnection between parliamentarians and the people.

In the last week, The Guardian's allegations about phone-tapping at News of the World have shifted the salient finger of accusation to sections of the media. Unsurprisingly, the accused have not been quite so keen to publicise the accusations as they were in the case of MPs milking the expenses system.

And in the midst of all this, let us not forget the police. The power of citizen journalism has made the brutal character of protest policing all too evident. So evident is it, that Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary has in the past week concluded that the police do not understand the job of policing protest in a democratic society and may well not have taken account of their own legal obligations in planning their strategy for the G20 protests.

There is a common thread running through these various cases. It is the problem of arbitrary power.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau said that 'the worst thing that can happen in human affairs is to find oneself living at the mercy of another'. This sums up the republican idea that the first requirement of a good society is to prevent the emergence of arbitrary power - power that is wielded at the discretion of the power-holder, without sufficient rules and constraints to ensure that the exercise of power tracks the interests of the wider public.

So take the financial sector. It operated in an environment which it is now widely agreed was underregulated. Its major players used their discretionary power in ways that enriched themselves in the short-term, but which has created a severe economic shock which impacts the rest of us.

Or take MPs. They operated an expenses system in an environment that was not properly regulated. The former Speaker sought to prevent full disclosure of what Parliament was doing with its discretionary power. When full disclosure came, it turned out that many MPs had abused this power.

Or take the accusations against journalists at The News of the World. If true, they point to an appaling grab for, and exercise of, arbitrary power. Instead of phone calls remaining private, their privacy can depend on the discretion of a journalist without regard to any consideration of the public interest.

And, turning to the police, the lesson coming out of the recent HMIC report seems to be that the police simply didn't appreciate certain key legal constraints that properly limit how they can use their power to police protest. They assumed they had discretion they didn't - and don't - have. Their behaviour marks another grab for, and exercise of, arbitrary power.

The republican prescription is obvious: as citizens, we need to change the rules (or else see that they are enforced) to close down these sites of arbitrary power. Quite simply, that's what freedom is all about.

However, to state the republican prescription is to state a republican problem. Where are 'we, the citizens'? We are 'out there somewhere' for sure. But we are diffused and divided; discontented but largely disorganised.

In a fascinating post at openDemocracy (also at Liberal Conspiracy), Anthony Barnett reviews the various ways in which we might move forward from this situation of widespread but unfocused anger to constructive change. As Timothy Garton Ash has also argued, particularly promising is the strategy being developed by Real Change.

This strategy involves starting local, with hundreds of meetings in which 'we, the citizens' actually get together and talk about the political reform we would like to see. This process of grass-roots engagement and deliberation can then help build up momentum for a wider national conversation about political reform which might then be taken further by means of something like a citizens' convention.

In the original version of the idea, the aim was to work through the whole process so that it could deliver a set of demands that could frame discussion at the next general election. That may have been too ambitious. But just because we can't see quite how the 'end game' might work for this process, this is not a reason not to get the process going.

There is a real appetite for political reform out there, particularly amongst the kind of progressive constituency whose character was nicely captured by one of the most memorable remarks from the floor of the recent Compass conference: 'I am a Liberal Democrat who votes Green and works with Labour MPs on poverty issues...and I feel at home here.' Many people I spoke to at the Compass conference saw that this progressive constituency is there, but wondered how it could become manifest given its cross-party (and non-party) character. Well, maybe Real Change offers one site for common action (though we should not assume that ours will be the only voices in such an open-ended, democratic process).

To address the problems of arbitrary power we need a citizens' movement. Perhaps Real Change can be the beginnings of such a movement. I'm joining. Why not join too?


Unknown said...

So lets put all power in the hands of these citizen bodies; perhaps we might call them soviets.

Calix said...

Very interesting.

Many of the instances have been revealed by the press (MPs expenses, police aftion)and we rely on the press as a society to tell us when people or institutions over-step the mark. In fact, we rely on the press to tell us when the press have over-stepped the mark! The real problem will come when and if all the major press out-lets are in the same hands, as in Italy.

I like the idea of citizens groups but practically speaking they may end up agreeing on nothing and just be forums for venting frustration.

Amy Robyn said...

Is dissent being marginalised?

St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square London WC2N 4JJ

Tues 28 July (4:30-6:30pm), London

The Carnegie UK Trust Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society in the UK and Ireland and openDemocracy are hosting an event to explore the role of civil society associations in creating and supporting spaces for dissenting voices.

Panellists at the event, entitled Civil Society: Enabling Dissent, include Anthony Barnett founder of, global activist Kumi Naidoo, journalist/ blogger Sunny Hundal and campaigner Malcolm Carroll.

To book a place please e-mail Catherine at by 22 July 2009.

Stuart White said...

Amy: many thanks for the advertisement! This looks like a very interesting and important meeting.

Calix: its hard to predict what will come out of the local meetings that Real Change want to organize. Let's find out!

Forlornehope: soviets? What a great idea. Only this time let's make sure that they don't get subverted by authoritarian Marxists.