‘The people’ could fix broken Britain
The Scotsman, by Lesley Riddoch
Pastygate, Jerrycangate, Budgetgate, the Granny Tax, Cam Dine with me and the Return of Gorgeous George. A week has always been a long time in politics – but last week felt like the end of an era. Way back in 2010, “Broken Britain” was Labour’s creation and their centralisation, nanny-state control and neglect of the family were to blame – at least according to David Cameron, whose subsequent victory at the polls suggests many English voters agreed.
In 2012 though, our damaged democracy looks more like the creation of a Tory-led government that calmly fabricated a fuel supply scare and risked lives just to deflect attention from accusations of cronyism, corruption, economic failure and a regressive tax strategy.
It’s shocking to realise such a conspiracy is regarded as plausible by punters and pundits – and yet the malaise afflicting Broken Britain is deeper still. We are living through a crisis without the prospect of a fresh start or democratic deep clean in sight. The unregulated greed of special interests has brought Britain to its knees but those special interests are evidently still pulling the strings – and all voters can do is register despair by backing mavericks at by-elections.
George Galloway’s blatant contempt for the mainstream neatly echoes the resentment felt by the excluded population of Bradford West – and beyond. Gorgeous George is now waving two fingers at the whole British establishment – party, government, BBC and wider media. Electing this eloquent but bitter man is as good as it gets for the angry and dispossessed of Bradford. It’s what the British call democracy.
In Iceland the standards, expectations and capacity of “the people” are rather higher. The 2009 banking crash in Reykjavik created losses equal to seven times the country’s annual income and plunged Iceland into near bankruptcy. The subsequent “pots and pans” revolution of 2009 (a series of large, noisy, weekend demonstrations) saw the election of Jóhanna Sigurdardóttir and moves to prosecute former Premier Geir Haarde for negligence. The world’s first openly lesbian Prime Minister was (more to the point) also a green activist who supported the growing clamour for a politician-free “reboot” of Icelandic democracy.
Public scrutiny uncovered an absence of checks and balances in Iceland’s system of government – a crucial weakness in the “old” constitution borrowed from “Mother” Denmark when Iceland declared independence in 1944.
Political donations by commercial interests in Iceland have been outrageously high – averaging an annual $8 per Icelander, compared to just 60 cents per person in the donation-crazy US.
Two Icelandic government ministers were able to commit Iceland to the invasion of Iraq without consulting parliament. The justice minister could appoint judges without oversight. Public land had been sold to private aluminium firms for hydro dams and fishing grants and quotas had been awarded to a suspiciously small number of boat owners.
Enough was enough. A new constitution was needed, but after such compelling evidence of “establishment capture” – and after 67 years failing to deliver a promised overhaul – the political class could not be trusted to write it. So Iceland’s “crowd sourced” constitutional process was born. The first move in 2010 was a National Assembly populated by a random sample of 953 ordinary Icelanders who created a basic framework for the constitutional review. Then 25 people were elected from 550 self-nominating volunteers to rewrite the democratic rulebook.
The Icelandic Constitutional Council (ICC) took four months to write the world’s newest constitution with input by e-mail and social media (95 per cent of Icelanders are online with 66 per cent on Facebook). The resulting people’s constitution was debated last week and will be put to a referendum this summer. The Icelandic economist Professor Thorvaldur Gylfason won the highest number of votes – and was in the Scottish Parliament this week to explain what happened next.
“This is the first time a constitution has been drafted on the internet. The public could see new rules come into being before their eyes … very different from old times where constitution-makers found themselves a remote spot out of sight and out of touch.”
The ICC posted draft clauses on its website every week and weekly rewrites, which took into account 3,600 public comments, 323 formal propositions and subsequent discussions on the ICC Facebook page. The ICC also had a Twitter account and a YouTube page where interviews with constitution-writers were watched by 5,000 people. ICC meetings were open to the public and streamed live on the website and Facebook page. There was no special access for once-preferred interest groups like bankers, farmers and boat owners. As Professor Gylfason told a packed Committee room, the forces of the establishment clearly believe “their” representatives will be able to amend or somehow blunt the Constitution’s force during parliamentary debate.
Perhaps they will. But perhaps “the people” are now a political force to be reckoned with in Iceland, distinct from party, parliamentary and establishment interests. So what has Iceland’s democratic renewal got to do with Broken Britain or even self-determining Scotland?
Disillusioned voters here want a fresh start every bit as badly as the 320,000 inhabitants of Iceland. What the public here gets is the chance to elect a man as excluded and resentful as themselves. What disillusioned voters in “basket case”, Iceland have done is go a whole step further – writing a constitution that would end a culture of cronyism their own politicians had failed to tackle.
That raises a big question for Scotland. Would political independence from England guarantee an end to the influence of the Edinburgh Establishment, described by Bill Jamieson as “the largest and most enduring elite in Scottish life – interlocked, cross-connected and intensely self-reinforcing (with) power and influence (that) extends over culture, the arts, business, politics and government”.
A Scottish Government minister said recently that the SNP controls the government but isn’t even a member of the establishment. Three cheers for that – look what the Tories’ monopoly on power has done to civic life in England.
But is Scotland much better? Conformity reigns in many walks of life and dissidents fast become unemployable. Is there evidence that the SNP will tackle the entitlement, privilege, cliques and special pleading that still hobbles Scotland? A politician-free Constitutional Commission would be a way to champion the sovereignty of the people. Otherwise many will conclude that Scotland – unlike Iceland – is incapable of elite-challenging constitutional change, inside or outside the Union.
Prof Gylfason’s Edinburgh lecture can be heard at nordichorizons.org