When the second amendment to the US Constitution was being drafted in the 18th Century, Thomas Paine was a keen observer. He saw the role of government clearly. As the servant of the people, government and its executive had to stand back and await the outcome of democratic deliberations – and then implement what the electorate had decided. Government had no interest in any outcome that was independent of its electorate – “the elected might never form to themselves an interest separate from the electors” [Common Sense].
How far from that ideal have we come!
The idea of government having no material or political interests apart from its electorate was tested and had its detractors and advocates. In fact, the curious paradox of a country – the USA – that pits ‘Republican’ against ‘Democrat’ (when any other country would see these as two sides of the same coin), that paradox arose partly out of this. There came a moment when the new revolutionary government of the ‘founding fathers’ was proposing to maintain diplomatic links with revolutionary France and even with the old colonial foe, Great Britain. Some argued that realpolitik dictated the necessity of internationalism; while others recoiled at the power this gave government to betray the (still semi-independent) States. And hence, the Republican obsession with ‘small government’ and protectionism; while the Democrats are equally concerned with the liberalising potential of government and with internationalism.
The children are condemned to fight the historical battles of their forebears.
I’ll come back to the USA in a moment – for now, Brexit.
The false appeal to referendum voters that Brexit would allow for £350m per week to be sluiced into the National Health Service was not just dissimulation, it involved a cynical concealment. It asked the voters to accept the broad truth of the statement and its undeniability – whatever the arguments over the data. What came later, the government’s attempts to suppress reports on the likely economic consequences of Brexit, was just as revealing. Data and argument were not for the electorate. In a grotesque inversion of the Thomas Paine principle, government would argue out the ‘for’ and ‘against’ while the population awaited the result which they would accept or reject on a take-it-or-leave-it basis (we decided to ‘leave it’!). We could be forgiven for thinking that government had its own views which it pursued even if they conflicted with those of the electorate.
The underpinning of this corrosive approach to political information and argument is in a perception that is possibly more common than we would like to admit. This is that information in contemporary society is so complex and even arcane that deliberations over options are best left to the winnowing of government and officialdom. ‘You work it out, and just give us the broad options,’ so to speak.
Let me go back. Back to the idea that government knows better and ‘believes’ better. This is sometimes attractive to liberals, for it means that, for example, we still have no capital punishment in the UK (not even for assassinating the Queen) – a popular vote would probably bring it back. But this presents government with overwhelming temptations and grows the distance between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Tony Blair famously insisted that he had been elected and should be left ‘to get on with the job’. What are the alternatives? Thomas Paine argued for frequent elections (and referenda) to inform government of the people’s will and to remind them of just who is boss. But let’s think of a more deliberative, interactive approach at the level of civic action.
In 1915 the US city of Cleveland had determine to mount a programme of modernisation to ensure that it would be at the forefront of social and technological change. One element of this was to have a modern, reformed school system. The city set up a Committee, which commissioned more than 20 expert studies (‘surveys’) of all aspects of schooling: buildings and architecture, finance, curriculum, teaching and so on. Each study produced a detailed report, which was handed to a sub-committee of experts and practitioners for redrafting and refinement. A final report of each of the areas was published. The Committee then rented a room in a hotel each Monday lunchtime for a year, and invited the public to come along – having purchased a copy of the report(s) that interested them (at cost price) – and join in an open discussion. The reports, it turned out, were merely instruments for mounting informed discussions and public argument.
Where did this lead? Could a local population be realistically engaged in this way? Well, it is reported that there were weeks when education debates pushed war reporting off the front page of the local press.
This is a story of civic engagement, of transparent decision-making and accountability based on open information. It firmly nailed the lie that ‘lay’ people cannot or will not engage with complex data. It involved the necessary humbling of government representatives and ensured that whatever subsequent decisions they made could be measured against data and against the weight of public opinion. But it also involved the elevation of Cleveland government to the heights of democratic competence and integrity in a manner that would have appealed to Thomas Paine.
Whatever else is to be said of Brexit processes – the incompetence, the dogged exploitation of the issue for personal and partial gain – one of the greatest travesties it exposes is the arrogance of the information elite. It is the insistence that data is not for the citizen; information that would support deliberation and public argument is to be suppressed. This is a studied attempt at spreading ignorance and confusion, a denial of consciousness and the rights of inclusion. The grotesque outcome of the assumption of the necessary ignorance of the citizenry is that the more wealth and representative power you have, the closer you come to the tight circles of influence and the more you can insist on seeing the data that matters in public decision making.
Of course, we live in unusual times in which, among other benefits and costs of social media, we have unprecedented access to information, whatever the attempts of the governing elites to data suppression. We can, in reality, access the data we need to take argument, to insist on debating rights. Google will yield as much data as we need to understand the tendentiousness of Brexit arguments including that of the £350-a-week for the NHS. But we have been schooled into not accessing that data in sufficient numbers. If all we had to do to get the information and to join in the debate were to walk off the street into a rented hotel room, to be welcomed by Thomas Paine, would we do it?