Thursday, 12 March 2009

On Local Democracy

This piece is offered up out of historical interest. I wrote it back in the 1980s for a local magazine ("Thinks!"), when I was very heavily into the political writings of Edmund Burke (especially his "Reflections on the Revolution in France"), and it also resembles his writings stylistically - my "Whig politics" phase! However, the basic argument was to do with the poor way States decisions could be made when the result hung by one vote, members were absent, and rather than democratic process, it could be seen as a result of sheer chance. Re-run the vote a day later, and missing members might be present, and the results could be very different.

Re-reading it, apart from the style, which is a rather purple prose 18th century pastiche, I think if you replaced "Committee bringing a proposition" with "Council of Ministers bringing a proposition", it would still hold up fairly well.

On Local Democracy
It is my contention that local democracy is in danger of being abused, and that this abuse may well bring about a contempt for our government; this would be a pity, for the proper object of contempt would surely be those politicians who have such scant regard for statesmanship; and however much they would defend our government by their words, their actions speak against them.
It is only a convention that the majority should rule; as Burke puts it - "a legal fiction". But of what value is such a convention? The purpose of a vote being taken in the States, and being passed by a majority, indicates that a choice was offered to the members, and it was decided - one way or another - by a majority verdict. When each member of the States is acknowledged as having the same status as his fellow, and a decision must be reached, it seems in keeping with the idea of fairness that each should have a vote, and it is in keeping with the rules of the States, that a majority should decide. The idea of fairness is acceptable to me, and I shall not question it. But the idea of a majority verdict on a matter is not so obvious, and may be manipulated to bring our democracy into contempt.
Let us consider how this might be so. The idea of a majority verdict brings to our minds the image of a clear-cut majority, which would remain unchanged even if a few members wavered in their decision. But when, as has happened recently, a majority passes a decision by a mere one or two votes, and it is also known that some members were not present at the voting, it is not in keeping with the idea of fairness to force through a measure with such slender support. A day or two later - and perhaps some of the supporters might have been absent, perhaps some members would have changed their minds.
It is easy to see that the balance is a delicate one, and might easily have been tipped the other way. And if the measure is in any respect controversial, surely it only brings disrepute upon the States to implement it on such a fickle majority? Surely the public will feel cheated at such a callous disregard for the ambivalence of the vote? And is not such indignation justified? The States are clearly divided on the issue, yet by the use of the idea of a majority vote, the measure can slip through a constitutional loophole.
But more should be considered. The committee proposing the measure to be undertaken have a virtual monopoly of evidence; the measure is their concern and that of their experts. And the greater the weight given to the authority of the experts, the less chance those members independent of the committee will have for checking up on the measure proposed, and scrutinising it thoroughly in the time that is allowed on the matter; so there is a clear imbalance of time and resources on the side of the committee proposing a measure. All the more reason, then, that a majority that is so small as to be unworthy of the name, should not be taken as an excuse for implementing the measure.
Lastly, if the measure is brought by a committee, then it would be unusual (although not impossible) to expect any of the committee members to oppose the measure proposed by them; in this, they assume a "collective responsibility". But this means that dissent within the committee is not permitted to be shown within the States, and there may be a minority of those on the committee who - given a free vote - would oppose the measure, and tip any delicate balance. But it is a general rule that any measure will be given the support of the whole committee. So there is a firm number already in favour of the measure, and not in a position to alter their minds in the debate without attracting adverse publicity. In these respects, the nature of the committee will entail a small, but possibly crucial, numerical weight in favour of the measure. Unless there is a definite group opposed to the measure, it would seem that any slender majority is thus arrived at by playing the game with slightly weighted dice.
Let me make this quite clear. Excluding the committee members, if every other member of the States were divided equally between support and opposition, the members on the committee would tip the balance because, as a rule, they vote as a block. As they are not to be swayed by the debate, it follows that whenever a committee brings a measure to the States, then there exists a bias in favour of acceptance.
There are factors of sheer chance, of time allowed for discussion, and of small numerical superiority: all of these may be active whenever there is a small majority. On the other hand, while these would exist even if there was a large majority, it would seem that their influence became effectively negligible. I would therefore contend that it would be a matter of responsible statesmanship not to allow a measure to be undertaken simply because it gained a small majority in the States. Naturally, such decisions not to go ahead until a firmer majority was achieved would have to be stated before any proposal, and have the nature of a voluntary nature; but this would set a good precedent for responsible behaviour, and would be a good example of how it is possible to avoid abusing small majorities.

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