House of Lords reform: overdosing on democracy?

Apparently having a fully, or almost fully, elected second chamber is the “only way to make it fit for the 21st century”. I’m always suspicious of arguments that appeal to the times as their unanswerable and self-evident authority. I can see no particular consequence which flows inevitably from the fact that the current year has occurred after the year 2000. Be that as it may, the appeal to democracy is clearly what underpins the anxiety to reform the House of Lords. The almost unstated assumption is that if people are elected to do something, then that something will be done better than it would be done had those people arrived at their status by any other means. That is not, it seems to me, the obvious and inevitable truth that it’s made out to be.

Sometimes I think democracy is a bit like vitamins, or any other such thing that’s supposed to be beneficial, or indeed necessary, for our physical health. The seemingly irresistible temptation is to think that if a little of something is good or necessary, then more of it must be better still. Thus at best we end up with the most expensive urine in the world as our bodies piss out the excess, and at worst we poison ourselves. Democracy is the essential element of our civic society, the bedrock of consent, and the bulwark against despotism. But it doesn’t follow that more and more democracy – elected police commissioners, or elected shadow cabinets, or elected heads of state – will make things any better. And in large part that’s because democracy is not an unmitigated good. It has some serious weaknesses as well.

The first and most obvious is that democracy generates politics, in the sense of politicking. That’s generally a very bad thing indeed. It leads to wheeling and dealing, the subjection of principle to pragmatism, the constant dance of shifting alliances and dishonest compromises, corruption of all kinds. Constantly extending the areas of civic society that are subject to democracy likewise extends the opportunities for all these not-so-good things to multiply and flourish. It’s not that somehow democracy has been infected by wickedness: it’s that democracy requires politics, and politics spawns these other things in an unavoidable and necessary way. It’s one of the reasons why I’m so opposed to elected police commissioners – the last thing we need is for the downsides of the democratic process to infect policing even more than they inevitably have already.

There are lots of others. Here are just a few.

It’s inordinately expensive, both in the logistics of elections themselves, and in the money spent currying favour with the electorate. Every extension of democracy also extends the power of those with enough money to participate.

Democracy’s first cousin is populism, and so it reinforces and amplifies ignorance and prejudice. In turn that encourages electoral deceit, in which politicians are obliged to lie to the electorate because they know that if they tell the truth they’ll never be elected anyway.

Democracy encourages short-termism. The electoral cycle becomes by default the longest into the future that anyone dares to think. Global warming and dwindling biodiversity are classic examples of things that politicians cannot tackle adequately because their effects don’t unfold in five-year chunks.

Democracy is in one sense simply institutionalised bullying. It perpetuates existing differentials of power and influence, and legitimises them. The mere act of casting one’s ballot every now and again does not add up to any real sense of helping to determine what might happen to you, or of being involved in decisions. The link between voting and outcome is at best tenuous.

None of this is an argument against democracy in itself. Democracy is “a good thing”. But it is an argument against the mindless assumption that more democracy is always and inevitably better. What we need is a system in which democracy is subject to checks and balances so that its worst downsides can be managed and mitigated.

So in considering the reform of the House of Lords, it’s facile to witter on about this being the 21st century. Adding a whole new layer of elected representatives is simply creating new opportunities for democracy’s dark side to emerge. A revising chamber is in fact surely better for not having a competitive sense of legitimacy over the elected lower house. The great thing about the House of Lords at the moment is its diversity. It’s got a load of time-served politicians. It’s got masses of the great and good. It’s got bishops. It’s got a sprinkling of aristocrats, who at least provide a bit of colour and entertainment. The House of Commons by contrast has 100% of its membership drawn from the power-hungry and ambitious. Having two houses filled to the gunnels with the ambitious and the power-hungry hardly sounds like much of an improvement.

Go on Govey, you know you want to…

BBC Radio 4’s The Now Show always introduces Education Secretary Michael Gove via a reference to the evil dummy in a 1970s horror movie. The clear implication is that Mr Gove struggles to control his inner, and even more frenetically right-wing, self. His mask of reasonableness slips from time to time, and the truth comes tumbling out. An unfortunate (or, one might feel, extremely fortunate) leak has precipitated just such a revealing moment today, when the Education Secretary was obliged to ‘fess up to parliament that the evil dummy has been urging him to return to a 2-tier system of examinations for 16yr-olds such as pertained when I was at school. I and my supposedly intellectually superior fellows took O-levels, whilst our more run-of-the-mill comrades took CSEs.

Ironically, given Mr Gove’s sycophantic admiration for the erstwhile prime minister, it was Margaret Thatcher’s government that abolished the 2-tier system, and brought in the GCSEs that we know today. Apparently, says either Mr Gove himself or possibly his evil dummy agent provocateur, this has short-changed the clever children of today who are obliged to take ridiculously easy exams merely so that their more stupid colleagues should not be embarrassed. And so a system of hard, proper exams – doubtless including Latin and other improving subjects – should be reintroduced for the brainy, whilst easier qualifications – based around modules marked by their bleeding heart teachers who will be suitably lenient – should be continued for the, well, not so brainy and the downright thick. In this way we will please all the pupils all of the time.

It’s easy enough to present this unflattering gloss on Mr Gove’s statement to parliament today, and even easier for me since, as I mentioned above, I was one of those brainy kids who benefited from proper, hard exams, including Latin (and indeed ancient Greek I’ll have you know, but no-one seems that exercised by the poor relation of classical studies) and am thus equipped to write with impeccable spelling, masterful use of punctuation, and a working knowledge of apostrophes. Having scaled effortlessly the ladder of proper education, I now callously kick it away from my present day equivalents in the name of dinner-table leftyism.

In fact, the whole business of a 1-tier or 2-tier examination system is a red herring. It is merely a detail of the logistics of assessment when the real issue is to restore a proper understanding of what the education of young people is for. The ire of the Liberal Democrats is in part kindled by their distaste for “going back to the 1950s”. (The other part of what’s got them cross is of course the simple fact that no-one even had the decency to tell them that Mr Gove’s evil dummy was urging him to turn the exam clock back.) In truth, they should be wanting to turn the clock back an awful lot further. Public education since the 1870 Act has really been not about education at all, but about the preparation of the workforce. The exam system is not about children’s attainment, but about providing employers with the means to pick and choose who will make the most profitable workers.

But it doesn’t even do that. As an employer, interviewing for staff virtually non-stop for the last 35 years, I’ve never once found it either necessary or helpful to concern myself with those candidates’ exam results. And the irony of that is made the more delicious because for the last 50 years we’ve been trying to make our exams ever more tightly constructed around what we imagine employers want to know. In some highly technical fields, what people know and don’t know may still be the most important way of picking the right workers, but that is a tiny minority. What the vast majority of employers need to know is what kind of person is sitting opposite them in the interview room. And I can tell you that whether it’s O-levels, GCSEs, CSEs, vocational this, that or the others – they are all of them utterly useless in helping us to know that most important thing.

So go on Govey, you know you want to. Except you don’t. You don’t want to improve the true education of young people. You simply want to be able to classify the brainy, the not-so-brainy, and the stupid, and to be able to do that with the comfort of knowing that the yardstick is the same one that you were familiar with from your own school career. At root what you want to do, Govey, is to put everyone back into their proper place. And that’s got bugger-all to do with education.

Mind the Jubilee gap

As I write this the Jubilee reaches its orgasmic apotheosis with the Queen and her immediate family on the Buckingham Palace balcony, ancient planes thundering above them, and thousands of my fellow citizens roaring their approval and singing their hearts out in Union Jack-enveloped patriotism.

What to make of these last four days of rain-soaked, pop-music-drenched, religion-infused enthusiasm? It is nothing other than a mass exercise in wishful thinking. The Jubilee has been a powerful, not to say moving, symbol of how we wish we were – as a nation, as a community, as a culture.

I am no republican. There is no part of this public display of make-believe that would be more true, or less hopeless, if we had some quasi-democratic despot instead of an hereditary totem who is not in fact a despot. It’s easy to poke fun at the parts of this celebration that symbolise the fantasy that we are benignly ruled by a group of people put there by God for our betterment. This is the bit that tends to fire up the righteous indignation of republicans and levellers of all kinds, who like to castigate its mediaeval roots and its blatant elitism. But this is wasted outrage. It’s the bit that no-one seriously believes in any case – up to and probably including Her Majesty herself.

Ironically, it’s our collective embarrassment with this aspect of royalty that leads us to all those excruciating attempts at democratising the irredeemably undemocratic. A constitutional monarchy is not a democratic institution, and it’s not supposed to be. So from street parties to tacky pop concerts, from asinine vox-pops to patronising glimpses of black commonwealth dancers, a much more insidious lie is being weaved. And this lie is one we are supposed to believe, unlike the divine right of kings, queens and sundry monarchical bloodstock.

A few fabulously rich members of a royal family don’t matter a fig. It’s probably cheap at the price. All that pomp and circumstance almost certainly brings in more tourist cash than it costs. Either way, it’s irrelevant.

No, that’s not the problem. The problem is that whilst we all wallow in patriotic fantasy about the kind of society in which we live, the reality of that society continues unabated. I could happily live with a far-too-rich-queen if I lived in a society in which there were no homeless and impoverished families. In which there was true racial equality. In which we were not attempting to right the wrongs of fiscal incompetence on the backs of the poorest in our midst.

The Jubilee’s most profound message is also its most untrue. It tempts us to believe that, as Mr Cameron loves to re-assure us, we are all in this society together, all equal subjects under a benign and apolitical monarch. Getting rid of the monarchy would do nothing to correct this imaginary view of our society: there is no obvious advantage to be gained by replacing our current pretence with another pretence that we are all equal citizens under a political presidency. And here is perhaps the profoundest irony of all. The Jubilee brings into sharper focus the gap between reality and imagination in a way that, for example, an American presidential campaign does not, and cannot.

So on balance I’ve enjoyed the Jubilee in its own way. And to be honest I’ve most enjoyed those bits that haven’t pretended that an undemocratic institution has any need to be so. I preferred St Paul’s to Sirs Elton, Paul and Tom. But just as we’re warned to mind the gap on the Jubilee Line, so we should mind, and mind about, the gap the Queen’s Jubilee so powerfully symbolises.