Walking home from the Council meeting on Thursday night I was struck with the initial idea for this blog post. The agenda for Wednesday’s meeting was a pretty light one- the one big contentious motion had been withdrawn from the agenda, so the only things we’d be voting on would be a set of policies that had been reviewed at the last meeting of the Governance and Audit Committee. The Governance Committee is no one’s idea of a glamorous assignment within the Council, dealing as it does with looking at the council’s internal policies on areas such as health and safety, risk management and ethical governance, as well as approving the audit procedures for the Council’s accounts. Apart from those times when it has to decide on any complaints about councillors, it’s usually the committee that has the least number of journalists writing about it or members of the public speaking or attending.
Which is nothing unusual. Almost any democratic system has something like the Governance Committee within it, and it’s likely to be one of the dullest parts of that system, as its main work is reviewing procedures and checking they’re right, again and again, and no matter where the system is, there are normally lots of procedures that have to be reviewed to check they’re working correctly, and none of them ever make headlines until they go wrong, at which point everyone demands to know why they weren’t working properly. (The answer to that is often ‘we wanted to review them, but you said it was too dull’)
The point is that these sort of items on the Council agenda might seem dull and pointless to the social media peanut gallery but they’re an important part of actually running a democratic organisation. Yes, they’re dull, but there’s a case to be made that you should be glad they’re dull because when basic issues of how everything is run become contentious and the focus of angry debates, you’re likely wandering into the space where the operation of democracy is having some problems.
Which is just about where I’d written this post in my head, probably to be consigned to the ever increasing file of things I don’t have the time to write up and post. Then we had the last day and a half of the ongoing clown car crash into a dumpster fire that is British politics in 2016. Just when you think we can’t limbo down any further in our attempts to show the world just how degenerate we’re becoming, we now have newspapers damning High Court judges as ‘enemies of the people’ because the tabloids have a set of creeping fascism bingo cards and they’re determined to cross off every box on them by Christmas. Even by the standards of this year, watching judges be criticised for upholding the power and sovereignty of Parliament against an executive wanting to use power unchecked is utterly bizarre, and even more when it’s coming from people who normally find it hard to say twenty words without shouting ‘Magna Carta!’
Without wanting to sound so jumped up on my own self-importance that I compare myself to a High Court judge, it strikes me that there is a common root to Wednesday’s yawns of boredom and Thursday’s howls of rage. Democracy, at its heart, is a collection of systems and processes and rules that can be applied objectively ranging from the national constitution right down to the question of how a council selects its auditors. The point of the rules is to ensure that power is not exercised arbitrarily, that there’s a body of rules – the law – we can all point to as the agreed way things will be settled. Now, we might (and often do) disagree on what those rules are, and what things they might apply to, and we might disagree about how those rules are defined and who gets to write and review them, but one of the benefits of having had this system for a long time is that we’ve come up with rules to help determine how we deal with these disputes. Sometimes we decide them through elections, sometimes we decide them through taking them to a court, but they’re all part of the same overall process of democracy.
It strikes me that one of the reasons people are getting so angry about judges doing their jobs is that we’ve forgotten that democracy isn’t an event, it’s a system and a process. ‘We had a vote, it’s been decided, that’s democracy!’ and the like get repeated ad nauseam at the moment as though all that matters in democracy is the voting, not the rest of system that surrounds the voting, or the reasons we have regular and repeated votes in the first place. the world is a complex place, and decisions can rarely be reduced to simple binary choices with no further consequences. Sure, there are other ways to deal with that complexity other than complex democracy but they all tend to mean getting rid of an agreed upon set of rules in favour of making decisions by the arbitrary fiat of a small group or individual, none of which have been more successful in dealing with the complexity of the world than democracy.
It all comes back to another part of Wednesday night, in the public Have Your Say section. One of the people talking there was Autumn from a new group called Teen Speech, wanting to get more political education into schools, and to give young people the skills and knowledge they need to understand how the system actually works. We’re very good at telling the world how wonderful our democracy it is, but very very bad at actually making sure people who live here understand how it works and what it means. Democracy needs an informed population who understand what’s going on to work properly, and too much of what happens – not just over the last few months, but throughout my life – shows that we don’t have that. And yes, learning about how the government works can be dull, but I’d be much rather be living in a time when things are dull because they’re working fine than incredibly interesting because everything’s collapsing all around us.