BOOK REVIEW: THE PLAN: Twelve Months to Renew Britain, by Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan
News Weekly, October 3, 2009
Reviewed by Joseph Poprzeczny
Two British Conservative parliamentarians have produced a radical political manifesto, The Plan: Twelve Months to Renew Britain, which advocates sweeping measures to abolish undemocratic laws and institutions, return political power to local communities and give citizens powers to overturn unpopular government laws.
Their uncompromising stand reflects mounting public revulsion at the growth of power of government, political sleaze, bureaucratic incompetence, trickery, and increasingly evident cowardice and self-seeking careerism among Britain's ruling elites.
One of The Plan's authors, Daniel Hannan, has sat in the European Parliament since 1999, despite being a eurosceptic and fiercely critical of European integration.
The other author, Douglas Carswell, has sat in Westminster since 2005 (he previously challenged Tony Blair for Sedgefield in 2001).
The pair co-founded Direct Democracy, a small group of like-minded Conservatives who are committed to the wholesale decentralisation of political power and the direct election of decision-makers.
Britain, they contend, is a failing, though not yet failed, polity. Evidence abounds for this. Participation at general elections has plummeted since 1959, reaching the lowest level in 2001 since the advent of universal franchise. The lowest voter turnout is among the young, especially 18-24-year-olds.
Politicians now devise one set of rules for the people, but another for themselves. However, Carswell and Hannan argue, Britain's political elites should enact only laws that apply equally to politicians and people.
Carswell and Hannan provide a dozen examples, "drawn more or less randomly from the press", of some gross government failures, such as:
- Some 15 million people had their child benefit data lost in the post.
- Five million tax-assessments forms went astray.
- Data discs containing information on British motorists were mislaid in Iowa (yes, in the United States!).
- An incompetently-run government facility resulted in the recent outbreak in Britain of foot-and-mouth disease.
Anything here sound familiar to Australians?
Despite their indictment of Britain's political shortcomings, Carswell and Hannan remain optimists - though combative ones - which is why they wrote The Plan.
"Who, though, will initiate this revolution?" they ask. "Who will throw up the barricades and storm the palace?"
They concede: "None of the mainstream parties has so far displayed anything like the requisite will-to-power. Left-wing politicians tend to be comfortable with the existing set-up, because they have grasped that the functionaries who run Britain usually default to Left-wing assumptions. It is almost inevitable that a taxpayer-funded bureaucracy will favour higher taxes and more spending."
"So why do Right-wing politicians put up with it? Precisely because they tend to be small 'c' conservatives. The desire to work within the system rather than to change it is encoded deep in their DNA."
"Power to the people!" was once a catch-cry of the Left, and later even the Right began mouthing it. Why, then, has genuine democracy failed to materialise? Because tightly disciplined political parties have emerged in which careerism has come to blatantly transcend all other priorities.
A dominant feature of British politics can be fairly described as phoney rivalry over petty matters rather than voters being offered genuine policy alternatives.
Who, for instance, could disagree with this comment from the newly-elected mayor of the south Yorkshire town of Doncaster, Peter Davies?
"The [Conservative] Party's gone. Half of them belong to the Labour Party. They all fish in the same pond anyway," he said recently.
Mayor Davies's contribution to Britain's growing revulsion with spineless political correctness has been to ask the UK Electoral Commission to scrap two-thirds of Doncaster's 63 council seats to save £800,000 annually.
"If Pittsburgh, USA, can manage with nine councillors, why do we need 63?" he asked.
He has made headlines by announcing that he will be scrapping funding for Doncaster's next "Gay Pride" event because, he said, "people do not need to parade their sexuality, whatever it may be, at taxpayers' expense".
Carswell and Hannan plan to move in a similar direction by diminishing central bureaucratic power, scrapping an array of anti-democratic laws, institutions and practices, and returning decision-making to the people.
"At present, many citizens feel that they are working for the state; we aim to make the state serve its citizens," they write. The Plan is thus a pioneering blueprint for "devolution to the lowest level [which] will mean to the individual" in areas such as education, health care, welfare, law and order, to name a few".
They propose a 10-point program - the Carswell-Hannan commandments - beginning with what they call "Cleaning up Westminster".
In other words, the British House of Commons - which this year was dubbed the House of Rorts because of the MPs' scandalous misuse of their allowances - needs urgent overhauling.
Some of the proposals read like those of Victoria's forgotten Kyabram Reform Movement from the time of Federation in 1901. They include abolition of MPs' perks, transparency of MPs' remaining expenses, election of the parliamentary Speaker by secret ballot, election of parliamentary committee chairmen, a markedly smaller ministerial payroll, a smaller House of Commons, and the ending of taxpayer-funding of political parties.
(The Kyabram Reform Movement by 1903 succeeded in reducing Victoria's politician numbers from 151 to 99.)
Carswell's and Hannan's aim is to ensure that parliament, not party bosses and "yes, minister" bureaucrats, is again supreme.
They would also take an axe to the Human Rights Act that gives judges power to overrule elected representatives.
They would withdraw Britain from the European Convention on Human Rights, institute the appointment of judges via open parliamentary hearings (not by a single tame minister), and pass a reserve powers act to transfer to parliament the crown prerogative powers (currently exercised by the Prime Minister and Cabinet) for appointing ambassadors, agreeing on foreign treaties and declaring war.
They call for the return of political power from Brussels to Westminster. Continued European integration, they argue, is not in Britain's national interest. Britain would be better served by getting out of the EU altogether and rejoining the European Free Trade Agreement, like Norway and Switzerland.
At the domestic level, they seek the devolution of political power from Whitehall to town halls, and the dispersal of decision-making through "localism" and referendums, including having local communities directly elect their own police "sheriffs".
Councils would rely for their revenue on a local sales tax whose rate they would set. This would encourage greater responsibility in spending, exert a downward pressure on tax levels and create the sort of competition among local governments that gives value for money to US voters and taxpayers.
Carswell and Hannan propose greater parental choice in school education through voucher-like schemes. For health care, people should be able to opt out of the government-run National Health Service and pay into a health saving account of their choice.
Hannan, in a recent article, has additionally advocated making political party pre-selection contests far more open, along the lines of US primaries, so that any registered voters in an electorate, not just paid party members (or the party head office), could have a say in the pre-selection of party candidates. He argues that, under such a system: "Whips will be weaker and backbenchers stronger; Parliament will again become a proper check on ministers; MPs will be more representative of their communities" (The Telegraph, UK, August 8, 2009).
Carswell and Hannan in The Plan propose an even more far-reaching expression of direct democracy with their call for the introduction of the Swiss-style citizens-initiated referendum.
Direct democracy, such as this, is insufficiently understood or appreciated. Few Australians know that such a form of democracy exists, let alone comprehend its far-reaching impact where it is applied, such as in Switzerland.
Several generations of teachers, academics and politicians have convinced Australians, like Britons, that they live in a genuine democracy. But both Britain and Australia are best seen as ballotocracies - rule by the few over the many.
This prevails because the many are only permitted to vote once over the lifetime of a parliament, thereby ensuring politicians hold monopoly power over the entire legislative process between elections.
In practice, this means all power flows towards prime ministerial offices, helped along by party faction bosses and parliamentary whips who expect and receive blind obedience.
Carswell and Hannan say they want to "tilt the balance back from the executive branch of government to the legislative" and also to ensure the people themselves are granted the power to call referendums so that legislatures reflect their views.
A crucial "10th commandment" in The Plan would thus see voter-initiated People's Bills being able to be presented to parliament for debate. Hundreds of such bills could be presented over the life of each parliament with politicians obliged by law to debate the six that attracted the largest number of petition signatures.
Although politicians wouldn't be compelled to enact them as laws, they would be under great pressure to do so.
However, Carswell and Hannan's even more powerful proposed democratic reform is their recommendation to institute citizens-initiated vetoing or blocking referendums of legislation that parliament has already passed.
Thus, if Parliament enacts an unpopular law and campaigners can organise a petition of 2.5 per cent of electors within a set time-limit, the government must either withdraw its legislation or submit it to a referendum.
"Blocking referendums are a check on the ambitions of the political class, a guarantee that a party with a transient majority cannot make major changes without popular consent," they write.
Once an agreed percentage of voters signed such a petition challenging an already passed bill, it would be for the people to determine, in a nationwide referendum, if it became law.
Politicians would not relish the prospect of having their bills humiliatingly and publicly defeated by voters in this way, so they would be far more inclined to consult voters beforehand to avoid such an outcome.
Joseph Poprzeczny is a Perth-based historian and freelance writer.