Newsletter of the Society for Democracy including Random Selection

Third Quarter 2001 Issue No. 2
ISSN 1756-4964 (Print)
SDRS 27 Old Gloucester Street, LONDON, WC1N 3XX.

SDRS Research Project Proposal to be submitted this Autumn

The SDRS will be submitting a research project proposal to gain Lottery grant funding this Autumn. The purpose of the project will be to help inform and ascertain the views of the public regarding the use of sortition - random selection of representatives from the general public, or at least a substantial pool of ordinary voters - as an electoral method on a complementary basis alongside the party system. The contents of this newsletter article will comprise the theoretical basis of the proposal. Guidelines for practical implementation of the proposal will be sent to those requesting them. We welcome constructive suggestions from readers and supporters which can serve to enhance the research project proposal, which will be submitted in November, so please ensure correspondence regarding this matter reaches us by the end of October.

The title of the proposal is Sortition: A Public Information and Research Project. Random selection, usually by the casting of lots, was the chief form of election used in Athens, where democracy (defined by both Plato and Aristotle as ‘rule by the poor’) was first established after a revolution in 508 BC by the urban poor to put an end to the bloody factional intrigues of the rural aristocracy (who owned most of the land and slaves). Sortition was aimed at guaranteeing upon an impartial foundation the rights of ordinary citizens and in containing political conspiracy. It was first introduced to select both judges and juries in the court of last appeal, and subsequently extended in application as a means to elect sovereign governments. Athenian democracy lasted 180 years and existed as a subordinate method of government for a considerable time after this period. In the modern period random selection has so far been restricted to the right to trial by jury. In our view however an extension of sortition to other areas of the constitution could facilitate more direct involvement of ordinary citizens who are not tied to the career structures of the competing parties. In this way it can also serve to moderate the tendency towards intrigue among opposing factions and as a deterrent against the temptation of professional politicians to be ‘economical’ with the truth.

Theorists of the French and American revolutions (e.g. Rousseau and Jefferson) regarded the election of nominated representatives as a ‘second grade’ form of democracy compared to its Athenian form. Indeed, Rousseau believed it to be intrinsically corrupt, derived from feudal, not democratic politics. In his advice to feudal princes Machiavelli maintained that because the ordinary citizen does not have the resources to scrutinise the activities of those in power rulers should gain advantage by deception because, as he put it, the people ‘are often content with what appears to be, not what is.’ Many, if not most social theorists since the 1848 revolutions came to regard the representative democratic system merely as a vehicle for government by a ruling elite: Lincoln was wrong, according to Weber and Schumpeter, in claiming that all the people could not be fooled all of the time. Today many voters, and more especially non-voters, regard politicians with suspicion and distrust. Perhaps they are right to do so: contemporary analysts from opposite ends of the political spectrum such as Anthony Giddens and Janet Daley have expressed much the same view that “We are governed by professional liars” (Daily Telegraph, 31 July).

Despite these weaknesses it would of course be wrong to overlook the strengths of the present system: as Churchill put it, democracy is the worst possible form of government apart from all the others. This clearly correct observation does not mean however that democracy cannot be further developed and improved. A research project to inform and ascertain public opinion concerning the practice of sortition could provide decisively important results for policy makers and constitutional theorists in advocating future democratic reform and experimentation. Examination of the political philosophical foundations of the representative system demonstrates that there are substantial grounds for assuming that such a project can yield positive results.

Representative democracy - a term invented by Alexander Hamilton - came into being as a direct consequence of the American revolution, itself in most respects a further development of the democratic content and implications of the British domestic constitution and its transposition to colonial forms of sociopolitical organisation. As Pocock has proposed, the formation of the United States is best conceived as the third of three British revolutions - 1641, 1688, and 1776, all of which took philosophical inspiration from the scientific revolution and its reflection in the theories of Bacon, Hobbes, Newton and Locke. At the heart of this process lay the fundamental issue of whether government should be organised on the basis of religious dogma and obedience to tradition, or whether it should be conducted in accordance with the demands of reason and the requirements of popular consent. These revolutions laid the foundations for the victory of reason and consent as determining principles of political organisation on a limited popular foundation, which when extended by further reforms to the propertyless and women, comprises the chief substance of the liberal democratic system as it stands today.

The philosophical basis of these revolutions was given its most refined expression in the Declaration of Independence, written chiefly by Thomas Jefferson, and the Federalist papers written chiefly by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton in defence of the subsequent proposed federal constitution. Though different schools of modern philosophical thought were subsequently spawned in France, Germany and Russia, and later variants also in Britain and America, none can be properly compared either in breadth or consistency in their practical influence upon the development of representative democracy as these works, which have been described as the most successful instruments of political technology in world history. There are of course durable features of this technology. Jefferson’s self-evident truths remain just as self-evident today as they were two centuries ago, and continue to serve as the cornerstone of all Human Rights issues. At the same time however there are also facets of this technology which have been superceded by events or have not yet been developed as intended by their creators in line with changing, increasingly favourable circumstances. The role and possibilities of sortition are best understood in this light.

The aspiration to Athenian self-government may be found at its most historically consistent in the British revolutionary tradition, from the Levellers to Tom Paine, and is implicit in the approach taken by Thomas Jefferson. It is the aspiration that ordinary reason and common sense be granted sovereignty over the political process. The irony that the American constitution was founded in order to realise this sovereignty yet also on the basis of an attack on Athenian democracy by Hamilton with Madison’s cooperation may be at least partly attributed to the fact that the American revolutionaries sought a compromise, in politics and philosophy, with the enemies of common sense and democracy alike in order to maintain the anti-British alliance and secure national independence. The supposedly reassuringly mob-proof and faction-proof federal constitution and the theory of representative democracy itself may be understood as a compromise between the slave owning aristocracy and the revolutionary militia. As most statements of the antifederalists make clear, it was a compromise which favoured the rich. These considerations form the background to our proposal for a research project to ascertain the response of an informed public to the possibility that sortition be employed as a complementary electoral method. Seven main arguments can be marshalled in support of this proposal.

  1. First, as with the related issues of the abolition of slavery and laws of inheritance, Madison and Jefferson sought to appease aristocratic reason in order to maintain the revolutionary alliance against British imperialism at a time when democracy was looked on with fear and hatred by all ruling elites throughout the world. Circumstances have now changed, and democracy in its representative form comprises the preferred method of political organisation in most states. That is to say, the conditions for experimentation with sortition are much more favourable.
  2. The assumption shared by Madison, Jefferson and Paine alike, that direct, classical democracy perished because it was not possible to adapt it to the expansion of the Greek empire, i.e. to larger forms of state organisation, is not, in any case, historically accurate.
  3. Famously, the American constitution was designed with the specific intention of combating the deleterious influence of factions on the political process, yet sortition, itself intended precisely to serve this purpose, receives no rational consideration in this regard. James Madison’s assertion that Greek ‘pure’ democracy can offer ‘no cure for the mischiefs of faction’ makes no sense. Such views are not only “... demonstrably false. Not merely false: they are contre-verites” (The History of Government from the Earliest Times, S.E. Finer, Oxford University Press, 1998, Vol 1, p.362).
  4. The development of public education and communications technology in this country would, most likely in the eyes of Madison and Jefferson alike if they were alive today, warrant a fundamental reappraisal of their estimation of the possibilities of Athenian democracy in modern conditions.
  5. The appraisal of the relation between human nature and reason advanced by Madison comprised an inconsistent mixture of the philosophy of John Locke, the Scottish school of common sense philosophy led by Thomas Reid, and its chief rival: David Hume. It was Hume’s negative appraisal of this relation arrived at by his attack on Locke’s consensual state of nature which Hamilton cited in his condemnation of democracy. Hume had claimed that all government had its origins in conquest and force. This claim has since been refuted by the findings of both anthropology and evolutionary psychology. The earliest and most longstanding form of decision making and cooperation in human society is usually based on reciprocal altruism and consent. Locke’s state of nature, has, it seems, been vindicated. This particular pillar of the aristocratic argument of representative democracy against classical democracy no longer stands.
  6. In the context of the longstanding problem of falling voter turnout and increasing public distrust of professional politicians, a possible option of sortition as an electoral method may prove more acceptable to socially excluded groups, most of which contain high proportions of non-voters.
  7. The resort to unlimited use of postal ballots as a means to check falling voter turnout endorsed in spring 2001 by all parties represents a serious threat to the right to a secret ballot. This problem with remote voting by post was recognised in the conclusions of the US National Federal Electoral Commission report completed in August 2001, which recommended that the trend to adopt such methods in the USA should be reversed. Sortition may provide an alternative to remote voting much less vulnerable to corrupt practices, and so more acceptable to those socially excluded groups, including the disabled, who either through choice or necessity make use of remote voting facilities.

Postal Ballots
At a recent SDRS meeting a letter published in the Daily Telegraph (17 May) by a retired (Social Democratic Party) MP, George Cunningham, was discussed. In it he points out that the unlimited extension of postal ballots aimed at compensating for falling voter turnout will undermine the right to a secret ballot and will result in more electoral corruption. It represents the effective repeal of the 1872 Ballot Act, yet all the main parties supported this extension. It was agreed this matter could be included in the newsletter, since it indicates the scale of difficulties confronting the exclusively representative system of democracy, and shows that professional politicians are tending to adopt unprincipled strategies to address these difficulties which can seriously undermine democracy. Since then we have attempted to ascertain the national breakdown for postal ballots cast (there were 1.7 million of them) for each party in this year’s British General Election from the Home Office and the Electoral Commission. Apparently they are not available to the public. The Electoral Commission report on the General Election does not contain the figures. A local (?) government university research body is studying them, and may publish them at a later date, possibly next year. The SDRS secretary wrote to the Daily Telegraph expressing concern about the lack of public access to this information, which was published on July 25.

The US National Federal Electoral Commission, chaired by ex-presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, published its report in August. It came out with the explicit view that early and remote voting jeopardises the ‘hard won right to a secret ballot’ and declares the intention to ‘undermine’ the existing trend to early and remote voting and to ‘discourage’ any further extension of such methods.

The US report also took the view that remote voting would in the long run be just as likely to accelerate as to reverse falling voter turnout. The question therefore arises as to how the British Electoral Commission will respond to such an authoritative document. Will members of the British Parliament be willing to act in defence of such fundamental democratic rights?

UKIP: is there a hidden agenda?

Norman Tebbit has uncovered an intriguing story about a possible link between Europe and the security services

On 26 May this year the Spectator published an article by Norman Tebbit under the above heading. The following abridged version provides evidence of the way in which mutual distrust permeates the representative democratic system to such an extent as to include the activities of the secret services. We left a message on the Spectator answer machine to get permission to print it, but nobody returned our call.

I have heard more than a few conspiracy theorists telling me of plots against the Queen or how the KGB had infiltrated the Vatican... So when a disgruntled ex-employee of the United Kingdom Independence Party told me that the party had been infiltrated by - of all things - MI6, my first thought was ‘Here’s another one’... He told me a story full of circumstantial - but not direct - evidence. One phrase and two names stuck in my mind.

‘However often you take off the overcoat,’ he said, ‘it still fits when you put it back on.’ … He claimed (and I agree with him, but the leaders of UKIP do not) that the party had veered away from a policy of standing against sitting Europhile MPs to one of standing in seats where a sitting Tory MP might be ousted or a Tory candidate might be kept out, however good their Eurosceptic credentials might be… If I am right, UKIP’s intervention will be immensely damaging to the Tories, and will give their Europhiles the platform to overturn a Eurosceptic leadership; Lord Brittan fired the first shots in that campaign in the Times earlier this week… A badly battered Tory party plunged into a leadership crisis would offer Blair the perfect opportunity to bounce Britain into the euro before the sceptics could be rallied to organise a No campaign. That overcoat fits. It even fits with Blair’s fanatical obsession not just to beat but to destroy the Conservative party.

Then there were the two names. Mr X had no proof, but he believed that they had links to a British intelligence service. Somewhat half-heartedly, I made my own inquiries and unexpectedly struck gold. There is no doubt in my mind about what is known in the trade as their ‘provenance’. I challenged one directly: ‘Are you or have you ever been a member of [that agency]?’ Denial came there none, only an angry retort that I should be ashamed of myself for asking such a question. The agency does not answer questions of that sort either — and quite right too. Its practice is firmly but non-attributably to deny that it would ever sanction an agent on the active list to intervene in the affairs of a British political party. The agency would say that the recent legislation on political oversight of the intelligence services makes it impossible for such action to be authorised. However, I am perfectly sure that the individuals had been active agents, although both would claim to have retired some years ago, well before joining UKIP.

The conspiracy theory was given a boost when I discovered this week that during the 1997 election both individuals worked for Jimmy Goldsmith’s Referendum party. The first to be employed promptly recruited the other… After the 1997 election both individuals moved to UKIP. One is still there. I understand the other resigned his post some three months ago, having lost the confidence of some of his colleagues. I do not believe the leaders of UKIP were aware of the background of these people when they were employed. Although there was no shock at UKIP when I told them what I knew about the person who had left, there was some surprise about the other one.

There is nothing illegal or improper in former intelligence officers joining political parties as staff members or to seek election. There are former agents in both Houses of Parliament, but to find two in such small organisations as the Referendum party or UKIP is somewhat against the odds… It is possible that they might have been recruited by a non-British agency with a particular interest in the politics of Europe in this country… Once away from the heat and dust of an election campaign, it would be wise to set up an independent inquiry to establish whether anything improper has gone on...

© Dr. Keith Nilsen