An open letter to the Master & Fellows of Gonville & Caius College
May I say that I was at once heartened and disappointed by the announcement of the THE COLYTON PRIZE FOR POLITICAL THOUGHT. I think it is splendid that we should offer such a prize for strongly expressed opinion on the political health of the nation, and although I am not eligible to enter, I could not resist the opportunity, however slight, of making my views clearly known in the manner outlined by your advertisement, and hope that you can find the time to listen, as it were. I hope you will forgive me if I overstate some no doubt readily apparent truths in doing so.
The prize question assumes the existence of a free society which might allow of itself some entrenchment in those areas of national discourse such as the question of sovereignty, the effectiveness of the parliamentary system and our heritage. My idea of a free society differs quite considerably from one that could be entrenched by means anything remotely like today’s parliamentary system, or be compatible with more conservative notions of sovereignty in terms of the nation state, although I see in our heritage an answer.
A free society presupposes the freedom of the individual, and just as we could hardly describe a volunteer army in the midst of battle as completely free in the sense of each soldier doing just as they would wish (although that no doubt happens), a free society suggests willing cohesion, and if we are not bound by the chains of the oppressor, we are at least much more than an archipelago of islets, and may regard ourselves as bound to get along.
So co-operative activity, whether in extremis or in just electing an MP, requires that we act to some extent in consort, but it seems that if our ‘free society’ is to exist, it requires that we sacrifice some apparent individual freedoms. I cannot treat my neighbour just as I please if I wish to live peacefully amongst others, and for all manner of reasons: he might hit me for one, and if not, might get all sorts of other agencies on his side to restrain me. But am I also expected to surrender my freedom to act decisively in determining how my life takes shape and what is done in my name?
The sovereignty of the nation state is the question currently so hot that our political masters (with some notable exceptions) dare not let it pass their frostbitten lips. But what is the nation state for? Presumably to protect the individual freedoms of its members against the incursions of other less democratic forces. But for the fact that there are other sovereign states whose collective will, however proportionately expressed, might be to knock us silly and suck us dry, we would have little or no need for the notion of a sovereign state; so, to that extent, our existence as a nation state is determined, it seems to me, by other nations. Now what kind of sovereignty is that? Certainly it is better to have a united kingdom than to be entirely overrun by Danes, but are the Danes nowadays so fierce?
The soldiers squad with sutlers and children Philips-Wouwerman
European Union is of course the greatest threat to national sovereignty for many a year, and as long as this threatens in the form of subsidiarity, I see little to complain of. I am not of course suggesting that subsidiarity is ever likely to be fully implemented by an overmighty bureaucracy or even a council of ministers hungry for power, but in principal it does offer a way out of the tensions that inevitably occur when people are governed rather than governing themselves. What is English or Irish, or indeed British, will remain, and we may even find ourselves thrashing the Germans once more, but this time in a hundred Sunday league football matches, rather than relying on a few professionals followed by an army of disoriented sutlers.
It is some leap from the rights and responsibilities of the individual to the question of the operations of national sovereignty, but that after all might be only because the present link is tenuous to say the least. Once of course, there was no question of me having any voice in the affairs of state, but I might nevertheless have had a voice about my own immediate future – indeed if the case merited it I would have had the ear of the King, and a feudal one at that. Nowadays I am lead to believe that my vote, my one small part in that mysterious phenomenon, the voice of the people, somehow determines our foreign policy in Rwanda. And of course, it does – as long as I am on the winning side. For the sad truth is of course, that however much I might want such-and-such to be ‘our’ policy, and no matter how many of my compatriots might agree with me, if I haven’t backed the winning horse, then my ticket is worthless.
In considering the relation of national and individual sovereignty, we must of course consider the question of foreign policy and what the implications might be for one that attempts to express the considered views of all the people. It goes without saying that a nation cannot have more than one foreign policy; and it is certainly the case that if a nation state pursues two different foreign policies, it can hardly be said to constitute a nation state. But that doesn’t mean to say that such policy needs must be determined by one party alone. The winner-takes-all aspect of our parliamentary system means that the true manifestation of the voice of the people – namely the voice of all the people – is never heard, only a section. Certainly, the true voice of the people is at odds with itself, discordant, contradictory and scary, and it is perhaps for these reasons that it is best ignored.
But there is a means by which it might be tuned, and that is by the operation of the principles that govern all gatherings of people that are not subject to an oppressor and may in that sense be described as free: that is of course by freely bargaining and trading off their individual freedoms, just as they have always done, and have had always to do. So does this mean that our foreign policy must now be as the curate’s egg, only good in parts? Or will it simply be neither one thing nor the other? Or might it be just exactly what most people didn’t want, but for the sake of a free society as a whole, and by means of all round compromise, will put up with? For if a nation cannot agree on its foreign policy, can it, I reiterate, be described as a sovereign nation?
This all leads, obviously enough to the question of coalition governance, and while the Daily Mail would no doubt throw its arms in the air and cry ‘Anarchy!’, these forms of government do function, Germany being, presumably, a shining example. Rich, successful, powerful and prone to totalitarianism, consensus politick seems to work very well in our reputedly authoritarian neighbours. One might ask how successful this form of government would be if it were obliged to take into consideration all forms of opinion, but there seems no bar to the number of constituents a functioning government might be composed of. Governments, after all, are always made up of people, and unless we wish our representatives to be as the Stepford Wives, we must expect them to have their own opinion, however much its individual flavour might be lost in the cocktail of policy.
Indeed, fears for the cohesion of such a singular ‘voice’ might be assuaged if we consider the tendency for apparently chaotic events on the small-scale to cohere on the macroscopic. Whether or not we would find ourselves getting along well with Germany or declaring war on Mars, I cannot predict, but at this stage one begins to wonder if any such reservation as to the results begs the question as to whether we are living in a free and democratic society at all, where wars are declared in the name of Her Majesty, but not necessarily with my consent.
But is the nation’s constitutional health, in terms of its necessary metamorphosis of some individual freedoms and views into collective ones, merely a question of proportional representation, or some other electoral catalyst, however unsatisfactory? Say that the three main political parties achieve through the means of multi-member constituencies, proportionate representation in the House of Commons – and there, I have given the game away already – for surely it is the people that they are meant to be representing, not themselves? And yet it seems that that our democratic system functions on the premise that it is not the individual’s freely expressed opinion that counts, but whether it is fortunate enough to correspond with those of one of the three parties that are prone to providing us with our MPs. It is a case of whatever you want, as long as it is red, blue or yellow.
Of course I am in the fortunate position of being able to stand for election myself, and in that way I may attempt to extend my freedoms by turning my considered aims into realities, or in other words, by making laws. But do I really have to stand as a full-time MP, requiring the majority of tens of thousands of individual votes from people I don’t even know (and who don’t know me), just so that, as far as I am able to influence my fellow MPs, I might extend my freedom to choose my own destiny? If this is the case, surely the system might be streamlined if nothing else?
But to be serious once more, what is required, I suggest, is an extension of local democracy, or rather the radical shift of power centres away from national government and down to the level of the parish, or even the street. Until neighbours are left to determine, amongst themselves, how they wish to live together, with their actual, individual decisions represented at the level of inter-communal conferences, then larger scale national, consensual law-making, and indeed national sovereignty, are fictions that presently discredit the very name of politics, not to mention sovereignty. It is a sad day when questions of sovereignty are almost exclusively ones about whether or not sausages should be weighed and paid for in pounds (however important that might be), when the question might be whether we have as individuals any sovereignty at all to determine the sovereign wishes of the nation.
It is in our heritage that we may see something of this approach in practice, can we not? We have a jury system that is empowered to decide the guilt or innocence of our fellows: if we are prepared to entrust one of our most basic freedoms to such a system, why not entrust our other freedoms, but this time one where our own voice counts in the verdict? (The provisions of the current Criminal Justice Bill suggest the Government does not share this faith, unfortunately.) The Anglo-Saxon’s was apparently a system of local participatory democracy, with free men reporting to the King through an alderman. Well, aldermen may (or may not) have a similar function nowadays, but we still know the meaning of the word moot, and we will sooner or later have a King, and one quite probably community-minded at that. It may be suggested that such an antiquated system, however adapted, would not be sufficient to rule our complex society, but the fact of the matter is that it was just such a system that was the first in Europe to assess and collect a land tax, as
I am sure you well know.
Now, we may cast about for more contemporary exemplar, but of course, just such a one exists right under your very nose, if not mine; namely the Fellowship itself, which in its wisdom has instituted a prize that invites discussion about a free society. In a society that conventionally aspires to freedom, but which really has not been invited properly to consider how it is constituted, or even what its aims are, the essay prize, I believe, can be only for the good.