Article Place & Self

A citizens' senate

British democracy is in need of reform. There is no need to rehearse the multitude of indiscretions, scandals, and lies emerging from the public sphere, but we cannot ignore the undemocratic behaviour of our government. The government oversteps what many of us regard to be its rightful limits all too often. The government may fail to adhere to its manifesto, rendering our vaunted first-past-the-post system a farcical display of elective oligarchy rather than true democracy.

Some of us regard the austerity measures while bankers still earn bonuses to be an example of rank hypocrisy. Some of us consider benefit cheats to be antithetical to the vaunted ideals of Britishness and personal responsibility. Thankfully, it is not necessary to take a stance on this.

What this problem boils down to, though, is the unchecked use of power within the British political system. Power emanates from the people. We cast our votes and grant a mandate to such and such party. Beyond that, we have very little power to ensure that the government actually represents our interests, besides our retroactive sanctioning potential in voting a government out.

What I want to suggest here, instead, is that it is possible to let our government to go about the business of governing us, providing us with the basic framework we require to lead our lives, and taking decisions that most of us are either unqualified or unable to take. But, while they may undertake an unenviable task, that does not mean that they should be beyond popular scrutiny.

We live in a democracy. The decisions undertaken should reflect the will of the British people. Short of reducing democracy to an Athenian agora model, there are few ways that we can ensure that it is always the people’s will which is decisive over action.

Nonetheless, the most useful, and easily entrenchable change concerns the role and make-up of our upper house, the House of Lords.

We need not consider here the many ways in which the Lords is unrepresentative of a modern society, or that the members are selected by the lower house (sometimes in exchange for campaign funds), or even that many of them abuse the system and claim allowances while doing no work.[1]

Regardless of the ineptitude of the current House, we should want to reform it for the simple reason that it does not represent the will of the British public. How many of us are law lords, bishops, or millionaire political donors? Not many, I’d guess. What are the chances that these people, who are supposed to provide a check on our lower house, will ever actually act in the interests of the British public when they’re so horribly divorced from the average person’s experience of life?

Why not construct an upper house which doesn’t seek to safeguard existing interests, but which ensures that our relatively unfettered lower house has a genuine obstacle to overcome when it attempts to legislate?

Who would fill our hypothetical upper house? All of us. If we are competent enough to determine the outcome of criminal cases when we sit on juries, why aren’t we competent enough to provide a check on public policy?

My preference for determining the composition of the upper house is through a process of sortition, selection by lot. Randomised selection of British people who will decide whether the British government is acting in British interests.

There are obvious concerns with this approach. Some potential issues include who is most likely to fill the upper house and whether the work carried out is too complex for the average person.

On the face of it, it seems likely that it will be those with the time and resources to commit to public work who would flock to a reconstituted upper house. But, it is possible to implement mechanisms to enable participation by anyone, including: financial remuneration; safeguarding someone’s job until their public service is finished; and providing childcare for those who need it.

The work being carried out on deliberative democracy has come a long way in showing that the average person is able to make the kind of decisions currently being taken by the Lords. There is much research that suggests that the average person, granted the time and information, can come to the same decisions as our Lords.[2] Indeed, James Fishkin has emphasised that the average person can make important decisions when situated in the right context, and granted the right resources and support. The Center for Deliberative Democracy has produced much research showing this to be the case.[3]

We had one of the world’s first democracies: we should be one of the first to reform our democracy in light of the changing circumstances of life. An aristocracy looking after our best interests is archaic. We can do better than that.


[2] Alex Zakaras, ‘Lot and Democratic Representation: A Modest Proposal,’ Constellations 17 (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2010).

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