Democracy is precious – use it carefully

The tragic death of Alexei Navalny reminds us not to be contemptuous about our elected politicians or complacent about our democracy. Navalny’s widow Yulia, along with the partners of other imprisoned or murdered Russian dissidents have been reminding us that, whatever our discontents, democracy is a precious plant that needs nurturing.

Politics isn’t easy. The great nineteenth century social theorist Max Weber liked it to patient carpentry. It requires some maturity as  British politicians were reminded this week by Sir Andrew Dilnot who, nearly 15 years ago, led a painstaking inquiry into future funding options for social care. Dilnot has warned that neither of the major political parties is really facing up to the crisis of social care.

“Grow up…. Don’t behave as though this massive issue that faces all of us as we grow old is not there. Be honest. Once you face up to it then you’re going to recognise that action is needed by government.

“We have people stuck in hospital facilities which are less well designed for them and more expensive than care but without there being any care available. We don’t need very many delayed transfers to have a really big impact on the capacity of hospitals to do their work properly. …We have to see reform. It has got to the point where marginal change is not going to help.”

Weber said that political leadership takes perspective as well as passion .For democracy to earn respect from the voters it is often essential to reach some kind of all-party agreement on difficult issues that require a consistent long term approach. This is especially important if business and investment institutions are to  be mobilised in support.

There is a growing clamour for political parties to show such maturity. This has been reflected in the growing influence of Anthropy –  a forum where difficult issues are discussed in a non-partisan way. And attention given to the most important priorities for the long term improvement of our quality of life in the UK.

Imagine for a moment, as I did after the first Anthropy conference, if the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer made a speech that started like this.

“Today I wish to present the House with an entirely new kind of Budget.

This comes after extensive dialogue with all political parties, and it follows a major consultation with stakeholders of all sorts. Its policy pillars are based on the three month national conversation which followed the modified and dynamic Citizen’s Jury processes that were carried out across the regions and nations that make up the United Kingdom.

The cumulative result of all these conversations is that we now have a way forward with six key points on which government and opposition parties together are agreed, and from which the country does not intend to deviate even after a General Election. The underlying six points will be revisited in a further all-party dialogue every two years and tested regularly in opinion surveys of affected stakeholders.

I would like to thank the Leader of the Opposition and all opposition party colleagues for their co-operation in arriving at agreement on these six commitments. They cover

–     A plan to meet our international climate and bio-diversity commitments as set out at recent COP and related conferences

–     A joint commitment to policies that will genuinely contribute to reducing inequality and levelling up different parts of the UK

–     An agreed strategy for the steady improvement and better funding – without further re-organisation –  of health and social care

–     A plan to build on and improve our arrangements for apprenticeships, further education and vocational education – without further reorganisation

–     A plan to improve and better fund the operation of our policing, justice, probation and court system without further reorganisation

–     An agreement in principle to build on the success of the Welsh Wellbeing of Future Generations Act and work together through a further consultation and Citizens’ Jury to introduce similar legislation covering the whole of the UK

Outside of these six headings there are many aspects of this Autumn Statement on which political parties will disagree. For example we don’t agree on how the money should be raised; who should be taxed and how much; on social security, pensions and benefits; the approach to international trade and international development; transport policy; trade unionism and conditions under which there is a right to strike; the part if any which European courts should play in our affairs nor on the need for an industrial strategy. We see all these topics as the necessary subject matter for healthy disagreement between us.

Nonetheless all parties are confident that the policies and strategy on which we have been able to find common ground will serve the nation well and greatly increase international confidence in our economy. They will also help those working in the affected parts of the public sector to concentrate on the core essentials of their task without the distraction of further reorganisations. Our memorandum of understanding includes a commitment to all-party dialogue and further consultation before any structural reorganisation of public services is embarked on by an elected government. We also hope that the all- party select committees of both houses will serve as guardians of each of these six commitments, enabling the implementation of all of them to be subjected to constructive challenge in a non-partisan way.

All of us who have taken part in these dialogues believe that, as a result of the hard work of our citizens and their representatives, we have now laid the foundations for a more long-term, more legitimate, more harmonious and more productive process for the shaping of the policies that determine the quality of life of so many of our citizens.

I might add the hope that by seeking to find and reinforce areas of mutual agreement we may well have strengthened our democracy for future generations and contributed to a climate of greater trust in politics and politicians.”

Mark Goyder is Founder of Tomorrow’s Company and Senior Advisor to the Board Intelligence Think Tank. He is the author, with Ong Boon Hwee, of Entrusted – Stewardship for Responsible Wealth Creation, published by World Scientific in 2020. He has been part of the team through which the agenda of the Anthropy conferences was crowd-sourced.

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