I don't understand modern democracy and politicsWednesday, Jan 16, 2013 · 1600 words · approx 8 mins to read
As I’ve gotten older I’ve found myself more interested in modern democracy, and both UK national and local politics. A desire to be more aware of the world around me and how I can influence it to my own advantage has slowly crept up on me; through my early and mid 20s I didn’t honestly care much.
I sit here, newly 33 years of age and after thinking about it all for the last 5 years or so, and I realise I don’t understand how any of it works. I’ve tried to reduce the whole down to its simpler parts but I can’t figure out a good mental model of how the country I live in works. Fundamentally, huge parts of it make absolutely no sense to me.
The scary bit is some of the huge parts are the core tenets of government, how we elect a government and how the government is supposed to work. I have to believe that a vast majority of the people living in the UK feel the same way. I also have to believe that the vast majority of people living in countries like the UK also feel the same way. That means I also have to believe that a large portion of people alive today don’t honestly know how their lives are governed or, if they are trying to understand it, can’t even see how it’s supposed to be governed.
Starting at the bottom, we elect people to represent us, who employ the civil service to help them figure everything out and do the actual work. Nearly 1% of the people living in the country are involved in some way or another with the direct running of the UK as a nation, either in government or working directly for it, which feels about right. That said, the direct body of power is Parliament, which seats our direct legislative body who make the rules of the system and set it in motion. There’s roughly 1 MP for every 45000 non-MPs. 1.5% of those MPs get to sit in Cabinet, where all the big decisions are made. So that’s 23 or so human beings making the very biggest choices for 63,000,000 or so others. Those 23 people, alone, as I understand it, can send us to war with another country.
None of the MPs sat in Parliament on our behalf are required to have any formal training or education before they can sit and represent the electorate. They just have to want to, have a small amount of money, and be able to convince enough people they’re good enough to do the job. They don’t need experience, just to be at least 18 years old. I could run as an MP tomorrow and if I could convince around 45,000 people near where I live to vote for me, I’d become an MP at the next set of local elections.
With my seat in Parliament, what could I do? Very little as it turns out, without being a member of one of the trio of larger represented parties in the country. You need strength in numbers in order to get things pushed through into legislature or make a difference via one of the government ministries. So in order to be effective, I’d need to find some friends.
The trouble with that is the groups of friends I could join aren’t set on working together for the good of everyone else. Instead, they’re almost diametrically opposed to each other. If I have a good idea and belong to party A, it’s in party B’s best interest to rubbish it and opine an opposing view, especially if party B isn’t the current governing one and especially if party A is apparently doing a bad job at the helm. Seemingly the way to get elected is to trash talk ruling party A and convince laypersons they’re terrible. Doesn’t matter if they’re doing OK, you need to rile the electorate up or they’ll just stick with what’s sort of working and you’ll not have the power to do anything or make changes to the broken things. It literally doesn’t matter if my ideas are good or bad. Just that they’re different.
So if I want to be in power and be able to set legislation and steer the country, I need to spend a lot of my time not working hard for the lots people I represent, but talking shit about a small group of people I have to be seen to disagree with, even if they have really good ideas. Then that small group, hopefully trying to work hard for us even though they’re set opposed to all of the things I want to do, is distracted by me and has to fight back. There’s no ignoring me and my friends either. They’re forced to stand up in the House and debate back with a likely opposing viewpoint, no matter how absurd that is. At election time they talk shit about me and my ideas, even if they’re good, in front of everyone.
The marginalised members sitting in the House without an affiliation to the big trio effectively have to sit there and watch it all play out, too. They can’t leave the masses to it and go work hard on something. They’re forced to be distracted too because Parliament votes as a whole body for things. So you have to understand what to vote for.
Am I bound by any kind of contract if I get elected, to do what I promised people I would in order to get their vote? Not at all. I can ignore everything I said and do the exact opposite and I’ve got about five years to do so. In practice that’s bound by having to do what all my friends in Parliament are doing, but if all of my friends change their minds too then that’s OK. Backtracking on a promise — using that exact word — made during election is reasonably common for the big trio of parties, post election.
What about if I do something akin to gross misconduct in the workplace? If I did that Imagination, I’d get fired. My current MP stole taxpayer money from her employer — ostensibly her employer is me — at multiple points over the last decade. She paid a small fine of around 10% of one year’s salary and kept her job. Over a quarter of the members of the elite Cabinet in the last Labour government provably did the same. More than a quarter of the people that could have decided to send us to war were proven high-value immoral thieves.
The five year run at things appears to mean a year buttering the populace up, three years fucking it up, and a year papering over the cracks, hoping we have short memories to get another shot at it. When trying to get a shot at it, you have to be part of the big three parties in order to get TV exposure to discuss the issues. If you’re not part of those parties you don’t get invited to discuss anything on the biggest available platform.
That’s OK though, because you could just campaign in the media. The largest print media outlets in the UK get behind one of the big three parties as it happens, and push to elect their chosen one. If the big printed media outlet owns TV stations, they’ll outwardly use the programming on them to try and elect their chosen party too. The odds are stacked heavily against you if you’re an independent. Realistically, as an independent MP, you have as much power in government as I do writing this blog post.
I could become the Chancellor of The Exchequer, the highest ministerial position regarding the UK’s financial position, without any formal education or training in global finance. The current person holding that office was put there by someone else with no formal education or training in global finance, as a direct appointment.
I could go on and on. I fundamentally don’t understand how to fix it either. I’m not sure anyone does, and there’s no reset button.
How am I supposed to trust a broken, effectively bipartisan system where I have only two effective bodies to choose from, to spit out the right group of probably uneducated, inexperienced people to run an entire country. Being made responsible for the country’s serious ministerial offices is the remit of one person with no formal training in many or all of the appointments they’re asked to make, tasked with selecting 22 or so other people with no formal training in most cases, to do those jobs.
Why aren’t provably competent people hired into the jobs. It’s one of the only employment opportunities where you don’t need to prove you understand anything in any depth in order to get the job. And they’re the most important jobs you can get in many respects.
If only we could get provably smart people at the helm, who don’t steal our money, do what we ask and are given enough time to do everything.
That’s not the punchline to a hilarious joke, but an apparent total fantasy.