No taxation without representation. This demand for democratic control over public money was the rallying cry of Britain’s 17th century revolution against monarchical rule. But the settlement of 1688 was a compromise: establishing the sovereignty of parliament rather than the sovereignty of the people.
The relationship founded by this compromise with the emasculated monarchy is symbolised by the fact that MPs swear to be servants of the Crown (de facto the executive) rather than servants of the people. The notion is an anachronism, but it is one that MPs over the centuries have clung on to and indeed hidden behind. It has imbued in all too many of them a sense of being above the people.
It is appropriate that the issue of public control over public money should now be driving the anger that could surely be the basis of a movement to complete the unfinished struggle for popular sovereignty. For the explosion of anger against those MPs who have abused their personal stewardship of the money meant to enable them to carry out their public duties is the product of a pent-up fury.
It is a fury that has mounted with growing evidence of financial waste and unaccountability, against the background of levels of inequality unprecedented in post-war years. It began with numerous parliamentary committees pronouncing on the poor value of the Private Finance Initiative, on the millions of public money spent on exorbitant consultancies, and on the failure of mega projects from the Dome onwards – but with no effect.
Along the way has been the vast expenditure on the unpopular and calamitous occupation of Iraq. Then came the billions handed over to the private banks without any of the scrutiny imposed on the public sector for much smaller sums. Finally came the sight of a sizeable minority of MPs showing such contempt for the people whose interests they supposedly represent that without a second thought they could pocket capital gains from a house bought at public expense for public purpose.
The most symbolic example of the deeper problem we face has been the behaviour of communities minister Hazel Blears, treating a £45,000 capital gain as hers to pocket privately with parliamentary permission. That’s around the sum that, with such fanfare, she deigned to grant to neighbourhoods to allocate collectively, under intense public scrutiny, in the form of ‘community kitties’.
Her patronising and hypocritical approach towards the idea of greater popular control of public money is also symbolic of the way that parliamentary sovereignty has embedded in mainstream English political culture a false choice: between parliament as wise, independent-minded decision making; and any idea of popular power as not to be trusted, the ‘rule of the mob’, emotion as distinct from reason, and riddled with sectional interests (trade unions, ‘activists’ etc) – so therefore to be fenced in. Richard Crossman for example, reflected with satisfaction on how parliament acted as a ‘rock against the waves of popular emotion’.
What has been entirely marginalised is the tradition of Tom Paine (see page 58, June/July issue), William Morris and (less radically) John Stuart Mill, whose concern was to adapt the principle of popular sovereignty to whole societies. Forms of representation are necessary, but the institutions through which it should occur have to be designed to retain as far as possible the substance of popular power. Hence we need proportional representation, with no representative serving more than two terms, and more mechanisms of accountability and recallabilty between frequent elections.
Popular sovereignty is now an urgent issue. We need initiatives that give new life to these traditions of radical constitutional reform, with a focus now on proportional representation to achieve a genuinely accountable parliament.
At the same time it is necessary to connect constitutional reform with extra-parliamentary struggles for democratic control, such as the trade union led campaigns for democratic alternatives to privatisation discussed in the April/May Red Pepper, and the democratic potential of the new means of communication being used to impose accountability on the police (cover story, page 18 June/July issue). Action at all these levels is necessary for the present public fury to become a force to complete the democratic revolution. And this includes carrying the logic of popular control through, to address the problem of private economic power.
The left has a responsibility to build the connections between these different fronts of struggle for democratic control, and in doing so stimulate open and widespread political and cultural debate. A mere ‘cleansing’ of parliament and continuation of the depoliticised political culture will not counter the appeal of the far right. That requires a political movement able to connect the transformation of our political institutions with egalitarian solutions to the growing problems of daily life – and to do so in a way that enables people to gain control and bring about change and self-realisation in the process.