November 10, 2005

Democratic deficit

I was watching, on BBC Breakfast yesterday, Louise Ellman, the MP for Liverpool Riverside, justifying her support for the ninety-day detention period that was mercifully rejected by the House of Commons later in the day. She argued, much as the government argued, that the police had asked for the powers: and that as they were better placed than her to make that judgement, and were in possession of the information that led them to make it, she had, therefore, no business standing in their way. I paraphrase her argument: I do not think I misrepresent it.

It struck me - rather later, I must admit, because my brain works no better in the early morning than most Labour backbenchers' operate at any other time - that this was the most specious of specious arguments. Far from Ms Ellman having no business questioning the claims of the police, to do precisely this is, in fact, her basic duty as an elected representative.

The question here is not, specifically, whether the legislation was right or wrong, or whether the police can be trusted. The question is what elected representatives are there to do. As individuals, as part of the body to which they are elected. The answer is that they are there to scrutinise. On our behalf, they are there to ask questions.

That is how a representative democracy works. Functions are carried out professionally, but overseen democratically. If we want a bridge to be built, the design and construction are not carried out by the people at large: they are carried out by professionals, quite likely well-paid professionals at that, without whose expertise nothing substantial can be done. Within the terms of reference which they have been set, they make the decisions. But every one of these decisions stands to be questioned, both at the time and afterwards, by the representatives of the people on whose consent (and contribution) everything rests.

At every level of representative government, from the parish council to the Standing Committees of the House of Commons, people carry out scrutiny. They call the servants of the people to account. That is neither an obstructive purpose nor a dispensable one: it is the principle and practice on which our consent to government necessarily stands. It is also the principle and practice on which depends our very ability to let the professionals get on with it, whether they be teachers, architects, librarians or police. You can let them operate without standing over them, provided you know that anything they do, they can be held accountable for later. Held accountable, by our elected representatives. In all sorts of ways, our representatives are there, not just to vote, not just to contact if we personally have a problem, but to perform the role of democratic scrutiny within the wider function of governance.

So for Louise Ellman to exempt herself from that responsbility is not, as she might have it, to defer to the greater and more urgent knowledge of the police. It is actually, to refuse to do what she is there to do. She must - must, if we live in a proper, functioning democracy - say to the police that if they want extra powers then they must show reason why. Their word, unsupported, is not, cannot and must not be enough.

Not, specifically, because they are the police (although their track record is none too special). Not, specifically, because of what they are. But because of what Louise Ellman is, or ought to be. Because of what representative democracy is. Or what it ought to be.

[This piece can also be read at Dead Men Left.]


At November 10, 2005 7:51 pm, Anonymous Sean said...

Are you going to put this in a letter to Ellman and let her have it, both barrels, instantly, utterly?

At November 11, 2005 12:37 pm, Blogger JPD said...

Quite so. Blair got upset when a Tory shouted out "Police State" because it was too close to the truth.

At November 13, 2005 2:02 am, Anonymous Christo said...

Hey Justin, for a look at the sad state of Australian parliamentary democracy this guy's posts are interesting/amusing/depressing:

here, here and why not this one for good measure.

At November 14, 2005 12:32 am, Blogger Renegade Eye said...

I found this site surfing.

When politicians act so stupid, you feel like you'd be as well off, in a banana republic.


At November 18, 2005 5:32 pm, Blogger goatchurch said...

You also might like to know the level of extra-judicial police/military behavoir this MP does find acceptable:

At November 18, 2005 5:33 pm, Blogger goatchurch said...

For ease:

At November 23, 2005 5:48 pm, Blogger Gothamimage said...

Ellman was probably just trying to appear centrist. We're from the US, so we have no idea - just surfing around the UK blogs.

It's sad to see the worst kind of conservatism, an appeal to authority, be the one that a supposed liberal embraces.


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