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Friday, 5 August 2011

5 August 2011

Democracy’s a funny old thing, isn’t it?

In the over-quoted words of the over-quoted Winston Churchill: “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

So I wonder what you make of the government’s relaunched attempt to encourage more of us to play a direct part in the democratic process by signing online petitions which could – note that word “could” – lead to a debate in the House of Commons.

Here’s how it’s meant to work: first, create your petition (the relevant website is at www.direct.gov.uk/e-petitions). There are, of course, certain rules that have to be obeyed. Jokes, nonsense, anything libellous or offensive – not allowed.

So, presumably, no more petitions like the one three years ago, signed by nearly 50,000 people who wanted Jeremy Clarkson to be made prime minister. (He is a TV presenter, m’Lud, apparently well-known for his love of motor cars.)

Second, wait for 100,000 people to sign it. That’s about 0.2 per cent of the 46 million people who are entitled to vote in the UK. Everyone who signs has to provide an email address, but I’m not sure how they’ll stop people creating multiple addresses and signing up more than once.

Then, if you’ve got that far, and if you haven’t broken any rules, your petition will be considered by the Backbench Business Committee of the House of Commons. If they like it, they’ll schedule it for debate.

And then … ah, funny you should ask.

Because if you’ve ever tried to follow the progress of a parliamentary proposal, you’ll know that unless it has government support, it doesn’t get very far. In fact, it doesn’t get anywhere at all. In the words of the old saying: “You can have your say, but the government will have its way.”

As of midnight last night, incidentally, it was the anti-capital punishment petitions that were in the clear lead, with about 7,300 signatures, compared to around 4,500 signatures on the pro-capital punishment side.

Other popular demands were: keep Formula 1 racing on free-to-air TV (3,800); withdraw from the EU (3,500); and legalise cannabis (1,200).

At the other end of the scale, a proposal that the UK should switch from driving on the left to driving on the right had managed to acquire only 11 supporters.

But suppose, in a few weeks’ time, more than 100,000 people have signed up for the restoration of capital punishment – or for the UK to withdraw from the European Union. Suppose the Commons committee decides it’s a proper subject for debate. And suppose a handful of MPs turn up for the debate, and most of them argue in favour of the petition.

The Leader of the House of Commons, Sir George Young, wrote in the Daily Mail this week: “If politicians want to regain the trust of the public, then they need to trust the public. Giving people more power is the right place to start.”

But you could argue that a mechanism for triggering a parliamentary debate is not necessarily the same as “giving people more power.”

Because what happens if after the debate, the government does precisely nothing? The Conservative MP Louise Mensch wrote yesterday: “The death penalty is interesting in terms of representative democracy versus referendums. I would not vote for it if 100 per cent of the public were for it.”

So are the petitions going to usher in a bright new über-democratic dawn? Will MPs obediently follow the expressed wish of 0.2 per cent of the electorate? Or will they follow Ms Mensch’s example and use their own judgement when it comes to voting on tricky issues?

And if they do ignore the views of the petitioners, will trust in our political system have been enhanced – or reduced?

Perhaps the very act of organising or signing a petition will in itself represent a welcome advance.

On the other hand, if you think it’s all nonsense, you’ll be pleased to know there are already petitions up and running to demand the ending of petitions.

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