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Assessing the ‘comparative normative weight’ of the two modes

The comparison shown in Table 3.1 may seem rather elementary, though at least it shows that the two modes are amenable to assessment against the same criteria. More taxing is my further consideration or question: what influence should these modes of citizen engagement have on policy making, and how much weight should government, including parliament, give to them? Can we do any better in answering this question than the ‘don’t know’ or ‘it depends’ represented by the question marks against their actual or empirical influence in the last row of Table 3.1?

One thing can, I think, be agreed at the outset. None of the modes of direct citizen engagement with public issues, short of a referendum open to the whole electorate, should be allowed to decide public policy or legislation in a system of representative democracy. However, we need to be clear why this should be so, and distinguish the good from the bad arguments (see also Budge’s Table 1.1 ‘Criticisms of direct democracy with responses to them’ in this volume).

One bad argument, because it’s anti-democratic, relies on what Bernard Manin calls the ‘aristocratic’ dimension of representation, to the effect that representatives know more, are more intelligent or are in other ways superior to the general run of the population (Manin 1997: 161-92). This is familiar to us from J. Madison, J. S. Mill and others. So for example Mill: ‘Individuals and peoples who are acutely sensible of the value of superior wisdom ... will be far too desirous to secure it than to impose their opinion as a law upon persons whom they look up to as wiser than themselves’ (Mill 1861: 319). This argument should rightly be given short shrift in an age when the issue is how to rescue elected politicians from a condition of widespread disrespect and mistrust. From a democratic point of view, what distinguishes representatives from the rest of the population is simply that they are assigned (and must be assigned) sufficient time, resources and access to relevant information and expertise to enable them to engage in effective deliberation and decision on public policy. Yet that is a distinction that may disappear, and does so in the case of the citizens’ jury, where for a period and on a particular issue, citizens are afforded the same time and access to information and expertise that is typical to enable elected politicians to arrive at a considered judgement.

A second objection is one from the interconnectedness of policy, to the effect that all policy decisions impinge on others and cannot therefore be treated in isolation, but only by those who exercise a continuity of attention and responsibility across the whole range of government business. This can hardly be a decisive objection, however, since all policy decisions are couched as discrete issues and choices, and their relevant implications for other policy areas can be brought into the deliberations of a citizens’ jury as much as they would into a cabinet or parliamentary committee.

More telling is a third argument about accountability. Any group of citizens short of the whole electorate that is given the power of decision - however representative their membership and considered their judgement may be - has no clear line of accountability to the wider citizen body. Indeed, it may serve to compromise the accountability of elected representatives or elected government. Whatever reservations we may have about the effectiveness of this accountability in practice, or the ability of the electoral process to realize it, it remains the cornerstone of a representative system. A parliamentary assembly is not just a microcosm of the citizen body, but also its agent, and is made so by the process of election. Any inadequacies in the representative body, or process of election, which frustrate this agent’s accountability, ought to be addressed directly, rather than substitute for it the decisions of some other body.

It follows that the engagement and conclusions of citizens organized together around some issue of public policy should certainly carry influence with government and parliament, though not decide on that policy (see also Geissel in this volume). But how much influence should they carry? It is interesting that both Burke and Mill - the theorists of representative government most clearly associated with an ‘aristocratic’ conception, and with protecting the decisional

Evaluating new vs old forms of citizen engagement and participation 63

autonomy of the representative - were exercised by this question. Burke, for example, wrote: ‘It would be an evil more natural and tolerable, that the House of Commons should be infected with every epidemical phrensy of the people ... than that it should be wholly untouched by the opinions and feelings of the people out of doors’ (Burke 1834: 140). In terms of his own metaphor, while the elected assembly should not behave like a weathercock, much worse was not to be moved by the direction of the prevailing wind.

J. S. Mill, for his part, was much exercised by the relationship between representatives and their constituents, which he saw as a key issue of what he called ‘constitutional morality’ or ‘the ethics of representative government’. While he disagreed with constituents binding their representatives in advance (so-called ‘pledges’), nevertheless he was clear that ‘a people cannot be well governed in opposition to their primary notions of right, even though these may be in some points erroneous’. And while electors should mostly defer to their representative, ‘they are justified in dismissing him at the first moment’ when a question arises ‘involving points on which he is vitally at issue with them’ (Mill 1861: 322). What might count as a ‘vital issue’ is of course contestable, though we can agree with Mill that a decision on peace or war would fit this category.

Ifboth Burke and Mill, then, with their aristocratic conceptions of representation, were exercised by this question of ‘constitutional morality’, even more should we be with our more democratic conception. In answering it, much will depend on what I call the ‘comparative normative weight’ of a citizens’ intervention. For example, the conclusions of a citizens’ jury, provided it had a representative membership and the time and opportunity to consider all the main aspects of an issue, including expert advice and opinion, would count very high on the scale of normative weight. Would it count higher if the jury were commissioned by a government department or public body responsible for the decision, rather than by a civil society organization? If they are intrinsically of the same quality, then we are back to the question of how the conclusions of a civil society-led deliberation might be brought to the decision-makers’ attention in a sufficiently convincing manner. And in practice, there would be a greater cost to government of ignoring the conclusions, if it had commissioned the citizens’ jury itself. This cost is identified by the author of a UK House of Commons Advisory Note on Citizen Assemblies as a possible objection to this and other forms of government-led consultation: ‘Unless proposals from consultative bodies are incorporated into policy-making, the process can be considered to be damaging to public trust as the government would be seen to “not be listening”’ (Maer 2007a: 5). This is surely correct, and makes the attempt to construct a scale of comparative normative weight more than a mere philosophical exercise. The greater the ‘normative weight’ of the citizens’ intervention, the greater one can assume the cost to government of ignoring it could be.

What, then, of the ‘normative weight’ of the citizen-initiated campaign or demonstration, which has no problem about being publicly heard, whether by government or other citizens? As we have seen, these typically score low on the dimensions of representativeness and deliberation and, to the extent that they do, we should conclude that they possess a lower normative weight than the average citizens’ jury. Indeed, they can sometimes take the form of what Burke called ‘popular phrensies’, which it may be the responsibility of an elected assembly precisely to resist or counteract. Here is Richard Crossman’s celebration of the role of parliament in just such a situation in 1968, when Enoch Powell’s antiimmigration speech had ‘unleashed the nearest thing to a mass movement since the 1930s, in comparison with which the Aldermaston marches were but a collection of liberal individuals and families drooling along the road’. ‘It’s in these crises’, he wrote, ‘that the British constitution is like a rock against which the wave of popular emotion breaks ... Parliament is the buffer which enables our leadership to avoid saying yes or no to the electorate in the hope that, given time, the situation can be eased away’ (Crossman 1977).

However, not all or even most citizen-initiated campaigns or demonstrations can be tarred with this brush. Indeed, they can differ enormously from one another. Elsewhere, I have attempted to construct a set of criteria by which one could assess the relative normative weight of different citizen campaigns and protest movements that took place under the Blair government (and how much notice government and parliament should correspondingly have taken of them) (Beetham 2003: 604-9). The criteria I used were:

  • • how important the issue was
  • • how far it concerned a national rather than a particular sectional interest
  • • the extent of the numbers involved
  • • whether the activists’ aims were in tune with majority public opinion
  • • the extent and seriousness of public debate that had already taken place or was taking place around the issue.

There is not the space here to rehearse the justification for these different criteria, except to point out that the last two were attempts to cover the issues of representativeness and deliberation, on which citizen campaigns are typically weaker in comparison with juries, whereas the extent of numbers can give them much greater weight. I then used these criteria to assess the respective normative weight of four different campaigns: the protests against the increase in fuel taxes in autumn 2000; the mass demonstrations of the Countryside Alliance from summer 1998 through to autumn 2002; the anti-GM crops campaign between 1998 and 2002; the anti-Iraq war demonstrations of autumn and spring 2002-3. I came up with Table 3.2 of their relative normative weight, and compared it with what the response of the government had actually been to each of these campaigns.

By these criteria, the anti-Iraq war campaign had greater normative weight than the others. Yet, in practice, only the fuel and GM crops protests led to any significant adjustment in government policy - no doubt because the types of direct action involved proved so damaging, and because the policies gave themselves readily to a technical fix by the government. However, the Blair government paid a heavy price for ignoring the anti-war movement, not merely in reduced trust in government, but trust in the democratic process itself, not least among the important

Evaluating new vs old forms of citizen engagement and participation 65

Table 3.2 Assessment of four different campaigns

Importance

National vs sectional

Large

numbers

involved

Majority opinion pro

Full public debate

Fuel price

yes

no

no

yes

no

Countryside

yes

no

yes

no

yes (hunting)

GM crops

yes

yes

no

yes

partial

Anti-war

yes

yes

yes

yes

yes

constituency of young British Muslims who took part in the demonstrations in such huge numbers. This bears out the conclusion that, the greater the normative weight of a citizen campaign, the greater the cost to government and to confidence in the democratic process of ignoring it.

 
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