Michael Gove famously said during the EU referendum campaign ‘People have had enough of experts’. I understand that to mean that people are tired of being told that politics can be as it were de-politicised, replaced with ‘factual’ governance by a team of experts whose concern is ‘the facts’, a kind of special policy knowledge immune by virtue of its objectivity from the vagaries of ideology. Rather, it is suggested, ideology is inextricable from policy and we should not pretend otherwise: we should have the arguments, messy though they may sometimes be, and do our best to balance the need for political civility with the equally insistent call for conviction, the confident occupation of a political stance – even, dare I say it, political passion. Something modern ‘centrist’ liberals endlessly claim to possess but, in their technocratic mode of government, do not particularly inspire in the body politic.
Who, though, will speak for the experts? They are, after all, not mere ornaments. Indeed, one of the most convincing arguments for Remain (albeit one that’s rarely explicitly made) is as follows: What if a modern nation really is too complex to be governed by elected non-experts? What if, in fact, the Remainers are right, and we need to accept government by experts? What if we should be embracing evidence-based policy, government by technocrat, the rule of the expert?
This choice has been incrementally being made for us by governance elites Brexit is part of the push-back against that: a mass shout of protest against the ever-greater swathe of policy that is deemed too complex for interference by elected non-specialists put in charge of complex machinery of state they barely understand, but determined to meddle with in search of ‘impact’ and a ‘legacy’. A call for the return of accountability, for ‘taking back control’: not control by Parliament, but control by the electorate who, at the last count, has the power to vote out politicians whose decisions they dislike.
But what if the democratic push-back is wrong and the governance elites are correct? What if this is just a recipe for mess, for complex systems growing ever more expensive, unwieldy and inefficient under layer after layer of ill-judged ‘reform’ by politicians with an eye on re-election on a time-frame so short that the inevitable unintended consequences of their ill-conceived ‘reforms’ kick in five or ten years after they have sailed off to another plum position or – smugger still – to the insiders’ sinecure that is the post-Blair House of Lords? (The Blair era changes to tertiary education spring to mind here: the consequences of that massive increase in university participation is having knock-on effects in numerous ways, from voting preferences to grade inflation, and my guess is the university debt subprime crisis is another ten years off still. None of the architects of those changes are anywhere near the firing line today, let alone in a decade.)
We need a more explicit discussion: to what extent could the Remainers be right, that some areas of policy need to be exempted from democratic accountability? If not at all, then in theory we could sack the civil service, junk all international treaties & implement direct democracy. I think we can all see that would be a recipe for chaos. If entirely, then we might as well bin the ritual of voting altogether and appoint a High Commission of experts to govern us wisely in our own best interests. This, many suspect, is the European Union’s direction of travel.
But let’s look at the ‘somewhere in between’.
What areas do, or do not, benefit from responsive democratic accountability? Let’s start with the ones that create the most noise when the popular feeling is that this accountability is lacking. Home affairs is a good start; law and order, immigration, policing all create vast popular anger when it is felt that the government is not listening.
Conversely, some areas of government are too abstruse to make it into the general political discourse – hygiene standards in manufacturing, say, or rules governing the import of consumer goods – while remaining immensely important overall. These could plausibly be managed better by some body of experts rather than treated, rashly, as a political football by elected non-specialists who have not bothered to understand the topic in detail. This, as I understand it, is the core of the Remain argument that it is better to agree this stuff together with the rest of the EU and then leave the acquis communautaire in the hands of a highly experienced body of professional civil servants, while we get on with our daily lives. It’s an argument that has considerable merit, for those areas of policy that really don’t benefit from political grandstanding and the meddlesome instincts of elected politicians reaching the end of a term and itching for a ‘legacy’.
However (inevitably) I think the Remainers are only half right. Or, rather, I think the instinct is right but the means is not. For one thing, if we’re going to take swathes of policy out of direct electoral accountability we 1) need to be explicit that we’re doing so, and why we’re doing so and 2) we need to think hard about what institutions we hand those policies to for wise management in the long-term national/international interest, and how those institutions are themselves held accountable. In this regard, the European Union doesn’t blow me away: it is immensely difficult to influence its decisions unless you are a well-paid lobbyist, meaning that wise management tends to take a flavour tilted far more toward the interests of multinational corporations than civil society (except via its self-appointed proxies, the large lobbying charities).
But let’s imagine for a moment that we do leave the European Union. I think if we do, the next stage of domestic political wrangling will be about constitutional reform: there will be a push from many sides to abandon our first past the post electoral system, and renewed calls to reform the House of Lords. I’m ambivalent on the merits of binning FPTP, but what if we replaced the current trough-swilling swamp of cronies and insiders in the House of Lords with a second chamber whose prime job was to become expert, and to take the long view? That, after all, was always the most persuasive argument for the hereditary Lords: nothing is more likely to encourage someone to take a long view, and to approach radical change with caution, like owning great swathes of the country and expecting to hand that ownership on to your descendants in perpetuity. What if we elected our Lords on a ten-year cycle (subject to a recall mechanism, in the event that one of them went full Onasanya) and had them campaign not on a party political ticket but on a subject-expertise one?
Areas of policy that might benefit from being managed in this way include (in no particular order) healthcare, education, the military, and (perhaps especially) international trade. Education and healthcare in particular suffer from being treated by all sides as a political football: subjected to interminable ‘reforms’ by people thinking in electoral cycles rather than the long term, and desperate for ‘impact’ with no regard for the millions whose daily jobs are endlessly turned upside down by their meddling. International trade is simply (as the Brexit negotiations have amply demonstrated) too complicated and technical for the brief to be grasped in any kind of useful way by elected non-experts. So, rather than having an education secretary in situ for a year or two, fiddling about with things just for the sake of looking like they’re doing something, we could have someone like Katherine Birbalsingh or Amanda Spielman – people who actually have a experience and understanding of the systems they’d be in charge of – standing for the Lords on a ten-year education ticket: long enough to see the results of any decisions taken and be held accountable for them.
Alongside this critical function of managing areas of policy for the long term, our elected expert Lords could then continue its role in scrutinising legislation as it does now. Not a huge change, but one that rids us at a stroke of the parasitic Lords as reward for being an insider and yes man (or woman), introduces subject expertise and removes from political grandstanding important areas of our society that need thoughtful government for the long term. It would also answer some of the legitimate arguments made by Remainers, about the genuine necessity of outsourcing to experts some areas of policy that really don’t benefit from neverending meddling by non-specialists with an electorate baying for red meat. It would answer some of Leavers’ legitimate arguments about policy being outsourced to ‘experts’ whose loyalty, responsiveness and accountability are along lines either poorly understood or obviously not geared to the British public. And – joy of joys – it would consign to the bin another area of short-termist meddling-in-the-interests-of-a-legacy whose unintended consequences have been so far worse than the problem the reform aimed to solve, namely the Blair era replacement of the hereditary Lords with a ballooning mass of ever less useful life peers.
I think we could usefully debate which areas of policy benefit from short-cycle accountability, and which would be better handled by experts whose role is to take a longer view. Housing and the welfare state could be argued both ways; I think taxation would to stay in Parliament, but the tax code overall is famously difficult to reform (even when people agree it needs it) so is there space for a longer view in there too? Discussing in Parliament whether to hand this or that policy area to the Lords would bring sharply into focus what is actually occurring when the EU stakes a claim to this or that ‘competence’: the transfer of accountability from one body to another. We would benefit from seeing this more clearly.
So, in summary then: it is almost certain that modern nation states are too complex for direct democracy, and highly likely that large policy areas would benefit from a more long-termist policy outlook than that incentivised by five-year election cycles. Post-Brexit, we could solve this in the same stroke as Lords reform, should we so desire. Naturally my arguing for major constitutional changes is subject to the same criticism on the grounds of unintended consequences as anything else; I’d be interested to hear from others if they can see obvious undesirable knock-on effects from this one.