But we need to learn from events in Athens too.
Marcus Johnson returns to the Greek theme with some more thoughts.
Cambridge MP’s have a record of sturdy independence for many many years and names such as Eric Geddes , Hamilton Kerr and Robert Rhodes James from the past have their more recent equivalents in Julian Huppert who , whatever you may think of his actions, was not afraid to go against the party line and support Assad when the government wanted to punish him for the use of chemical weapons.
What is also very noticeable is that each of these had supporters from outside their own party, and MP’s such as Ann Campbell clearly had a personal vote which protected them unless their party really messed up. This personal following is hugely important because the essence of representative democracy is that we elect people to represent us who will make important decisions on our behalf and in our name, but we rely on them to look at the data , apply common sense and logic, and decide what is best for the country.
Greece is important because it has lessons to teach us which we will ignore at our peril, but it got into its problems by forgetting or ignoring the most essential part of the process in a representative democracy is the selection of the right representative. Cambridge seems to be really good at this and Daniel Zeichner gives every sign of being the sort of thoughtful experienced deliberative character one would like to occupy the seats of power. This is partly a matter of candidate selection within parties but it is also the duty of the electorate to make judgements based on sound criteria, and electoral law can help in both respects.
Every country is unique and contributes to humanity in some form or other but for the Anglo-Saxon nations of the world Greece is generally thought of as one of the most important contributors to our culture and civilisation. In essence, it was the absorption of Greco Roman culture, as transmitted by the Celtic occupants of Britain to our immigrant forefathers, which forms the basis of the science and politics of our countries today. If most of us were asked what the Greeks contributed to the modern world we would say Democracy (in Greek, ‘Rule of the People’) and Philosophy (in Greek, ‘love of wisdom’ and therefore science). And it is the interplay of these two very Greek themes I believe we should be watching in Greece today in order that we learn from them what we should not do here.
The Romans added a dose of practicality to the Greek theories of democracy – when the legions marched under the banner SPQR please note that the Senate comes before the people – and also that the Senate did not ask the people their views – it asked them to elect tribunes who would represent the views of the people. Greece, in February this year, elected to power the Syriza party under its leader, Alexis Tsipras, who pledged to undo all the reforms to the economy agreed by the previous government as a condition of massive loans from the IMF, the ECB and the EU. The central problem here illustrated is the gap between democracy and philosophy in the form of economic science.
The reconciliation is meant to be via politics, (a Greek word, of course) which the statesman Otto von Bismark called “the art of the possible” but the problem is that politics easily drifts from the possible to the impossible and the politician becomes a snake oil salesman.
It is clear that the IMF, the ECB and the EU all want the Greek economy back on its feet as soon as possible – they all need a solvent Greek government with lots of tax revenues which can afford to repay debts. It is their job, and the IMF has done this for nearly 100 different countries which have got into similar problems, to diagnose what has gone wrong and prescribe a cure. Normally the problems are much the same – irresponsible governments who have spent too much, employed too many people, embarked on uneconomic projects, subsidised uneconomic firms and failed to raise sufficient taxes to pay for all this. Many of the best economic minds in the world have been employed by the IMF to do this job.
Similarly the Bundesbank, which has the best financial credentials of the world’s central bank, dominates the ECB and has a long and successful record in maintaining the value of the currency under difficult conditions. The representatives of the EU do not have the same credentials but they are clearly well qualifies economists recruited from all EU countries.
In February the Greek people had to decide whether the prescription for curing the undoubted ills of the Greek economy were those offered by the world’s topmost experts in finance and economics or those put up by a fairly random collection of totally inexperienced young left wing Greeks led by K. Tsipras. This is where they forgot about philosophy and went for the snake oil remedies offered by Syriza. In a nutshell, they were promised that the cure for the debts and overspending was quite easy and obvious – indeed all it required was more debt and more spending – higher pensions and more pay for state workers and the economy would boom.
The false solution to this problem is to ban snake oil salesmen, and the long term solution is to educate the population so that they do not believe in snake oil – but pending that perfect solution we need to learn from the Greek crisis and reinforce the mechanisms of representational as opposed to direct democracy.
In most of Europe (Switzerland being an exception where the populations is so well educated that direct democracy works) we elect representatives who we hope will themselves examine all the issues fully and come to a considered decision on our behalf. The Greek problem is that with ease and speed of communication there is an increasing trend across Europe to take the issues directly to the electorate rather than to ask the electors to select representatives to decide.
So when faced with a decision “do you want to do what the IMF says or do you want to go back to yesterday?” the Greek electorate had no problem in choosing the rather more pleasant sounding impossibility. The real choice they were being offered is better described as “Do you want a group of idealistic but totally inexperienced and unqualified exciting young people or a boring experienced group of who have spent a long time thinking about these problems to be responsible for making decisions on the future of the country?” They did not choose representatives who offered experience and promised to look at the options, they bought snake oil which promised a panacea.
The lesson for all of us in this is that we must concentrate much more effort on the “representational” in our representational democracy. Plato proposed that all decision making should be left to men over 65 on the grounds that when their libidinous urges ceased they would start to debate rationally. There are other views on who is best able to make good decisions – academic research suggests that those who have suffered a life threatening illness, personal tragedies or other life changing events are better decision makes than most. Experience and qualifications are necessary to get most jobs. To secure our future as a democratic society we need to shift the debate at elections away from policies and towards personalities. It should never be the case that decisions are made on the basis of promises – that leads to more and more unrealistic promises being made as in Greece in February. The decision for an elector should only be “Do I believe this person will represent me best, and when asked to make decisions about the future will be in a good positon to select what is best for me?”
There are many ways of putting into effect the lessons from Athens but probably the easiest is to extend the ban on inducements which is currently in the Representation of the Peoples Act to include all forms of bribery including making any promises about future actions to be taken. Specifically any promises to raise benefits, pay more or force others to pay more, to spend money on projects of any sort or to favour any groups or areas should be covered by a ban on bribery.
Any person standing for public office should have to declare their experience and qualifications and describe how they would go about making decisions in future. If such mechanisms had been in place in Greece 30 years ago it is unlikely there would have been a Greek crisis – if they had been there 5 years ago it would already have been solved. The Greeks do not need money from the rest of Europe as much as they need sensible representatives who will stop buying popularity and votes with the rest of Europe’s money. It was the ready availability of credit which allowed veniality and corruption to flourish but it was the inability of the electorate to beware of politicians bearing gifts which started the process, and the credulity given to a random collection of nutty fruitcakes peddling myths which brought it to crisis point.
This article was published in the Cambridge Business Magazine – August 2015 Issue 44