John Jackson: Spring is here and the frogs in my garden pond are spawning. As I watch the randy little males croaking with excitement and clambering over each other to clasp the strangely passive females and let down their fertilising milt as they, the females, exude their transparent tapioca-like eggs, I am reminded of government ministers and shadow ministers as election time approaches. They too croak away and clamber onto our backs as they seek to inseminate our voting capacity with support for the views of their political party.
If the sovereignty of ‘we the people’ or, indeed, representative democracy are to be more than forlorn hopes we should rebel against being treated in this way, as passive spawners available for clasping by the political elite in their springtime. It is ‘we’ who should be setting the agenda and making clear that ‘we’ require those who seek to govern or represent ‘us’ to make clear their position on matters that ‘we’ regard as fundamental, particularly matters relating to how ‘we’ are governed and represented.
If this is done, and it can be, it is an expression of ‘people power’. We have a very recent example demonstrating how potent that can be. At the exhilarating Convention on Modern Liberty, the National Co-ordinator of NO2ID explained the dangers in the data sharing provisions (Clause 152) hidden away in the Coroners and Justice Bill and intended to put almost unaccountable power in the hands of Ministers by enabling them to order that information given to one part of central government for one purpose be made available to other parts of government for other purposes. He asked some 2000 participants across the country to alert their friends, contact their MP, get messages through to libertarian Peers and use all proper means to make clear their objection both to the proposal and the attempt to ‘smuggle’ it through.
Within ten days of the Convention, the Government is backing down. Much of the credit for this should go to NO2ID and other campaigning organisations. But the re-enforcement of their position by a loud popular voice – which was heard by Michael Wills, a ministerial member of Jack Straw’s team attending the Convention – played an important role. It is becoming too easy for ministers to dismiss the remarks of the well known campaigning organisations as coming from ‘the usual suspects’ representing a minority awkward squad. They cannot do that when ‘we the people’ speak and speak from across the country.
Another opportunity for the popular voice to be heard will present itself shortly. Before I wound up the session at the Convention addressed by a formidable panel which included, notably, the former Senior Law Lord, Lord Bingham, the questions were put ‘What happens next? and Who will do it?’ (join the discussion on What next? on the Convention blog). As panel chairman, I answered the questions. In different ways the panel members had already said what they thought the answers should be. The answer to the second question was that ‘we the people’ should , in the exercise of our sovereignty, ‘do it’. The answer to the first was that we should take every opportunity to make our voice heard, to set the agenda. We should take back our own country, the country that we all live in.
I pointed out also that whilst what NO2ID had asked of the convention that morning in respect of Clause 152 was one example, another was coming up. The long awaited ‘green paper’ following the issue by Gordon Brown’s government in July 2007 of its thoughts on The Governance of Britain is about to emerge. The last paragraph of the 2007 document reads ‘The programme of constitutional reform set out in this document seeks to meet that objective ( A shared sense of national purpose) by renewing our democracy. This task does not fall to government alone, but to all the people of these islands – and the discussion now begins.’
Viewed against the background of everything in this area the Government has done, and not done, since 2007, the green paper, in so far as it reflects that last paragraph, seems likely to be a big disappointment. A friend of mine with a bucolic turn of phrase has forecast that it will be as much use as ‘a cow’s fart’. I hope he is wrong but if he is right ‘we the people’ must exercise our sovereign rights, call out ‘Not enough, not enough’ and, metaphorically (perhaps not only metaphorically) take to the streets. I for my part will stop watching my frogs and help them to do that. So, I think, should everyone else who was inspired by the energy released at that remarkable convention on 28th February.