Getting parliamentarians into the right shape

by ammophila

One of the little comfits that the collective British psyche likes to suck on from time to time is to be told that Britain has the world’s oldest parliamentary democracy. There are one or two reasons why one should not swallow this sweetmeat whole; for instance, truth is not one of its ingredients – both the Isle of Man and Iceland have older independent parliaments (insofar as any political entity other than a current top nation can be said to be independent.) Another problem is the strange aftertaste, which is a belief that Britain has the world’s best system of government. Now the capacity to believe one thing while standing in front of its diametrical opposite is one of the more bizarre human traits that nature may not have foreseen when she allowed the first denizen of the deep to flop out onto the pre-Cambrian mudflats. But there it is, along with things like honesty, greed, self-sacrifice and the ability to forget inconvenient promises. If you want evidence just consider – is there a dog owner in existence who will agree that his animal has fleas? Nevertheless the conflict on this occasion between belief and reality is acute enough that it has, occasionally, penetrated the pontifical skin of the pundits. It has even been remarked that the adversarial arrangement (our side against your side) is a bad thing.

In fact the British lower house (the upper house is essentially a figment of the imagination of the last three prime ministers), along with all others like it, is a two-headed monster where, no matter how many ideas the media and a well-intentioned public try to force into one head, all that is produced is hot air issuing from the other. A government declares that Monday follows Sunday; thereupon the opposition proves incontrovertibly that Sunday follows Monday and always has, and that any attempt to upset this arrangement would endanger the vital economic growth of the nation, so marvellously accomplished under the present administration despite the obstructionism of those on the other side.

The very odd thing is that the pundits who feel this kind of parliament is a bit short on rationality generally assume it is one of only three possible arrangements. The belief is perhaps hereditary since fifty or sixty years ago, British administrators could be observed around the world using all means at their disposal to have the system adopted by various countries not in a position to resist, with in most cases unfortunate or even tragic results.

One of the other constitutional options is to abolish the adversarial system by getting rid of the adversary, in other words to install a dictatorship in which case the way that a parliament – if any – is conducted becomes immaterial. But the trouble with this approach to making the trains run on time is that they tend to run over human rights strapped to the rails not far up the line. The other popular solution is to replace the two-sided asylum by a semicircular chamber as they have done in France with seating arranged according to where the members see themselves in the political spectrum. The idea here is that members appreciate that political differences do not necessarily mean barking hostility and a stark contrast between right and wrong, because they sit next to others who hold basically similar views but disagree on details. And there is no visible yawning pit at any point beyond which an inhabitant is clearly too alien to be ‘one of us’, and must therefore be enemy. Laudable as the motives may be, the fact that there are still relatively fixed positions, and relatively large distances which stay the same from day to day, still allows mutual loathing to simmer merrily.

The semicircular chamber is certainly heading in the right direction. What is wrong with it is the seating fixed according to political beliefs, and it is really quite easy to overcome this. One rather attractive idea would be to group members by the geographical area which they represent, irrespective of party allegiance. Or we could simply place them in an alphabetical order. We could even arrange them in the same way as platoons in the army, tallest on the right shortest on the left. This might lead to grumbles from the tallest men since in the nature of things they would tend to get less opportunity to socialise with the opposite sex, but then tall men have built-in advantages in this respect anyway. But the idea which I like best is the one which follows what you do with children at some birthday parties: a number is pinned on each guest as they come in and that gives them their seat when the bunfighting begins. This way the parliamentarians would get a different seat each day. Sooner or later they would be almost bound to meet most of the other members and spend part of a day with them; the immediate result could hardly be other than that each one would come to see their neighbour for the day as a human being. They would then be so taken up with observing his or her pleasant or less pleasant personal habits – gossip, or cleaning their ears with a pencil, or sharing garlic sausages from their briefcase, breaking wind, and so on – that there would not be enough time to explore the neighbour’s identity as a personification of one of the more repellent forms of political wickedness.   They would be revealed as human beings. The disadvantage of this system is that it might lend itself to manipulation; the more cunning among the politicians might lurk around the entrance so that they either accompany or avoid some particular fellow member. This could be overcome by linking entrance numbers to seat numbers on a random basis, easy enough with a small computer and appropriate software.

But if we are really looking for ways to improve the parliamentary system, perhaps it may seem a bit superficial merely to allocate seats in the chamber by lottery. An idea which must naturally occur to many of us, and I dare say even more would agree, is `Wouldn’t it be better to go the whole hog and choose the members by lottery in the first place?’

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