Government by petition will exacerbate the disconnect between the people and their elected representatives
When the Conservative Party unveiled plans to ensure that any petition of 100,000 people would be eligible for debate in Parliament, few thought it would happen. But it is.
It was also announced that any petition with 1 million signatures would result in a bill being tabled in Parliament. We don't yet have the details, but Sir George Young, Leader of the House, has indicated that the necessary legislation will be introduced in the New Year.
Sounds like innovative, direct democracy.
But what if the public back issues that are either distinctly un-Cameroonian or potentially divisive for the Coalition?
There is the return of capital punishment (surely that would easily get 100,000 signatures?), and also a referendum on our membership of the European Union.
This initiative could be the fulfilment of the vision of Sir James Goldsmith to 'Let the People Decide': imagine a simple "In or Out of Europe" Referendum Bill. Despite Mr Cameron's enthusiasm for more 'power to the people', the party business managers may suddenly find that there is not a lot of parliamentary time for such an inconvenient debate.
Even with a three-line whip to vote against, many Tory backbenchers (and a few Labour MPs) would be tempted to back such a Bill.
EU Referendum and Capital Punishment aside (though the latter could not happen unless the former preceded it and resulted in an 'out' vote), it strikes His Grace that this is a petard by which the Coalition may be hoist throughout its entire period of government, for every Government Bill may be challenged with an equal and opposite Bill: Labour would easily be able to muster 100,000 supporters to confront and counter any Coalition proposal. Of course, the tabling of a motion for debate does not mean that it would become an Act of Parliament, but where is the parliamentary time going to be found to slot in all these debates, draft all the consequent Bills and give them a First Reading, steer them through Committee Stage, give them a Second Reading, etc, etc?
It is an opportunity to filibuster and jam up the entire working of government.
On the face of it, the proposal is a God-send for proponents of direct democracy, but it is a parliamentary nightmare which could undermine centuries of evolution of our system of representative democracy (if it is not already fatally undermined). What if 100,000 signatures were found for a 'David Cameron Must Resign' debate, or a million signatures for a draft Bill?
Does not this proposal effectively give the people the right to demand a vote of No Confidence?
Or what about a 'We Want an Immediate Dissolution of Parliament Bill'?
Or an 'Abolish the Monarchy Bill'?
The last example would be interesting, insofar as there would be a Bill before Parliament the very debating of which would cause every MP to contravene their Oath of Allegiance. It is not clear at all what would happen to Bills which would contravene EU law which is superior to national law.
So what Bills can we look forward to?
An in/out EU Referendum Bill
A John Bercow ought to be ousted as Speaker Bill
A Capital Punishment Re-introduction Bill
An Immediate Cessation of Immigration Bill
An Introduction of Sharia Law Bill
A Scotland Indepedence Bill (with a very easy million signatures)
A United Ireland Bill (again, with a very easy million signatures)
A Disestablish the Church of England Bill
A Removal of the Vote from Guests of Her Majesty Bill
A Ban on Mosque-building Bill
The clumsy wording of many of these is quite purposeful, for who will determine the best wording of each petition, and will that wording be retained for the parliamentary debate, the green/white paper or the final Bill?
And the possibilities for embarrassment are considerable. Imagine Parliament being obliged to debate a Dawkins-initiated 'Ban the Pope's State Visit Bill' on the eve of his scheduled arrival.
Laudable for localism as this initiative may be, the reality is that the device will only serve to magnify the disconnect between the people and their elected representatives. As the mob-rule e-petitions flood in, who in the first instance will decide whether or not a proposal is 'frivolous'? For surely some such test must be made, lest Parliament find itself debating whether the Jedi ought to be recognised as the official state religion. But if the Jedi agenda is deemed frivolous, why should a proposal to introduce Sharia Law be taken any more seriously? So a parliamentary committee will be required to adjudicate and determine the 'seriousness' of a proposal. And then someone must determine that the 100,000 (or million) signatures (and addresses) are all genuine, for the old No10 Petition website had no such check. And then someone (the Leader of the House?) will have the nightmare job of finding the time in a packed parliamentary timetable to schedule dozens (scores?) of e-petition debates. And then MPs must attend these tedious debates, and will be keen to be seen attending them, for these are the people's concerns. And then there will be a division, and our representatives will vote exactly as we have come to expect that they will.
They will vote against an EU Referendum Bill, against Capital Punishment, against the banning of immigration, against a ban on mosque building, etc., etc.
And the people will eventually notice this disconnect between their clearly-expressed concerns and the voting patterns of their representatives, pretty much as they already do.
And they will do nothing about.
Pretty much as they already don't.
This is about seeming and feeling: politicians seeming to share the primary concerns of the people, and the people feeling that they are being listened to.
For a petition to abolish a rotten Parliament will be deemed 'frivolous' by some self-serving committee.
How many vacuous debates will be held before party managers select one which will succeed?
And what is the betting that the odd one they select for a smooth passage and assured success will be contiguous with the stated aims of the Government, consistent with our membership of the EU, and fully cognisant of our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.
This is not X-Factor politics, for in the real-life X-Factor, a malignant Rage Against The Machine rebellion was able to defeat the divine right of Simon Cowell: the little man conquered the Goliath that is the modern music machine.
But in the proposed people's petition, Parliament remains sovereign because the petitions will be benign. Procedures and processes will be rigged, just as Mr Cowell learned to do.
The divine right of experts can be a dashed awkward thing to shift.