The PM, the financier and a trail of sleaze

No smoke without fire: David Cameron, left, and Lex Greensill in Saudi Arabia in January 2020.

Would politics be better without politicians? A former British PM has been engulfed in a row over lobbying, which some say demonstrates the need for an entirely new way of governing.

British government departments have been ordered to find out by the end of the week whether senior officials have rule-breaking second jobs.

Cabinet Secretary Simon Case has asked colleagues to declare paid roles or outside interests that "might conflict" with Civil Service rules.

The move comes after it emerged a top official joined a financial firm while working for the government.

Conservative MPs yesterday lined up to distance themselves from their former leader, David Cameron. For them, his “slapdash and unbecoming” actions left a “bad taste in the mouth”.

The remarks followed Boris Johnson ordering an inquiry into the scandal that erupted over the bankrupt supply-chain finance company Greensill. He says it will have “carte blanche” to investigate his predecessor.

Cameron, who started working for Greensill in 2018, had lobbied the government – including sending texts directly to chancellor Rishi Sunak – to try to secure even more money for a company which had already received £200,000,000 in emergency loans.

It has now emerged that head of the company, Lex Greensill, advised the government when Cameron was still prime minister.

Dubbed Dodgy Dave by opposition MPs, Cameron found himself in more hot water as photos were published of him and Lex Greensill in Saudia Arabia, there to schmooze with its Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

Many argue that politicians leaving to work for companies they regulate or buy services from encourages cronyism and sleaze in government.

Among radical solutions to these problems one stands out: doing away with politicians altogether.

The political theorist Hélène Landmore argues that citizens should be randomly chosen and tasked with coming up with policies. People could then vote on their proposals in referendums, without any need for politicians.

She points to several examples of what are often called citizens’ assemblies.

In France last year, an assembly was convened to propose new legislation to deal with climate change. Iceland created a citizens’ assembly to draft a new constitution in 2012.

Doing politics this way has several advantages.

People chosen by sortition will have different backgrounds, levels of education and experiences. Studies suggest that this kind of diversity results in better decisions, as more viewpoints will be considered. By contrast, Boris Johnson and David Cameron went to the same school – along with 18 other former prime ministers.

Winning elections takes money and the support of powerful interests. This may bias lawmakers to act in the interests of donors or supporters. Randomly chosen lawmakers would have no such biases. They would also have no ties to their successors, so would be less able to lobby government when they leave.

Real world assemblies have yet to have much impact. In Iceland, politicians simply ignored the proposed new constitution. In France, they have watered down the climate proposals.

For some, both the success and failure of these assemblies show that it is high time to cut out the middlemen.

Would politics be better without politicians?

Popular demand

Yes, say some. Elected representatives turn politics into a conflict. They also fail in their core function of being representative. Politicians on the whole are not like the countries they represent. Worst of all, they turn what should be the public good into a stage for personal advancement. By contrast, a citizens assembly genuinely empowers people to come together without bias to address their common concerns.

No, say others. You cannot design away political conflict. The tensions between different political factions represent tensions between groups of the population. These cannot all be discussed away by random members of the public. Powerful interests would still find new ways to influence the system. People want to feel that they have some control over the decision-making process, which random selection cannot provide, but representatives can.

You Decide

  1. If you were selected to be a lawmaker but were allowed to choose someone to take your place, who would you choose?
  2. Would randomly selected lawmakers be more difficult for lobbyists to influence or corrupt?

Activities

  1. In Iceland, the Vikings would gather in a field to discuss their political issues in a forum called the Thingvellir. Draw a short comic strip of a Viking parliamentary debate.
  2. In his work The Republic, the philosopher Plato wrote a description of the selection and training of the ideal rulers of a state. Write a dialogue in which two people discuss the qualities a lawmaker should have and what they need to know.

Some People Say...

“Although each individual separately will be a worse judge than the experts, the whole of them assembled together will be better or at least as good judges.”

Aristotle (384 – 322BC), ancient Greek philosopher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is widely agreed that one of the first attempts to select representatives at random took place in ancient Athens. Citizens would put their name forward to be considered for positions on governing committees. They were selected using machines called Kleroteria. These were slabs of stone into which tokens representing citizens would be inserted in a random order. A row of tokens was then selected using a mechanism involving dice. Precisely how this process worked has been lost to history.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate concerns Condorcet’s jury principle. This is a mathematical theorem proving that, if the average person is more likely than the flip of a coin to choose correctly between two options then, the more people who make the decision, the more likely it is they will decide correctly. Some argue that this proves everyone should vote on all decisions, while others argue that the idea of a correct decision or binary choices are unhelpful ways to conceive how politics works.

Word Watch

Supply-chain finance company
When a loan is taken out by a company that is purchasing a good or service on behalf of the supplier providing that good or service.
Lobbied
Attempted to influence or persuade. Usually used to describe efforts to persuade politicians.
Dodgy Dave
Former MP Dennis Skinner first used the name in a session of parliament in 2016. He was asked to leave the chamber temporarily as punishment.
Schmooze
To chat in a friendly and persuasive way in order to gain favour or business.
Mohammed bin Salman
The prince’s reputation is often seen as sullied by his role in the Civil War in Yemen and his alleged involvement in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Cronyism
Favouring one’s friends. The most high-profile accusation of cronyism in the past year was Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s neighbour receiving a contract to make PPE for Covid-19 with no previous experience.
Sleaze
Immoral behaviour. It is backformed from the adjective sleazy, and is mostly used by the British press for describing behaviour which may not be legally describable as corruption, but which often closely resembles it.
Sortition
Selection by random chance or lot.

Subjects

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