A Constitution for Climate Chaos

in ‘White Papers’, Reports, Articles

Some argue that climate chaos cannot be solved with democratic government, we need a dictating government to take the urgent action needed, including the creation of a new category of crime in the form of carbon criminals. But as Nick Clegg, in a recent speech. and many others believe, our weak constitution needs reform for all sorts of reasons, including:  “a symptom of political short-termism is the failure to confront long-term problems requiring uncomfortable short-term solutions. Climate change; pensions; social care; social mobility; fiscal deficit; welfare reform – the list is long.”

Well before we are forced to resort to a climate chaos dictatorship, we should build quickly a constitution that markedly improves decision-making and implementation. Nowhere is this more urgent than for the planet.

Some yawn at the mention of constitutional reform – an interest for the arcane, the academic and the pompous. But research and practice (see for example Norman Strauss) shows that the constitution of any organization determines its long term success and performance. Very occasionally exceptional leaders are the exception, for good or ill (Churchill or Hitler) but, usually, the capability of the people who happen to occupy high office is secondary to the quality of the system in which they work. Constitutions matter more than most of us ever see.

A constitution for climate chaos would give greater weight to the long term than the short; would provide for representation of sustainability, of itself, in the legislature and in government; would encourage more talent with vision and leadership into government and into power; would eliminate the biases in the application of power secured by businesses, industries and trade unions; and would engage citizens and consumers systematically in understanding climate change and in the decisions needed to limit it.

The constitution we have results in the short term dominating the long – “a week is a long time in politics” (Harold Wilson, 1964, attributed). The first past the post system and the control of the upper house by the two, and now three, main political parties prevents any representation of climate change as a primary political force. Such are the barriers to gaining a seat that the pool of talent from which MPs is drawn is very small. The pool of talent available for advising and administering government and running some public services is limited by the civil service monopoly. The domination of party funding by business and industry means their interests are disproportionately felt in government decision-making at the expense of all other interests, and to the diminution of democracy. The trade union influence has a disproportionate, albeit smaller, influence. The Department of Transport has largely been captured by the airline and road industries. The Treasury is owned by conventional growth economics. The domination of the cyclical, ballot-box, political party representative form of democracy has left decision-specific and participatory democracy largely in the cold in the UK, and has contributed to the lack of personal responsibility taken by the public for much of society’s workings, including climate chaos.

The constitution we have is inadequate in nearly every respect to stand a chance of minimizing climate chaos and its effects. A new constitution is essential, as described below.

A “third house” or Congress For The Future would become part of our Parliament. The congress is as a way of giving adequate attention to the long-term in what has become an overwhelmingly short-term political world. The Congress would be convened by Parliament every year, bringing together citizens and experts to debate, scrutinize and pronounce on one or more long term issues.  It would generate a sense of collective responsibility on issues that cannot be solved by government alone, and would act as a counterweight to short term and sometimes media inspired ‘something must be done’ quick fixes.Without such a mechanism, is there any way the UK will tackle successfully climate chaos?

The status of the Congress for the Future would set by statute as part of the governance of the UK, ensuring it has real clout and independence. Its agenda would be set by public concern via petition or opinion poll, and/or through the Houses of Commons and Lords. It would use the media and internet to reach beyond the standard policy community to build national awareness and interest in the topics under investigation. To raise the quality of its conclusions and decisions, the Congress would use deliberative debate, going beyond traditional protests, lobbies, consultation and market research to research, debate and resolve contentious issues.

The Congress for the Future would not cut through established representative democracy, but would strengthen it. Constitutional change shows that appropriate changes to decision-making powers and the redistribution of power, can strengthen the effect and legitimacy of representative democracy. Recent examples have included the House of Lords reform, devolution to Scotland, Wales and London, the Monetary Policy Committee and the Office of National Statistics.

Proportional representation would be introduced which would allow sustainable and green politics to have an adequate voice in parliament and in government. PR would also end the duopoly of governing parties, open up competition, and, thus, improve the quality of political parties and government.

PR would also, to an extent, open up the Commons to a wider range of people. But becoming an MP needs to be easier and to be attractive to many more people with vision, judgment and management capability. Primaries should help. Pay should not be an obstacle. What else would widen the net? At the same time, MPs must be trained, not for the odd day, but of the order of a 1 month induction followed by 1 week every 6 months.

State and limited individual funding of political parties would eliminate the inevitable business and industry pressures experienced by parties and the distortions in policy and decisions.

The civil service monopoly would be ended and the government of the day would be free to appoint the experts and specialists it needs to deliver the climate change targets and related manifesto commitments. On election, Barack Obama appointed 300 foreign policy specialists to advise him on every region and hotspot of the world. He followed a similar course in bringing together motivated specialists for each of his priorities. Sounds sensible? How else would you deliver a democratic mandate in a complex world? Over here, it is branded ‘politicisation’ by our news media. This spin originates from the First Division Association, the trade union/professional association for senior civil servants.

Representative democracy is taken, without question, to be part of our constitution. Decision-specific and participatory democracy should take an equal place. Beating climate chaos will depend on the active commitment and change of lifestyles of most people. Short of a cataclysmic climate event, the most likely route to securing commitment is through the engagement and deliberation of people with the problem and its solution. Engagement builds the motivation of communities to own and solve a wide set of problems. Engagement is where community responsibility started long ago. Representation is where community responsibility got lost.

For many decisions directly or indirectly about carbon emissions – high street remodelling, a planning decision, or a flood defence scheme – under representative democracy, the statutory organization looks at options, may do some consultation, reaches a decision, announces it publicly and holds its breath. Often, the stakeholders of various shapes react, and the management go into defence mode. Sometimes, the decision is forced through, sometimes dropped and sometimes the battle wages for years. Defending is a high cost and time-consuming process. Decide-Announce-Defend : DAD.

EDD is the alternative: Engage-Deliberate-Decide. It needs writing into our constitution as the usual way of taking contentious decisions. The problem is not taken away from the public for analysis and decision by policy makers, managements and politicians, but left with them. After all, it is the public who will live with the trade-offs between service and tax, they who will live with the solution, and they who will make it work by being committed to it. The final decision may remain with the responsible body, but now informed and shaped.

The beginning of such an approach can be found in the Aarhus convention adopted by the EU in 2003, which gives the public a right to information on environmental matters and to make comments on proposed decisions. Although moving in the right direction, it is still fundamentally DAD.

Time will tell whether the coalition will activate its substantial constitutional reform objective, as new labour did early in office. In any event, the time is upon us to get our constitution into shape to run a 21st century country and to combat climate chaos effectively.

Ed Straw  2010

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