John Ashton: We have too little democracy in the UK

Political expediency and commercial opportunism driving fossil fuel exploration, says UK’s former chief climate diplomat

Source: Flickr/Little02

Source: Flickr/Little02

By John Ashton 

Trust is what binds society together. When trust leaks away, society becomes fragile.

In Britain today, there is less trust than there has been at any point in my lifetime.

My son’s generation does not trust my generation to make the choices necessary to offer them the relative security and prosperity we have enjoyed.

Those who live far from London do not trust those in the capital pulling the levers of power to do so in the interests of the whole country rather than the interests of the metropolis and its inhabitants.

They do not accept that what is good for London is automatically good for Britain.

The people do not trust the elite (if you will forgive such an imprecise and loaded word. Any faint odour of Jacobinism is unintended).

Members of the elite have public responsibilities by virtue of the privileges they enjoy – not everyone gets invited to dinner in the Mansion House – and because their choices inevitably have the biggest impact on the public interest.

The people suspect – and who can deny that events here in the Square Mile (albeit not only here) have fuelled this suspicion – that our elites increasingly give too much priority to their private interests, and accept too little accountability for any damaging public consequences of their choices even when these are exposed in broad daylight.

Many of you may feel frustrated by how difficult it has become to open the path to investment in high profile infrastructure in Britain today. I hear it said from time to time that this is because we have too much democracy. Because we give the people too much say.

In truth, the problem is that we have too little democracy.

Democracy cannot work if there is no trust, and if those in authority manipulate its institutions and processes to secure outcomes that suit them politically or commercially without establishing the case that those outcomes are also in the public interest.

Eventually you end up with the forms of democracy but not the living substance. Zombie democracy you could call it.

Most people are perfectly willing to make sacrifices if they are genuinely in the public interest.

But if the public interest has not been credibly established, they will defend themselves and their communities from harm with all the tenacity that has since our emergence as a nation been is one of defining virtues of freeborn men and women in our country.

No public interest case has for example been made to justify fracking for shale gas in Britain.

How could it be, when our true interest lies in escaping our carbon dependency not locking ourselves further into it, and the economic rewards of doing so are much more attractive than those of trying to squeeze the Texas model into our crowded country?

What we have actually seen with fracking is a shady mixture of political expediency and commercial opportunism hastily camouflaged as public interest.

The communities in the frontline are wise to this. That is why they will oppose it implacably – and, in the end, successfully. To write this off as nimbyism would be a serious error.

This morning [sic] members of Lancashire’s planning committee resoundingly kicked out an application for what would have been the most ambitious fracking operation so far conducted in Britain, near Blackpool.

It was a just decision, a wise decision, and it shows there is thankfully a good deal of life left in our democratic institutions.

The economic transformation I have called for will itself require a whole river of new investment.

But it will not flow unless we can repair our democracy by renewing the trust that binds us together.

John Ashton was the UK’s Special Representative for Climate Change between 2006 – 2012. This is an excerpt of a speech he gave on June 29 to the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors. Read the full version here.

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