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Rebel of Westminster, Conservative MP in Britain for Richmond Park and North Kensington and Director of the Ecologist Magazine, Zac Goldsmith is stepping out of line with his manifesto for a democratic system of government deserving of the name.
By Louisa Clarence-Smith
Westminster, London. The sweeping gothic façades of the Houses of Parliament rise up triumphant from the River Thames. Shielded from public view, Britain’s MPs scuttle from cloister, to office, to debating chamber, attending to the day’s duties, signing deals, plotting revolts and drawing up allegiances with a view to future elections.
A medieval setting, of Whips, Lords and Clerks, little understood by the British public and only loosely tied to the reality of the modern world.
In today’s open information society, the British parliamentary system, in which the power to make politicial decisions remains in the unaccountable hands of a few politicians whose positions the public have the chance to testify just twice a decade, seems startlingly outdated.
Corruption is repeatedly exposed by a well-informed media as MPs take liberties over expenses and the Conservative Party accepts cash from industrialists and tycoons in exchange for access and influence over Downing Street. Yet, as the British public loses faith in its government, behind the sculpted walls, little has changed.
However, in an interview last weekend with Deputy Editor Ian Katz of British newspaper The Guardian, MP Zac Goldsmith spoke out on the need to democratise our democracy. One month after Occupy London’s tent city with it’s model of open democratic assemblies was evicted from outside St Paul’s Cathedral; Goldsmith recognised the movement’s influence on raising his awareness of the democratic paradox. Parliament must reform, he argued, as a “pure, crude, organic democracy”.
Rebel of Parliament
According to Goldsmith, the concentration of national power is also evident within parliament, making it difficult for even MPs to influence policy-makers, in a system designed to financially reward those who toe the party line.
“If a backbench MP speaks out against a government decision, it is seen as an act of aggression. If he tables a minor amendment, it’s worse still. And if he votes against his party, it’s an act of career suicide.”
As a backbencher, (or MP who does not hold office in government or opposition), Goldsmith identifies his role in parliament as to “hold government to account, on behalf of my constituents”.
Promotion to a positon on the pay-roll would require a “political labotomy”, he explained. In other words, backbenchers have no incentive to speak out and unsettle those superiors who also hold the power to promote them.
Goldsmith gave up on the idea of promotion because he wants his voice, on behalf of his constituents, to be heard. And is thus content with his boxroom office in Westminster.
“If I’m not interested in being promoted, I can’t be controlled.”
Expelled from the prestigious Eton College for posession of marijuana (an accusation which he denies, though concedes as a “moment of innocence in an ocean of guilt”), Goldsmith, challenging his superiors today with his boyish face and light blonde hair, resembles an obstinant schoolboy once again at risk of expulsion.
Indeed, in the course of the interview he managed to throw a jibe at the Prime Minister, make a statement in support of the opposition, and threaten to relinquish his membership of the Conservative Party if they were to go back on their decision not to build a third runway at Heathrow Airport.
Questioned on his reaction to Prime Minister David Cameron renouncing his position as Climate Change minister for undermining the party line by voting No on the EU Referendum for Britain to cut it’s ties with Brussels, he shrugged, “I don’t need a position to do that. I’ll do it anyway.”
Starkly noncholant towards party loyalty, Goldsmith rises above political bullying and power-play. In the midst of a serious economic crisis, his rational step-by-step manual for reform proposes a restoration of balance; between social and environmental policies; and economic policy.
Manifesto for Change
In The Constant Economy, Goldsmith outlines a practical ten-point plan for dealing with the ‘democratic deficit’ of the UK. Underpinning parliamentary reform would be the institution of a “Recall” system, whereby a specified number of signatures on a petition would trigger a recall election so that an MP, at any point, could be held to account by constituents – a system which is already well-established in Switzerland, South America and some parts of Central America.
As part of his agenda for a Swiss model of “direct democracy”, “ballot initiatives, where new laws are proposed by citizens” and “popular referenda, in which existing laws can be challenged”, would also be introduced.
Where “the role of government should be to balance power”, we have reached a situation “where we have four supermarkets which are bigger than government”, he points out.
All of his policies come down to one key concept: localism. In the context of parliament reform, the decentralization of politics away from Downing Street and Brussels towards local communities on matters which will greatly affect them, would, he hopes, re-engage people with government and allow decisions to be made about local issues by those best-informed.
A decentralisation of power would have to be accompanied by greater anti-corruption monitoring at every level. Though he asserts that it is “not about quantity but quality of regulations.” In reference to the UK bank crisis of 2010 he points out that there were regulations, but they were “wrong regulations”.
He identifies the “marketplace” as “the most powerful force for change”. Green taxation, he argues, would discourage unsustainable practices in companies.The entire system need not be wiped out, but policy must be re-directed.
“Our politicians need to understand that reconciling the market with the environment is our defining challenge…By shifting taxes, removing perverse subsidies and creating clear signals, this will happen naturally. Opportunities will spring up, jobs will be created and we will enjoy the emergence of a truly constant economy…one that recognizes the inescapable link between nature and the economy, one that knows limits and can last.”
Given his professional history, you might expect Goldsmith to be another committed world-collapse doomsayer. He is an exponent of green issues and sustainability, but wisely disassociates himself with the radical element of environmentalism, which demands a choice between ecology and economy, and a total abolishment of the current system, whilst alienating the public with pessimistic forecasts.
Despite his youthful looks, he’s neither extreme nor radical, but reasonable and realistic; which is perhaps what has earned him such widespread appeal.
In a world where governments from the United States to China define themselves as “democracies”, we are losing sight of what it means to have a political system in which power is devolved to numerous voices.
As British sociologist, Professor Anthony Giddens explained, “a well-functioning democracy has been aptly compared to a three-legged stool. Government, the economy and civil society need to be in balance. If one dominates over the others, unfortunate consequences follow.” Goldsmith’s policies look to restore civic impact and sound economic thinking to political decision-making.
In a frustrating political era of empty promises and soundbites, where politics as a profession is banded with traffic wardens and tax collectors on the level of public contempt, Goldsmith offers a model for a new politician type. One more concerned with the interests of his constituents than with political manoeuvring.
Democracy as we might one day know it.
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