Chapter Eleven

Democracy in Action

"Institutions are like fortresses. They must be well designed and properly manned."
Popper: P.H., 66

Our political life is still to a large extent on the wrong track to which Plato switched it more than two thousand years ago. Questions like proportional representation, how party leaders should be appointed or elected, and how parliamentary candidates should be selected - all these are questions of who should rule, while the question is largely neglected as to how should these representatives once chosen, by whatever means, be controlled, and how shall the will of the governed be brought to bear on them, and through them on the permanent agents of government.

That this is the important question is illustrated by Leslie Chapman in his fascinating exposure of the civil service, Your Disobedient Servant. In the Southern Region of the Ministry of Public Works and Buildings (later the Property Service Agency, PSA), which he controlled, he had achieved (with the agreement of the unions and all concerned) economies of the order of thirty per cent in annual expenditure without reduction of service, simply by eliminating waste. Had the people known what he was doing there can be little doubt that it would have been their will that he should succeed in his attempt to persuade the other regions of the Department to follow suit. For the economies amounted to such things as that store-houses which were empty or contained only barbed wire should no longer be heated. One technician was awarded £1,000 for a money-saving suggestion. It was `Nothing very sophisticated. Nothing very revolutionary. The -gas cookers in the mess kitchens are in future to be turned off when not in use!' It would save £40,000 a year.

The responsible Labour Minister did know and did order that Chapman's methods should be adopted elsewhere; but his orders were not carried out. Then came the general election of 1970. The people chose a new government and so a new minister. He too quickly became an enthusiastic champion of Chapman's methods; he too ordered that the example should be followed in the rest of the country; and he too was disobeyed. Now we are engaged in another great round of public expenditure cuts, threatening our schools, hospitals, theatres, and much else that we value; but no doubt the barbed wire in the government store-houses will still be kept warm in the winter.

The power of the people to oust the government is, as Popper so rightly says, the most important power and certainly not to be disparaged. But can we not devise something a little less drastic? I want to point to two existing institutions as a model of how, without radical upheaval, or revolution, we might achieve a kind of plastic control of government at all levels by the governed, by this I mean a control that differs from absolute control as a red traffic light differs from a solid road block. But before I give what seem to me to be the right examples I want to touch on two other current suggestions by way of comparison.

A move in a totally wrong direction is the current tendency to set up non-elected bodies over the heads of elected ones. For example a `working group' chaired by Mr Gordon Oakes, at that time Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science, proposed the establishment of a national body to oversee generally the development of maintained higher education including the allocation of funds for current expenditure. The body would, in the usual way of these things, have `representatives' from county councils etc.; but it would in effect, as Tyrrell Burgess (1978) pointed out, control the local education authorities and usurp the Secretary of State's authority, while itself being answerable to nobody and quite out of reach of attack by any member of the public who may not like what it decides. Representatives from local authorities all over the country who meet occasionally in such a body are absolutely powerless against the permanent staff, largely because they do not know each other and have no opportunity to organise themselves in unison. What sort of people are they who devise solutions of this sort, solutions, as Burgess put it, in search of a problem, when the crying need is for a strengthening of the almost non-existent control of the electorate over the L. E.A.s and of Parliament over the D.E.S.?

To many people government by referendum seems to be the ultimate in democracy. Let the people decide every major issue. That must be to their advantage. Mrs Thatcher, before she became Prime Minister, toyed with this idea; but it is a bad one for two main reasons. The first is that the questions of government are usually not of the yes-no kind. Capital punishment is a subject, above all others perhaps, which many people think should be decided by referendum. Mr Albert Pierrepoint, the former official executioner, made my point well when he said: `The trouble with the (death) sentence has always been that nobody wanted it for everybody, but everybody differed about who should get off.' The best solution to a problem is so often of the kind that I have called lying at right-angles to the yes-no axis. Secondly rational decisions can only be taken in the light of the fullest information. It is simply not possible for the whole electorate to be fully informed on any issue. They must delegate their decision-making to representatives who make it their business to be fully informed; but these representatives do need to be controlled, or tamed, as Popper put it.

Local government

In putting forward my positive suggestions I first draw attention to the important differences between the organisation and functioning of local and central government. I shall use as example the district council of which I am myself a member. The council consists of forty-eight elected members who, like M.P.s, are representatives, not delegates. The work of the council is done by a policy committee and seven `programme' committees, each with its own field of responsibility, e. g. finance, housing, etc. Each programme committee consists of fourteen elected members. Nine, including the chairman and vice-chairman, are members of the majority party. Four are from the minority party and there is one independent, these being the proportions of the parties in the council as a whole. At each meeting of, for example, the housing committee, there are also present round the table a number of the council's permanent professional staff - the officers. The Director of Housing is there and also a senior officer from each of the following departments: Treasurer's, Planning, Architect's, Estates (dealing with property values, sale of property etc.) Engineer's (roads, parking, sewers etc.) and Secretariat (law, precedent, administration etc.). In the Planning Committee, the Chief Planning Officer would be there in person, while the Director of Housing would normally send one of his staff.

Different authorities have different arrangements in respect of the policy committee. In our case it is chaired by the Leader of the Council, i.e. the leader of the majority party; and it consists of the chairmen of all the programme committees together with four representatives of the opposition. In other councils the opposition are not represented on it. It then functions more like the cabinet, and consists of the Leader, Deputy Leader and the chairmen and perhaps vice-chairmen of all the committees also. (There are important advantages from the point of view taken here, of the control of the rulers by the ruled, in the `anti-cabinet' system we have. The majority party can always get their way; but they are saved from a number of futile confrontations by being acquainted early on with the opposition's point of view; and sometimes they are not too, proud to accept it as better than their own.) The programme committees have certain powers delegated to them by the Council. Their decisions on these matters take effect at once. In others, ratification is required by the Council, which functions more like the House of Commons. There, the officers do not take part.

As in central government, the elected members, the amateurs, ultimately decide (with important reservations which I shall mention later) on each issue that comes before them. Only they can vote. Arguments both party political and otherwise can be given a full airing. But the advantages compared to the way that central government operates are these:

1. Each elected member acquires a kind of expertise in the fields of the two or three committees on which he serves.
2. Members of all parties, those in opposition as well as those in power, hear at first hand the advice of the professional officers and read their reports. They have opportunities both in committee and outside to question and cross-examine the officers on their advice (or any other relevant matter) as searchingly as they like.
3. There is continuity. If, as a result of an election, the opposition oust the party in power, the proportions on the committees change; but the new chairman of the housing committee, for example, will normally have been an opposition member of the old committee. He will know the ropes. He will be familiar with the powers of the committee and its obligation under the law. He will know the pros and cons of the controversial matters likely to come before the committee; and he will know the worth or otherwise of the officers who will advise him. Also he will have had a chance while in opposition to work out how the philosophy of his party can be best applied in the circumstances prevailing.
4. New chairmen are not hampered by anything remotely comparable with the absurd restriction placed on new ministers in that they are denied access to their predecessors' papers and plans. The effect of this (and probably the purpose) is that each minister begins from scratch, unaided by any progress made by this predecessor, in his efforts to gain control over his civil servants; and he tends to get moved on before he has begun to achieve it. He is denied the means of learning from previous mistakes. `The rule is applied', Chapman points out, even when, as in his case, `the different (Conservative) administration were following identical policies and giving identical instructions.' He, as a civil servant, was not permitted to tell the new Conservative minister that his Labour predecessor had given identical instructions - for the following up of his (Chapman's) successful elimination of waste - and that the instructions had not been carried out.
5 The elected members have real power over the permanent officials, largely because in the committees where the decisions are taken they outnumber them. The new chairman, supported as he is by a majority of the committee, should be able without much difficulty to carry out the changes of policy which he has decided upon. The corresponding impotence, sometimes, of ministers is well documented. I have already mentioned Mr Callaghan's inability to get an obvious reform adopted by his own .department, when he was Home Secretary, until a chief official had been moved on. Mrs Barbara Castle described, while out of office, the difficulties of an inexperienced minister, unsupported as she must be by her political colleagues and surrounded by obsequious civil servants, who say `Yes, Minister' but are none the less determined to carry on as before. She alone, single-handed, had to try to impose her will and make them switch courses, although she herself must have carried the handicap (which she did not mention in her article) of not really knowing whether what she was trying to persuade them to do was practicable. It is well known how, in the first world war, Lloyd George, even when Prime Minister, was unable to get rid of Haig. Very much with this experience in mind, Churchill, at the very beginning of his administration in 1940, made a small change which `subject to the support of the War Cabinet and the House of Commons' made him undisputed master in his own house. `The key change on my taking over', he recorded, `was the supervision and direction of the Chiefs of Staffs Committee by a Minister of Defence with undefined powers. As the Minister of Defence was the Prime Minister, he had all the rights inherent in that office, including very wide powers of selection and removal of all professional and political personages.' The machinery as well as the men are important. In this connection of the control of officials I remind the reader of the example on page 117 of the civil servants touring the country preaching a doctrine which was contrary to the policy of the government of the day, something that local officers could never get away with.

Central and local government compared

Thus the position of the new Housing Chairman contrasts very favourably with the position of the corresponding new Housing Minister in a new government. It is clear from his diaries that in his case Richard Crossman knew nothing about the practical problems faced by his department when he took office in 1964, because he had been ‘shadowing' education, and knew nothing about the way the department functioned or the qualities of its staff. Furthermore he was lumbered, as most new ministers are, with election promises made in ignorance of the facts which gradually confronted him in office. His overall ignorance coupled with his need to appear to be pursuing election ‘targets' with all vigour prevented him from interfering, as he might otherwise have done, with the accelerating conversion of the major cities into wastelands or oblongs of reinforced concrete, the at-a-stroke, gimmicky, industrialised building solution to ‘the housing problem', resorted to by his predecessors, with such appalling aesthetic and social consequences, not to mention expense, for almost every large town in the country.

It is important to emphasise that the inherent continuity of local government, even where there is a change of political control, does not exclude a change of policy. What it does is to make it more likely that such a change will be rational and practicable, and within the bounds of available finance etc. Nottingham's transport policy is a good example of this. The change of control brought about by the municipal election of 1971 resulted in the discontinuation of a multi-million pound urban motorway scheme and its very successful replacement by a system of bus priorities and car control. (Successful, at least until a further change of political control began to undermine its basis.)

Perhaps the most important advantage of the organisation of District Councils is that all members - those in opposition as well as those in the ruling party - are entitled to know what is going on and to see all letters and reports in which they may be interested. This does not prevent individuals from engaging in corrupt practices; but it does effectively prevent the whole council from pursuing a corrupt, illegal, or hypocritical policy. Nothing like the Rhodesian oil sanctions charade could be undertaken by a district council, because the opposition would expose it. .Clearly that twelve-year farce would have been prevented had, say, the shadow cabinet been provided with the same information as ministers. Criticism is the key; but it must be informed criticism. Plenty of people criticised many aspects of the sanctions case; but they were all denied the necessary information which would have made their criticism effective.

Why then does not local government work better than it does? I suggest that there are three main reasons. The first is that there is still no proper link of control and information between the electors and the elected councillors. The electors can throw out their councillor at an election but they cannot control him. Councillors can still get away with supporting schemes that are unrealistic, unpopular, and irrelevant to real needs. Especially is this so in the many local councils where one political party has an almost permanent large majority. The second reason is that it is very difficult for the amateur councillors to get alternative professional advice, alternative that is to that of their officers, who like all professionals, are sometimes wrong but unlike other professionals tend not to disagree enough among themselves. They tend to adopt something of a `party line'.

These two reasons are linked-by the great importance of face-saving. Perhaps it is not surprising that the attitude which Popper persuaded Eccles to adopt in regard to his biological theory which looked like becoming untenable (page 21) has not yet become the norm in local (or central) government. If we have proposed a plan, then it must be right; and no second thoughts, new facts, or new attitudes can be admitted without loss of face. And face is the one thing above all others that must be preserved. If only we could be committed to solving problems rather than to particular solutions!

The third reason is the interference by a central government administration which is ignorant of local conditions and tends to oscillate between one policy and priority and another. In the late 1970s governments of both parties have improved in this respect; but here is the experience concerning housing finance of my own council, not so long ago, in eight months of 1975 to 1976. First of all Whitehall assured us that there would continue to be priority for housing and especially for the improvement of old property. We submit our estimate for the amount we intend to spend in the year ahead on improving old property newly acquired or yet to be acquired by the Council: £950,000. Some months later when we have already spent or allocated £300,000 of this sum, we are told that our allocation has been cut to £350,000; and the reason given for the cut is that available funds must be diverted from less essential matters to where the money can do most good. Among such areas are listed the improvement of old property newly acquired - precisely where our £950,000 was going to be spent. After protest, and pointing out the contradiction, we are given an immediate £70,000 with a hint of possibly more to come. After more argument this is raised to give a final figure of £610,000.

No organisation, however potentially efficient, can function under this kind of harassment. Central government abetted by the media, has always cast local government in a light of ridicule. Local councillors are invariably portrayed as self-seeking, self-important, incompetent figures of fun. Although twenty years before, Grossman had had several years experience as a local councillor, when, in 1964 he was appointed Minister of Housing and Local Government, he took so little interest in the second part of his job that in his first diary entry he describes himself just as Minister of Housing. (And his literary executors carried on this disregard for local government by leaving it out of the title of the first volume.) M.P.s have patronised the councils in their constituencies, often without any attempt to find out how they work; and civil servants have usually regarded as a lesser breed of men their counterpart officers in local government. But the latter have, from the point of view of the public, a great advantage. They are comparatively permanent.

Professor David Henderson, in his analysis of the reasons for bad civil service advice, blamed the anonymity of that advice and the continual shifting of civil servants from one department to another. It is always the department's advice. The individual civil servant responsible has most likely moved on elsewhere by the time the consequences are apparent. `Not only may it not matter much for your career whether or not you were right, but few will ever know.' `The Unimportance of Being Right' was the title of Henderson's talks. Whether or not a civil servant is often right is not a factor, Henderson found, in the speed of his promotion. Interestingly enough, in this connection, R. V. Jones said (in his Most Secret War), apropos of his having offended certain senior officers by his outspoken criticism of them, `Nevertheless I survived because war is different from peace; in the latter fallacies can be covered up more or less indefinitely and criticism suppressed, but with the swift action of war the truth comes fairly quickly to light.' And then he quoted Churchill's aphorism: `In war you don't have to be polite, you just have to be right.'

I am not implying that local government is satisfactory, only that the bones of the system are potentially more capable than those of central government of adaptation to one where government by the people for the people can be carried on. Although, as I have said, councillors are fairly well able to control the officers in the sense of ensuring that they carry out decisions taken at meetings, there is a whole range of matters which never get raised in public. The agenda of committees and councils is to a large extent fixed by the officers; and they tend to bring matters on which they want decisions which are often not the matters on which the councillors would like the searchlight turned. There is also the technique described by Robert Heller (page 3) and its converse - that is, the under-estimating of the costs of schemes the officers favour and the over-estimating of those they do not. Where decisions are required by elected members the situation has too often been manipulated in advance so as to reduce the number of options or to reverse the logical order of things. Left to ourselves, we would never have' found ourselves having to make the choice which we are asked to make.

As an example, I cite again the Cumberland Road fiasco in Portsmouth. The Housing Committee were required to decide what to do about the houses blighted by the road scheme before the details of that scheme had been fully worked out, before planning permission for it had been applied for, and long before the obligatory public inquiry could be held. So those councillors who are against the road had to choose between demolition of the houses now, to make way for a road that might never be built, or spending money on them now with the prospect that they might have to come down in a year or two for the road.

Councillors, and I imagine ministers, are constantly put like this into the position of the proverbial Irishman who, when asked the way to Dublin, replied that if he were going to Dublin he would not start from here.

Elected members are swamped by more reports than they can possibly read. This has the effect of keeping them quiet for fear of being accused of `not having done their homework' should they raise some matter on which they are imperfectly informed. However, when occasion demands that the mountains of paper be carefully examined it is not at all unusual to find them faulty. Crossman remarked: `Once a so-called fact gets into the system it's almost impossible to prove that it's wrong or out of date and should be dropped.' In Portsmouth we have one of these `so-called facts'. It is a statistic that appeared in a housing survey of 1966 that 57 per cent of the total housing stock was then pre-1914. The same figure appeared as the present position in a report to the Council in 1977 although, after a decade of redevelopment a 1976 survey had shown the proportion then to be 43 per cent. Was the overlooking of the 1976 survey from the October 1977 report gross carelessness, or was it a subtle means of influencing, even of frightening, councillors in favour of more demolition? And all the time we are being subtly brain-washed into the assumption that if the proportion of old houses is high, that is a disadvatage. A lot could be said for the view that we are lucky to have such a lot of Victorian and Edwardian houses.'

Residents' Committees

The second institution which I want to propose, as a model for what could be, is something quite new and still evolving. The miseries and failures associated with the total clearance policies of the 1950s and the 1960s led to policies of conservation and refurbishing. Under the Housing Act of 1969, General Improvement Areas (G.I.A.s) have been declared in most old towns. They are areas of (usually) Victorian houses which, fifteen years ago, would have been scheduled without question for demolition. Each G.I.A. normally contains between 500 and 800 houses. It is a predominantly residential area free of plans for major redevelopment - motorways, shopping centres etc. There are two quite separate prongs to the carrying out of the improvement work. The first is the improvement and modernisation of the houses themselves. It is the second prong that concerns me here.

Money is available from central government for what are called environmental improvements for the area. These are such things as planting of trees and shrubs, renewing pavements, provision of playgrounds, community centres etc., removal of `non-conforming users' which may be factories which cause a nuisance in the area, road closures and other measures to prevent the use of residential roads as `dodge runs' for through traffic.

Each G.I.A. has a committeee, composed of from one to three volunteers from each street. The committee, having canvassed their own streets and in consultation with the elected ward councillors and appropriate council officers, decide on a plan for these environmental improvements. Once a year there is a meeting to which all the residents of the area are invited. They may then give their blessing to what their committee has proposed or air their criticisms of it. It is worth noting that at these meetings, the ward councillors of whatever party, are confronted by the public of all parties or none. This is something which does not happen regularly to M.P.s.

In Portsmouth we have evolved rapidly from having the officers putting up a plan to the Residents' Commitee - and meeting there a deal of hostility - to a cooperative system whereby the officers merely indicate what could be done and the residents of the area, through this committee of street representatives, really do control what is done. This immediately eliminates the main cause of the adoption of silly plans, namely face-saving. Under this sytem there are no faces to be saved. No matter what the officers think should be done, it is not done if it does not please the residents' committee, and on at least one occasion a plan agreed by such a committee has had to be changed when a full meeting of residents refused to endorse it.

That particular plan was a road scheme which had been set about perfectly rationally. Everybody knew what the problem was. It was to divert, as far as possible, on to main roads the traffic dodging through the area, without making it too difficult for residents to use their own cars. From the start it was realised that there was no perfect solution, and that any plan would have snags and might well increase traffic in some of the streets which at the time had little. Repeated meetings over three years of the G.I.A. committees, and occasional meetings of the City Council's Transportation Committee, and of all the residents concerned, resulted in an experimental plan being tried out and then a modification of that plan in an attempt to iron out snags, partly foreseen and partly not. It has been a satisfactory demonstration of Popperian principle in practice, contrasting starkly with the solutioneering of the larger and infinitely more expensive road schemes I have described elsewhere. It has been successful in eliminating the `dodge-runners', though less successful in fairly distributing the internal traffic that has to go somewhere. It is not perfect but it has greatly relieved the suffering of those who were previously tormented by traffic. Without any new construction - merely by making some streets one-way and blocking others - we have made the best of what we have.

We have also achieved an atmosphere in which opinions can be changed in the light of knowledge. Because of the high camber of the old streets and the comparatively low damp courses in the houses bordering them, it has been necessary in some cases, when relaying the pavements, to tilt them towards the houses. Residents' representatives have gone into the meetings vowing that they would not have these new-fangled pavements in their street. But the City Engineer's representative came prepared with large clear diagrams illustrating his problem and the alternative solutions. Animosity and opposition evaporated. It was agreed that he should proceed as he thought best.

We have achieved with these committees a degree of the plastic control I mentioned at the beginning of this chapter. Public participation in planning has until recently been little more than a bad joke. A Guardian cartoon summed it up by `And now for something entirely different - two years of debate preceded by the decision'. But in our G.I.A.s a tradition has now been established whereby, although the Council retain the power to override the residents' wishes, they will not do so lightly. They need to have compelling reasons (e.g. that what the residents' want is against the law) which will have to be justified to the residents. The necessity for justification in public is the best way there is for ensuring that at least things will not be done for silly or utterly spurious reasons, as so often they have been in the recent past.

These two examples, showing that at local level there are institutions for the control of government by the governed, contrast with the state of affairs at national level.

Tentative suggestions

My own tentative suggestion is that what are needed to tame the rulers at all levels are layers of overlapping loops of information and control, modelled on what is already in being. Central government would be gradually reshaped in the direction of the present organisation of the district councils (county councils are even less under control than is central government); and the idea of the G.I.A. residents' committees would be extended. The aim is to achieve informed criticism at all levels enabling information to go both ways - from the governed to the government and vice versa, so that each has some measure of control over the other. We then have to establish these important social traditions, where control is only plastic and not rigid, that the will of the ruled will not be lightly overruled.

Probably also we need new institutions to cope with certain technical problems whose complexity prevents their adequate scrutiny by the ordinary committee of lay M.P.s, civil servants, or ministers.

One of the greatest unchecked controls seems to be that exercised by the Treasury over other government departments and over the economy as a whole. At present there are at least three, to some extent contradictory, theories as to the proper direction for the British economy. The Treasury view, in line with the I.M.F. is broadly that everything depends on holding down public expenditure. The keynote of the `Cambridge policy' however is expansion of the economy combined with a fixing of the level of manufactured imports. A third view, is that of Dr Jeremy Bray M.P. who, using the same model of the economy as the Treasury, comes to very different conclusions. His suggested combination of devaluation, substantial tax changes, and increases of public expenditure would, he estimates, greatly increase employment and result in a large favourable balance of payments by 1983/4.

The matter is as important as any that ever comes before Parliament yet it is too technical for it. We need a special institution, a kind of economic forum, where the protagonists can criticise each other in front of an informed audience. The steering of the right economic course is of such importance that it must be justified in public so that it can be seen that science rather than orthodoxy or face-saving has prevailed. It needs to be demonstrated to the lay public that due weight has been given to facts, such as unemployment, and not too much to intangible artefacts like monthly trade figures and relative percentage changes in gross national product (G.N.P.). The danger of such semi-myths is illustrated by the publication just before the general election of 1970 of a £31 million trade deficit for May of that year. It was widely believed at 'the time that this tipped the scales against Labour; and the feeling that this was an unfair influence was reinforced by the revision of the figures at the end of that year to show a May deficit of only £12 million. The treacherous nature of the myth is emphasised by the twist in the tail: the latest revision of the figures shows a deficit of £36 million for that May! (New Society, 3 August 1978, p. 245).

Similarly the Gross National Product (popularly equated with national standard of living) not only ignores, necessarily, the `black' economy which has been estimated to run into thousands of millions of pounds (and perhaps explains the fact that we do not appear to be as poor in comparison with, say, the French as the experts tell us we are) but does include such things as production of cigarettes and operations for lung cancer. So that a successful anti-smoking campaign would reduce the G.N.P. in two ways.

In the Conservative party power to decide a policy is kept firmly in the hands of the leader and is not devolved, for the very real fear that the `backwoodsmen', would take over. In the Labour Party power is vested in the annual party conference and, in theory, policy is there decided by the party activists who are not in fact the same as the `grass roots' in whose name everything is supposed to be done. As is well known, when the party is in power, the conference is in fact unable to control the government., Genuine devolution in either of the two main parties would undoubtedly result in the adoption of `extremist' policies which would in no way reflect the wishes of the people as a whole. What I have in mind avoids this difficulty. The series of loops that I suggest between people and both local and central government would be on specific practical issues. The planning of the G.I.A.s is one. The running of the local authority schools might be another. The extremist difficulty would be overcome in three ways. 1) As in the G.I.A.s, the statutory authority would not in any way give up its power to override: 2) people of all political persuasions would be entitled to attend, so that extremist elements would to some extent cancel out; and 3) the practical nature of the agenda would attract, more than do meetings of political parties, those who are interested in practical solutions to problems; and such people tend not to be extremists.

Divisions must be recognised, not smothered. There are bound to be differences of outlook and interest between, for example shopfloor workers and managers and directors. What is required is that there shall be communication between them and some measure of plastic control of each over the other. It is no more good putting shopfloor workers on the board than it would be to put ratepayers in the cabinet.

I do not at all mean to imply that disagreements occur only between the rulers and the ruled and do not arise between different groups or individuals among the governed. But my experience is that if public meetings of the kind I advocate are held, either regularly as an institution or even on an ad hoc basis for a particular problem, then there is a good chance of one of these consequences: 1) Agreement is reached when (a) protagonists of the scheme see how damaging their proposals are to other people, or (b) when objectors realise the reverse - namely how vital the proposals are to the proposers and how comparatively trivial are what they had imagined to be the insuperable snags. 2) Disagreement among the people concerned is so obvious and irreconcilable that, by mutual consent, it is left to the Council to decide.

As an example of (2): a public meeting was held in Portsmouth to air the question of whether to convert a shopping street completely to pedestrian use or whether to leave it as it is at present with buses but no other traffic. The Council's officers and the bus men explained the pros and cons and were questioned by the public. It was obvious that those present were more or less evenly divided between the two possible courses of action. In these circumstances the people were content, I think, for the Council to decide. What had been a heated dispute was disarmed when it was generally recognised that there were good arguments on both sides.

Politicians and newspapers tend to exaggerate the divisions among the people or at any rate to assume that they lie along political party lines, rich or poor, employers and employed, `capitalists' and workers, etc. In real life partisanship is often much more complicated. Nevertheless division along lines is not to be despised. The benefits it confers become obvious when it is lacking. No party took up the cause against either comprehensive redevelopment, urban motorways, or high-rise prefabricated flats. All these disastrous decisions went through on the nod. The great advantage of opposition is that it forces the airing of the issues with the result that the decision, even if not reversed, is greatly modified in the light of criticism. Popper refers to a generally “overoptimistic expectation concerning the outcome of a discussion; the expectation that every fruitful discussion should lead to a decisive and deserved intellectual victory of the truth, represented by one party, overfalsity, represented by the other. When it is found that this is not what a discussion usually achieves, disappointment turns an overoptimistic expectation into a general pessimism concerning the value of discussions. ('The myth of the framework')”

In conclusion, it obviously detracts from the benefits of having elected representative government if the elected representatives find themselves unable to govern. I have quoted Crossman and Chapman on the subject, and there is plenty of other evidence to the effect that this does happen, that ministers are frequently unable to control their officials. I have described the mechanism of local (district) government in order to demonstrate that it is possible to devise institutions that give the elected rulers effective power, while they themselves are to some extent controlled. `Institutions are like fortresses', wrote Popper. 'They must be well designed and properly manned.' We have tended to concentrate on the manning to the exclusion of the designing. The particular suggestions made in this chapter are advanced in the spirit of the 'bold conjecture' which is then open to attempts to refute it.

To sum up then, my suggestion is that we need at all levels to improve our institutions, and where necessary invent new ones, designed to make possible two-way exchange of information and control - between the public and their elected representatives, between councillors and MPs and their permanent officials, and between the various branches of commerce and industry: manual and office workers, management and providers of capital, and the public for whose benefit the enterprises exist. This must be done, not as a sop to tiresome agitators, but in the realisation that at no level is there a monopoly of knowledge. Each level has its own special kind of knowledge which is necessary to the 'wise wielding of power'.

Chapter Ten           Chapter Twelve

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