Democracy should never be taken for granted : 3rd December 2008

When Mrs. Thatcher first became Prime Minister in 1979, her government was faced with a number of issues which were of great public concern. One of these concerned the way local democracy had become perverted into something else.


What was happening was that Councils up and down the country, mainly (but not exclusively) Labour controlled, had in effect become single party mini-republics. Council committees were filled with members of the controlling group, and in many cases, there were no opposition councillors on committees. The purpose was to marginalise and enervate the opposition.


Mrs. Thatcher’s government decided to do something about this: a law was enacted which required all committees to be politically proportionate, so that every political group was fairly represented on every committee. The purpose was to make Councils fully accountable to the voters.


This did not suit New Labour. They invented a “cabinet” or “executive” system, which most Councils were required to adopt by law. Under this system, the ruling group forms a cabinet which can have absolute delegated power to make decisions, Kremlin-style, on behalf of the whole council. In a big council, the cabinet is divided into committees, and  so what we have arrived at is exactly the same undemocratic, absolute, autocratic rule by single parties as we had before Mrs. Thatcher became Prime Minister – only this time sanctioned and even  made compulsory by law.

Fortunately, Ryedale is one of a few Councils which does not have to have a “cabinet” style administration, and so far Ryedale has kept its committee system. The essence of this is that every decision made by a committee can be questioned by any member in full council. That way every member is involved in decision making, regardless of their position on the Council.  It is a system which has worked well in Ryedale since 1974, and made Ryedale one of the best district councils in the country in the days before the 1997 reorganisation.


This system has been questioned and the first steps have already been taken down the road towards New Labour executive-style autocracy. From now on, most decisions made by Committees will not be capable of being overturned in full council. This change to the constitution was supposed to make Ryedale more efficient. It turned out, during the course of the debate, that the decision of the Council to spend over £200,000 on refurbishing the Council Chamber was one of the decisions that will now be beyond challenge at full council. Efficiency indeed!


Historically, democracy is not the norm and should never be taken for granted. People who don’t like democracy will always say democracy is inefficient. How many democracies have been overthrown by kings and dictators who have used that argument!


This whole debate brings to mind my two favourite political quotations. The first is by Andrew Jackson, the seventh President of the United States: “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance”. The second is by Winston Churchill, who said: “It is said that democracy is the worst form of government – except all others that have been tried.”


To some, this may seem a boring, academic debate: just let them tell me that, the next time Ryedale tries to spring another unwanted and unpopular, surprise decision on an unwilling electorate!


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