Anthony Seldon in the New Statesman “J’accuse” (29th March) says “the judiciary and the Civil Service need to be better representatives of British society today”. But it is unrealistic to think that any branch of government will ever be populated with people who represent the whole of society.
There is clear recognition of a lack of faces from ethnic minorities and women in the upper echelons of these institutions and efforts to change that may or may not be successful over time. Society also now appears to be taking the issue of social mobility and if equality of opportunity were to become the norm it would at least help those who with the necessary aptitude and desire. But nothing can be done that will ensure that the institutions Mr Seldon speaks of. By the nature of their success, judges and senior civil servants are part of the so-called “elite”. The high academic and performance standards required to progress, and the material rewards and social status that comes with that, mean that neither judges nor top civil servants will be representative of that part of the electorate that feels excluded and overlooked. People may nostalgically cling to the class of their birth, and write in their memoirs of their fond memories of a council estate childhood, but in most cases they deliberately left that behind. In any event, even if they were able to exercise their own conscience, and conscience is not a function of social origins, by and large they are servants of the state and are largely bound to do what politicians want.
The fair and just society that most people want will not be achieved by re-populating government institutions. We need to give a voice back to the people. For most people in the UK, their vote at the ballot box is of no consequence because they live in safe seats and the duopoly of Labour and Conservatives is not responsive to their views. Even local elections are more frequently fought along national party lines and based on national party politics. Where not in use already, a system of proportional representation needs to be introduced. The alternative vote, which the conservatives in the coalition government agreed as the basis of the 2011 referendum, was and is inadequate to accurately reflect public opinion, one of the reasons why they insisted on it (and then campaigned against it). Only proportional lists, such as in use in Germany, or multi-member constituencies with a Single Transferrable Vote, will do.
Second, for people to exercise their votes responsibly, they need to be properly informed. In the following article in the same edition of the New Statesman (“The humbling of Britain”) Martin Fletcher addresses all those who are responsible for the Brexit debacle we now face. They are on all sides of the political spectrum and most of those fingered deserve the opprobrium that they will probably avoid. But more than anyone, in my view, the media are accountable.
It is the media’s responsibility in a modern democracy to put their energies into informing the public. We expect politicians to be biased, devious and mendacious but they would be a lot less so if the media challenged and fact-checked instead of fanning the flames of prejudice and ignorance. So long as they continue to do the latter instead of the former, our democracy will be undermined. So long as politicians and governments are not held to account on a daily basis, not just once every 5 years, we won’t find the leaders of stature that Anthony Sheldon is asking for.