The un-elected head of State

More than 24 million people in the UK watched the royal wedding – maybe as many as 34 million watched at least a bit of it – according to the BBC. Which is pretty impressive, considering the moaning about it which we’ve endured for weeks. What with newspapers and TV being full of pant-wettingly excited build-up, and the same newspapers and TV also being filled with gloom about the cost, the waste, and the sheer effrontery of royalty in the first place, I for one am pretty glad it’s all over.

But not quite, because I want to revive it all one last time. Because today I want to talk about elections.

It’s not that long since voting was opened up to all and sundry. These days, even the biggest idiots – apparently even Daily Mail readers – are allowed to vote in general elections, local elections and the like. Far be it from me to rail against the basic human right to have at least a tiny say in how your society is run. It was hard-fought, and we owe a lot to the people who stood up for those rights and gained them for us in the first place.

But we do seem to be a bit election-crazy these days.

My concern, to come around to it early, is that elections cause certain behaviours which might not always be desirable. An example… If you tell a child that he can have a biscuit if he promises to be good for the rest of the day, you probably won’t be too surprised if 10 minutes after swallowing the last crumb the little angel has your favourite armchair upside down being used as a tent. It’s not a good example, but my point is that if you tell someone they can have a job as long as they promise to do popular activity X then they’re likely to say that activity X is their favourite thing after late-night raids on the fridge. They might even mean it.

Basically, elections set up an environment where people who want to achieve a particular office have to convince you that they’re worthy of it. Which is very different from them actually being worthy of it – although it’s possible to get both in one person-shaped package. Probably.

When choosing a new employee from a range of applicants, assuming the advertised job is desirable you’re likely to be able to delve deeply into their abilities, test them a little, and make a truly informed decision. Yet with elections, most of us tick the box of the person with the nicest face, the right age or sex, or most likely the right party (whose manifesto we will have read in detail, of course, and trust completely). We really have no idea who we’re voting for.

So if we’re choosing, based upon flawed criteria, people who so badly want the job that they will market themselves however they need to in order to get elected, is the current system of elections really so great?

I’d argue not, but it’s hard to envision a better system except random selection from the entire population. Which could be horrible. Imagine Graham Norton as Prime Minister – and he’s hardly the worst it could get. Yet whittling down the shortlist in any way that I can imagine would be unfair to talk-show-hosts, comics and idiots.

Which brings me to my real point. Un-elected representatives are not a bad thing. Really, they’re not. In fact, they’re the opposite of a bad thing.

Take our blushing bridegroom Prince William. He will one day be King, barring incident. He was born into the position, and people have been readying him for it all his life. If he was heading for top job, like kings of old, I’d say that it was pretty unfair. But he isn’t, he’s heading for a life of servitude – pretty grand servitude, but servitude nonetheless. His life is not truly his own, and never has been. I don’t envy him that role one tiny bit. Which is why being born into it is a good thing. He will have very little actual power, which will avoid the “power corrupts” problem. Instead, he will have a role of providing continuity. A steadying influence. A figurehead for the country to get behind. It really isn’t the same as a Presidency, and personally I’m glad of that.

Do we really want to have to elect a President? What would be our criteria for that? Oh yes, emotional impact from a bunch of speeches and some TV confrontations. What fun.

The  other bastion of un-electedness is of course the House of Lords. Aside from the people various governments infiltrate into this place as life peers, which I think is a disgrace (I’d rather see the viewers of Blue Peter select them, frankly), these are again people who have been born into a role. They individually have little power, but as a house do have significant impact by delaying or even overturning legislation which the Commons have put through. Often portrayed as posh idiots getting in the way of the business of good, honest working men (that’ll be the Commons), actually the folk in the Lords often have little or nothing to prove and no particular axe to grind. Ideal people to be in government, in fact.

The House of Lords is a good thing. Politically-motived life peers are not. I believe this, and I’m not even a Tory voter!

So to return to the point, I’ll summarise. Yes, we must elect people to represent us (although I would rather we did it in a different way). But we need un-elected bodies, wielding not insignificant powers, to be a balancing force against the negative aspects of elected bodies. Just because a group of people are unelected, it does not make them bad. And just because a group of people are elected, it does not make them good.

About mikbarne
I'm a writer and freelance communications and collaboration consultant with nearly 20 years experience in UK telecommunications, specialising in VoIP, Unified Communications and Collaboration, and building effective communications architectures. Visit my Google+ Profile

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