In 1647 the New Model Army held its famous Putney Debates to decide the future of the revolution for which the army had fought so hard. Now in 2017, at a time almost as momentous if not of actual warfare, we hear there are to be UKIP policy discussions at Derby in which members will be invited to participate. Hoorah! We badly need some real involvement if our own people’s army is to be kept happy.
Regrettably they got it wrong in Putney, notwithstanding the ‘Grandees’ of the New Model Army allowing the Levelling element of the army to have their say on behalf of the common soldiers who had borne the struggle and the sacrifice for so long. That much they owed them, and all alike were united in their suspicion of the politicians and the machinations of a defeated ruling establishment. Many of the officers had come from humble backgrounds, yet still the power lay in the hands of the gentry and country squires, who in the end proved simply too conservative to contemplate a world turned any further upside down than they could ever have envisaged when first they took up arms against the king. The revolution had gone far enough. The cry for a say in the nation’s affairs, which was to echo in remarkably similar terms in the radical movements of the nineteenth century, had come too early. The moment passed; the common man would have to wait another two centuries to get his vote and Britain, having first led the world in constitutional development, lost the chance to be truly, democratically, revolutionary.
Well, someone is going to institute direct democracy one day. The Swiss come pretty close to it already, and no-one accuses them of being a hotbed of unrest and instability. The barest lead in one of their referenda is accepted as the people’s decision. We in UKIP should not have to waste time convincing ourselves of the role of referenda, but ironically it seems we do when it comes to a bit of direct democracy in our own party.
The principle of members of a political party deciding its policies is an idea for our time. We do not mean the fig-leaf appearances which pass for membership participation in other parties past or present, but rather the kind of close consultation so well championed by our own John Rees-Evans, and in passing we should also welcome the current attempt at democratisation in the Labour Party. People, whether whole electorates or party memberships, must be responsible for their own future and their own decisions in pursuing it. The technology makes it feasible, the moral imperative desirable, the political appeal persuasive.
Just think – a political party that actually does what its foot soldiers want! Of course, say the old guard, it would be a hostage to fortune, a charter for the naïve, a recipe for disaster, since it would throw up extreme or unrealistic policies which would not stand a chance in a general election. But how can we, espousers of referenda and of trusting the people, possibly believe that? We should be standing by our collective wisdom, arguing the case through until we have individual policies most of us can agree on. No doubt the MSM would cite it as continuous mayhem and us as unelectable, in the same way the old Liberals used to be derided, but it would not take long before the wider public came to see it as a strength: a party which had not just had an open debate but had put into practice what it preached about democracy.
The only difficulty is the practical one of dovetailing the will of the membership with the role of the leadership, but there will always be a place for a strong leader, not least in the debate and the selection of options to be voted upon, and ultimately in the charge on the field of battle. The system would have to be approved by a vote of the entire membership, and no doubt would itself need to be refined with experience. The point, however, is that it should not be beyond our wit to devise something a good deal better than we have now. At present we have no means of ascertaining the membership’s true feelings on any detailed policy, and no means of influencing that policy by real debate. We do not even bother to take a show of hands at conference, not through oversight or lack of effort but, one suspects, because the very idea fills the hierarchy with horror.
Something else also needs to be done, which too would be revolutionary. In government and UKIP alike there should be a two-terms-and-you’re-out rule for all elected office holders. We do not want or need careerists, but plain russet-coated captains willing to fight for the cause and lead their soldiers where the fight is hottest. This alone would transform British politics, since it is the obsession with keeping seats at the ‘next election’ and personal advancement which drives most calculations, which explains our country’s inability to think beyond the short-term, which explains much of the mess we are always in.
Could the debates at Derby emulate those at Putney? They are a great idea, and we must all thank Paul for his initiative. We all have experience though of meetings where either nothing at all seems to come out of them despite soothing sounds from the top, or the outcome is fudged in some way, or there is not enough time to do the arguments justice, or where most people never get the chance to participate. Every one of us has their views, and in the end there is no substitute for getting alternative forms of words on paper and taking the votes of all those who have an interest – if we want democracy, that is, and if we want to win.
Quite what the right policies should be to deliver victory we may look at in future articles.