It was first proposed (as far as I can discover) in 1842, by Alfred Tennyson(1). Since then the idea has broken the surface and sunk again at least a dozen times. But this time it could start to swim. The demand for a world parliament is at last acquiring some serious political muscle.
The Campaign for a UN Parliamentary Assembly is being launched this week in five continents(2). It is backed by nearly 400 MPs from 70 countries, a long and eclectic list of artists and intellectuals (among them Gunter Grass, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Alfred Brendel and Arthur C Clarke), several government ministers and party leaders (including our own Ming Campbell), six former foreign secretaries, the President of the PanAfrican Parliament and a former UN Secretary-General. After 160 years of ridicule, Tennyson’s crazy idea is beginning to look plausible.
Those of us who want a world parliament are often accused of trying to invent a system of global governance. But there is already a system of global governance. The UN Security Council, the World Bank, the IMF and the World Trade Organisation make decisions which affect us all. They do so without our consent. The best that can be said for any of them is that they operate by means of photocopy democracy. We vote for an MP, and this vote is then deemed to communicate our support for his party. That is then presumed to legitimise the government, which in turn assumes the right to appoint a prime minister. He then delegates ambassadors and bureaucrats to represent us globally, and their decisions are deemed to express our wishes. With every presumed transfer of democratic consent, the imprint of our cross on the ballot paper becomes fainter. Though the international bodies operate in our name, we have no more influence over them than the people of Burma have over the military junta. Global governance is a tyranny speaking the language of democracy.
The purpose of a world parliament is to hold the international bodies to account. It is not a panacea. It will not turn the IMF or the UN Security Council into democratic bodies: as they are controlled by the veto powers of their major shareholder and permanent members, nothing but abolition and reconstruction could do so. But it does have the potential to impose a check on them. It wields no army, no police force, no weapons, no ready-made powers. Instead, it possesses something that none of the other global bodies have: legitimacy. One of the surprising lessons of history is that undemocratic organisations are often obliged to grant powers to democratic ones, to try acquire some retrospective legitimacy. Why else was the European parliament established? Why else have its powers been enhanced, despite the centralising tendencies of the European Council?
Those who claim, like the British eurosceptics, that regional or global decision-making is unnecessary are living in a world of make-believe. No political issue now stops at the national border. All the most important forces – climate change, terrorism, state aggression, trade, flows of money, demographic pressures, the depletion of resources – can be addressed only at the global level. The question is not whether global decisions need to be made. The question is how to ensure that they are made democratically. Is there any valid answer other than direct representation?
Global democracy has a special problem: the scale on which it must operate. The bigger the electorate, the less democratic a parliamentary body will be. True democracy could exist only in the village, where representatives are subject to constant oversight by their electorate. But an imperfect system is better than no system at all. Even the most pig-headed Eurosceptics would have trouble arguing that the European Union would be better off without a parliament.
What the scale of these supranational bodies demands is a more participatory democracy than any we have been offered so far. The recent fiasco surrounding the European constitution is a useful demonstration of how not to do it. First the people of Europe were presented with a meaningless question which makes a mockery of democracy. “Here is a document containing hundreds of proposals. Some of them will be good for you, others will be bad for you. You must agree to all of them or none of them. If you agree (and we will keep asking until you do), we will deem that you have consented to every measure it contains.” When this pantomime of managed consent fails, the managers announce – as Tony Blair did last week(3) – that a referendum is, after all, unnecessary: we will have a new constitution whether we want one or not, and it will be written and approved on our behalf. Nothing could be better calculated to destroy our remaining enthusiasm for Europe.
The European Union (like the United Kingdom) needs a new constitution: we need to know what the limits of its new powers are and whether or not it is breaching them. And we should all have the opportunity to vote for or against it. But to ask us to give a single answer to several hundred conflicting questions is to treat us like idiots, the dumb cattle of democracy whose bodies are required to lend this institution legitimacy but whose minds are not. The process would be meaningful only if we could vote on every clause. This means that ballot papers must be complicated and very long. But that is the cost of democracy: it requires some effort on our part. A world parliament will work only if we are required to do more than simply place a cross on a piece of paper every five years.
There are some aspects of the new campaign with which I disagree. The parliamentary assembly it proposes would initially consist of members of national parliaments(4). It would gradually move towards direct representation. I accept that this is the quickest and easiest means of launching a global assembly, but it seems to me that this path would damage its legitimacy. If someone proposed that our national parliament be composed of a delegated committee of local councillors we would be horrified. Why should we wish national parliamentarians – who know little of global politics and who can engage with them only as a hobby – to represent us at the international level? It looks like another form of photocopy democracy.
But I am splitting hairs: if this is the only realistic means of launching a global assembly which will one day be elected directly, it would be stupid to stand in the way. What jumps out as you read the list of signatories is the number of African names: there is a growing recognition in Africa that a world parliament offers the best chance – perhaps the only chance – that the unmediated concerns of the poor will reach the ears of the rich. A global parliament ensures that the voices of the poor world can no longer be ventriloquised by Bob Geldof and Bono and the leaders of the G8: the people will be able to speak for themselves.
For this reason reactionaries all over the world will oppose the new campaign. And the rest of us should support it.
1. In his poem Locksley Hall.
3. George Parker, 20th April 2007. Blair aims to bow out as EU champion. Financial Times.
4. Andreas Bummel, May 2005. Developing International Democracy. Horizonte Verlag GmbH, Stuttgart. http://www.uno-komitee.de/en/documents/unpa-paper.pdf
Published in the Guardian 24th April 2007