Twelve angry men


Should we elect our leaders by lot? There's an ad in the current edition of Standpoint magazine saying just that, and calling for a 'people's parliament' and 'citizens' juries' which apparently, we are told, make much better policy decisions than so-called experts.

I've often said that I'd prefer to be governed by the first twelve people in the phone book than by 650 career politicians and hundreds more party placemen posing as peers. But only so long as none of them actually want to do the job. The problem in any system of government is not how to choose our leaders, but how to restrain them. An elected government with unlimited powers is no better, in my book, than a government chosen by lot with unlimited powers. And I don't think that members of the general public, taken jury-service style off the street for a short stint in government (it couldn't be a long one, because they've all got jobs and businesses to look after) would make better decisions than career politicians. At least the careerists know there are limits - they may be in office now, but eventually they'll have to live in opposition. But people who are parachuted into government for a few weeks or months will be focused entirely on the present. The future won't be their concern.

However our leaders are chosen, we need rules to keep them in their place. In Britain, we developed these rules over many centuries, largely through struggles between kings and commoners (or kings and aristocrats). Trial by jury, habeas corpus, double jeopardy - all the rules that ensure our leaders can't just grab us, torture us, stick us in jail and forget us without some form of due process of law that involves ordinary people as well as officials. The trouble is, in the last ten years all that has been torn up. However we choose our leaders, those basic rules of personal liberty need to be reasserted.