Richard North, 29/10/2021  

I haven't taken much note of the government/parliament online petition system before. In general, I don't actually approve of the concept, specifically, where people can demand action to be taken by government to address a particular ill – and especially not where creating new law is involved.

In our Harrogate Agenda, I write that compelling legislatures to frame laws in response to popular demand is problematical.

At the very least, it can create inconsistencies and anomalies within the legal code, and contravene treaties. And, although some problems can be avoided by requiring proposals to be compatible with the constitution (which would have to be codified), the greater handicap is that the process is prone to abuse by well-funded or dedicated single-issue groups, and by the popular press or television.

We can see this in the currently most popular petition on the system at the moment, adding signatures yesterday evening at the rate of over a thousand an hour as it approaches its deadline of 30 October. This is the so-called "Valerie's Law" petition, which seeks to impose compulsory training for agencies supporting black domestic violence victims.

The petition was created by Ngozi Fulani, darling of the progressive press. And, although at the time of writing had attracted over 75,000 signatures, it may still fail to meet the 100,000 hurdle which will entitle it to consideration for a parliamentary debate.

It has already had a government response, though, which might best be described as "dusty", and rightly so in my view. The petition is overtly racist, demanding special treatment for black women, as a separate and identifiable component of British society – yet not Asian women, interestingly. And what about Chinese women?

Once you go down this path, there is no stopping, and the very idea that actions of the type set out in this position could be mandated by popular action goes against what we regard as a fundamental principle of governance – the very simple idea that, once elected, a government must be allowed to govern. That includes working, and framing its own laws.

Otherwise, as I write in the THA pamphlet, the system would expose law-making to rule of the mob. Giving the public direct access to the law-making process can end up in petty tyranny.

However, I also write that we still need checks and balances to avoid the system becoming oppressive, and it is in that context that our petition is framed, demanding that the government hold a referendum on whether to keep the 2050 "net zero" target.

Here, we are treading the fine balance between the right of government to govern and the sovereignty of the people, which we regard as absolute. In short, we agree that the government should be able to create laws – as it is doing here in mandating its "net zero" targets – but we argue that the people must have the final say on such laws.

The essence of this is that we must have the right to say "no". Interestingly, on Twitter, we have one response to my request to readers to sign our petition, asserting that "net zero" is "a step in the right direction" and "a step that must be taken now whatever the general population may think". We are, the writer says: "Out of time".

Therein lie the roots of tyranny. Against a policy that has only a forelock-tugging acquaintance with an electoral mandate, we are supposed to bow down to the "greater wisdom" of our masters and accede to a crass, technically unsound policy, just because we are told to do so? I think not.

In the context, the concept of a formal "people's consent" provision is eminently sound. In the first instance, there would be considerable hurdles to prevent it being exercised frivolously.

Using the referendum as a medium for expressing that consent, there would be a substantial number of signatures before a petition for a referendum could be raised, and I would entertain the idea of a minimum turnout and even, under certain circumstances, the requirement for a super-majority, where more than 50 percent must vote in favour of a proposition.

But the key point is that a government faced with the prospect of having to seek consent for its laws would undoubtedly have to spend more time and effort publicising and explaining it proposals, bringing the electorate along with it at all stages.

As it stands, I would hazard a pretty sound guess that, if you conducted a vox pop in the high street of any British provincial town, to ascertain what people understood by "net zero" – and what it entailed - you would get some very mixed results.

And if you were to make it very clear that the policy involved government measures to shut down the domestic natural gas supply, and coerce people into purchasing at great cost a generally inefficient heating system – which mostly was more expensive to operate than the equipment it replaced – I am sure you could invoke some pretty negative responses.

The only way you can really get such a policy into place is by having the majority of people unaware of the precise detail of what is involved, slipping it in on the basic of general ignorance conferring some kind of implied consent. Whatever that might be, it certainly doesn't accord with any idea of democracy that I would be comfortable with.

However, while that issue is fairly clear-cut, other parts of the "net zero" policy are less so: the decarbonisation of electricity generation comes to mind. On an inherently technical subject, it might be difficult to frame a referendum question that could be properly addressed by a lay electorate.

When one sees the Welsh government offering though, it isn't as difficult as might seem. What is on offer is that greenhouse gas emissions from power stations will be "virtually" eliminated by 2035, with new fossil fuel plants banned and gas generation phased out, unless linked with carbon capture technology. The vision, we are told, is for a "high renewables system" - so more wind farms, solar power and tidal schemes.

A very real outcome of this is that the accent on intermittent renewables could dangerously destabilise the grid, leading to a very high probability of a collapse of the generation system. Should that outcome be put to the British public, it does not seem untoward that people might vote against this corner of "net zero" unless given categoric assurances that the stability of the grid will not be prejudiced.

And will all that in mind, I am certain our referendum petition is a sensible way forward, even though it is less powerful than I would prefer. I would have a system where a vote would be mandatory, of the petition was successful, and the outcome binding on the government.

With that, we are where we are – to coin a phrase. We have to use the tools available to us, no matter how imperfect. As of yesterday, we gained just over 2,200 signatures, adding 1,500 to our launch total. If we can keep up a steady momentum, with the possibility of a surge later in the six-month period we are allowed, the 100,000 target is attainable, even if it is difficult to achieve.

One thing for certain, if we do not even try to make our voices heard, failure is guaranteed. Then we will have only ourselves to blame.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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