Fear of the modern mob

Austin Williams | 26 March 2007

Peter Roberts’ petition on Number 10’s website (‘We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to scrap the planned vehicle tracking and road pricing policy’) has caused something of a hoo-hah. It closed with 1.8 million people signing up within only a few weeks. Surely the government must have be chuffed about its much-vaunted e:participatory democracy. 

Back in the days when Blair’s ex-policy adviser, Matthew Taylor was in charge of the IPPR ( a social policy think-tank), a senior researcher claimed that: “Modernisation of government is aimed at making government more accountable, transparent and open to public involvement. E-government has a crucial role to play in this process.” Now, as chief executiveof the RSA, Taylor admits that e:democracy has not worked and ’instead of a Government-centric model of change in which we assume our rulers should be given the blame for what goes wrong and the responsibility for making it right, we need a citizen-centric model in which we reinstate ourselves as the authors of our own collective destinies.’ Not a bad buck-passing strategy, but even then, with the first spark of empowered citizen engagement, the government can’t help but run scared, call foul and point the finger at the cheek of the voting public.

Denis MacShane MP for Rotherham observed that ‘the clamour of the mob is often close to insanity.” Pretending that he is mostly concerned with debate and critical of the media, he says: ‘No sane politician wants to take on 1.3 million people, but the plain fact is that British history is littered with great expression of public opinion which turned out to be disastrously wrong.’ I’m afraid, Denis, that’s democracy for you; and it is better than the alternatives. The problem, of course, is when ‘we, the people’ demand things that the government don’t like…


Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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