There has been widespread public and political disquiet in the UK recently at the bishops in the house of lords sending the benefits bill back to parliament for amendment. Why? People suggested that there was widespread public support for the policy, the public wants a benefits cap. But why would the bishops develop a point of view contrary to that of the public? Should we be dismissing the point of view of the bishops without really considering it? Have we considered it?
Bearing in mind that the bishops, like all clergy, have traditionally been given a position of wise lifestyle advisors, guardians of morals and keepers of the truth, why is everyone so quick to remove that role this time around. Separation of church and state, perhaps. A fine principle, and far be it from me to defend the role of organised religion in politics. But are all the objectors doing so because they do not believe unelected individuals, wielding power purely because of religious belief, should not be allowed to exert influence over policy? I thought people were actually outraged because the bishops were at odds with public opinion… It was widely reported, at least, that the latter was the more relevant complaint on this issue.
So I come back to the issue of developing opinion. The bishops have long been trusted as wise sages, worthy of respect and with opinion of great value. Why is this, and why don’t people accept it on this issue? My guess is that bishops (and other clergy) have pondered, considered, deliberated over issues before forming an opinion. I think this is part of their job, part of their raison d’etre. The fact that there is (reported) widespread disapproval of their “veto” of the bill perhaps indicates that the public are missing something. Why have the public come to a different conclusion than the wise old bishops? And why isn’t anyone flagging up concerns about this?
Perhaps if all members of the public engaged with the issue at hand as closely as the bishops have they would have a different opinion. Perhaps they would see different viewpoints, consider different consequences and weigh up all of the outcomes instead of simply the most accessible and obvious.
The public, of course, cannot engage with every issue in great detail. We all have lives to lead, jobs to do, families to care for. That is why we elect people to do the consideration for us. Maybe we should trust them a little more. Of course, we can’t just let them get away with everything. We have to hold them to account. Our democratic system is certainly not good enough for us to be realistically represented by the options available to us on the polling card. So the public has to exert pressure over issues to ensure the democracy works.
How, then, do we address the issue of a public that needs to be involved and a public that is not discussing the issues? Well… we could talk to one another a bit more… including those people that do not have the same views as us. We could have cross cutting debate and we could deliberate.
And so to familiar ground. How can 65 million people deliberate about public policy issues? Of course, we don’t have to do it all together, we just need to be exposed to a wider cross section, to talk to a wider range of people about a wider range of subjects and, as Diana Mutz would say “hear the other side”.
Online deliberation holds so much promise for this. Whether it is Channel 4’s WifeSwap forum, Wikipedia or the Red Tape Challenge, people have used the internet to discuss public issues. Of course challenges remain and we are yet to find the key to tying online conversation to political participation. But if we can just get people discussing things a little bit more widely, perhaps the bishops won’t appear at odds with us all so much after all.