The national suggestion box
Amid the chaos of the current political scene, most of which presents like a poorly budgeted Netflix show of uncertain tone, destined to run for only its first season, condemned by critics for its two-dimensional characters (‘Jacob, Jeremy and Boris are stereotypes of such vapid simplicity they entirely fail to engage an audience more used to the complexities of ‘Borgen’ or, indeed, ‘Veep’…) the concept of ‘democracy’ has been dredged to the surface of what might be sceptically called ‘political debate’.
‘Democracy’ is used to explain the absolute necessity of us crashing out of Europe, of us not doing so, of Boris’s right to prorogue Parliament, of his total lack of any such right etc etc, all of this on the back of a referendum narrowly won, probably, on average, by the more gullible side, who had, on average, been lied to a little bit more successfully about an issue barely anybody understood.
Some of our politicians are embracing democracy with a fierce enthusiasm which, in truth, probably belies their dictatorial tendencies.
Anyway, I think that if ‘the people’ can be trusted through referenda to determine an astonishingly complex thing like our membership of the EU, we should take the democratic ideal a stage further and, as well as allowing voters to decide on the success of others’ policies, we should let them create policy themselves, and have the opportunity to have their ideas put into practice.
It used to be the case in most workplaces that there was a ‘suggestions box’, sometimes not more than an actual cardboard box, sometimes something a bit more sophisticated, in which the workforce could, anonymously if they wanted, suggest. Of course, they were utilised sometimes to suggest things that management could do with handy objects, and there might well have been a tendency for it to fill up with complaints about canteen food, tiny holiday entitlements, the comfort of the seats in the staff room but occasionally, one assumes, they might have led to some change which benefited people.
At the school in which I used to work, the Pupil Council was, I admit, inclined towards the detailed analysis of sandwich fillings (why are, I often asked myself, young people vegan? How do they live without bacon?) or a repeated desire to introduce new socks, but they were always listened to, and on occasion, came up with something really good. Here’s an example: they suggested that an extra 10p be added on to the price of every can of fizzy drink, and that these 10ps be used to buy fresh fruit to be given away at lunchtime.
With the assistance of the magnificent Catering Manager (tip – always be very very nice to anyone who is responsible for feeding you) this was done, and, given the turnover of fizzy drinks (now in fact banned) there was a great array of sliced up and whole fruit offered twice a week. No real losers, lots of winners – imagine that idea rolled out across Scotland.
Of course, someone would have to decide which ideas went forward for consideration by parliament. They would have to be national ideas, not ideas for a new cycle training scheme in Linlithgow or a rural and lengthy cycle path in Dumfries or the institution of a new device on pavements in Stirling which swallowed cyclists whole.
No, they would be concepts which had a sense of national vision. There would be a process, probably several stages long, for selection, but everyone who submitted an idea would hear something back, something polite and, in many instances, something to do with funding.
But every year a few ideas would actually be put into practice and the nation would, one hopes benefit. They could be called Peoples’ Policies, and there coming to be would be the final stage in the process of the erosion of trust in politicians, who used to be elected, I vaguely remember, because people thought they would have ideas which were the best for the country.
I have an idea, for illustrative purposes. No-one can tell me what’s wrong with it, or maybe they are just being polite and smiling benignly on an old fella as his brain throws up the odd weird notion prior to shutting down.
Anyway, this idea starts with an anecdote – when my old Gran died, aged 102, she left, unbeknown to anyone else, two building society accounts, each containing about two grand. She had been incapable of accessing them for over fifteen years, so the money lay there, gaining interest…actually about £82 in interest over those fifteen years. Rubbish. And a product of her desire, and the desire of thousands of older Scots to have a wee bit of money to leave to the family, or for emergencies, or for rainy days, or to feed a late onset crack dependency (you didn’t know Jenny.) This was money they didn’t want to risk losing, and the banks and building societies provided them with the mattress under which they could hide it.
Now you don’t need me to tell you that if she had, instead, invested it in shares, in say, National Grid, there would have been a whackload more cash when she died, but, of course, she wouldn’t have wanted to risk it. Rich people, who can afford the risk, can benefit from these profits (and let’s be honest, it’s probably just not that risky). But how much better if, on investing in shares in British industry, up to a limit of say £2,000, the government (or charitable philanthropy) guaranteed you would, at least, get your money back after a minimum period of investment.
In practice, if you look at the last twenty years, and assume an investment period of at least three years, the government would have paid out nothing at all. A small percentage of the profits could go to the administration of the scheme, and there would be a big investment in British – or Scottish – companies.
I would call it ‘Jenny’s Bank’. Now, go on, tell me what’s wrong with that – letting less well off elderly people get a bit more back on their savings. I’m putting in the national suggestions box and waiting for my reply.