The deathbed vigil for Maria Miller has endured long enough to warrant this column’s traditional HazSnooze warning. The wait for a terminal ministerial career to end becomes soporific soon enough, and the craving for euthanasia intensifies.
If anything will persuade David Cameron to finally do the humane thing and put Miller out of our misery, it may be that change.org petition calling for her resignation. The number of signatories approaches 150,000 as I write, but it is growing so fast that it may have doubled by the time you read this. The question is, what figure would force the PM’s hand and require him to give her the morphine overdose? Half a million? Three-quarters? A full million? Two?
Whatever the tipping point, I wonder whether, once she’s been bundled off to the morgue, this petition will be a more significant story than her demise. Ministers come, they screw up, and they go. There is nothing novel about either her downfall or Mr Cameron’s confusion of an enfeebled reluctance to end her suffering with a show of strength. What is fresh and intriguing is this technological development in the expression of the public will.
“The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed,” said Thomas Jefferson in 1823. “The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.” You’d have to be barmy or a totalitarian dictator manqué to argue with that principle. But what Jefferson identified – in the context of a free press – as the way to purify the waters might only serve, in the context of such casually expressed public rage, to muddy and befoul them.
At first glance, this kind of digital democratisation looks a splendid thing. You cannot piously regret the age of apathy – as evidenced by pitiful election turnouts – without welcoming any show of mass engagement. What could possibly be wrong with hundreds of thousands, and potentially millions, of citizens using this form of digital democritisation to bend a leader to their will?
At second glance, however, it feels far too banal. It takes seconds online to add a name to the clamour, and democracy of any kind should not be a momentary diversion between updating your Facebook page and checking out the latest adorable kitten video on YouTube.
Yesterday’s photographs of Indians queuing in unimaginably long lines to vote in a general election that will last a month… now that did feel right. Even if it means nothing more arduous to us than a short stroll to a semi-deserted primary school once every four or five years, or spending a bit of time composing a livid email to the PM about Miller, the processes of democracy are supposed to involve some effort.
Taking five seconds to tick a box seems dangerously glib – the specific danger being that the online petition, once one has been credited with a ministerial scalp, would henceforth be seen as irresistible. The line between democracy and a form of digitised mob rule, with the mores of the Twitterstorm transplanted to politics, would be blurred.
When Tony Blair mobilised a million people to express their feelings about war in Iraq, they took the trouble to travel, some of them hundreds of miles, to march in Hyde Park. As it happened, he ignored them. But if five million, let alone 10, had signed an online petition which would have taken a tiny fraction of the aggregated effort of those million marchers, even he in all his messianic derangement could hardly have defied them. The fact that they would have been right about that war, just as the change.org petitioners are right about sacking Miller, is irrelevant. Millions would happily take a few seconds to sign petitions demanding the repatriation of immigrants, the abolition of all benefits, and the restoration of capital punishment.
A PM who said last week that he is no fan of X Factor-style text or phone-vote elections now finds himself at the wrong end of sub-X Factor politics. He has only himself to blame. This faux macho insistence on hanging on to Miller begins to verge on an act of unwitting cruelty. He should have euthanised her several days ago, and allowed her to go with a modicum of dignity. Instead, he is at the mercy of an ersatz techno-plebiscite, the potential power of which is in direct inverse proportion to its moral or constitutional worth. However and whenever this gruesome tale of a political life artificially extended beyond its viable span ends, it would be a very brave or very blithe observer who doesn’t see in this petition a glimpse of the future, and shiver a little at where it could lead.
At least our political elite aren’t related
Now and again, when mired in political scandal, we gaze dreamily across the Atlantic at the sheer vibrancy of US democracy. Were Maria Miller an American politician, she would face recall by her constituents (of the sort promised but reneged upon by the Government), and almost inevitably the boot.
At other times, a glance across the ocean inspires no envy. So it is with Jeb Bush’s confession that he is thinking very seriously about running for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.
Hillary Clinton is, of course, a dead cert for the Democratic nomination, assuming her health remains good and she is not caught on film servicing the executive committee of the Washington branch of the Ossie Bin Laden Fan Club. With Jeb the most centrist, Hispanic-friendly and electable Republican in the field, the leadership of the free world appears to be heading towards a rematch of 1992, when Bill beat Jeb’s father, George HW “Pappy” Bush. Of course, Jeb has been close to an Oval Office win before, albeit that of little brother Dubya, when, as Florida Governor in 2000, his administration dealt with the hanging chad thing (with a little help from his friends on the judicial coup d’état wing of the Supreme Court).
The United States of America was created, above all else, out of a reaction against dynastic rule, as represented by the hated House of Hanover. How far it has come since 1776. And to think we never stop whining about Eton.