JurPC Web-Dok. 68/1998 - DOI 10.7328/jurpcb/199813561

David Thorneloe *

Electronic Democracy in Downing Street

JurPC Web-Dok. 68/1998, Abs. 1 - 9

Seit dem 29. April diesen Jahres ist der britische Premierminister Tony Blair als bislang erster britischer Premierminister mit einer eigenen Internetseite online (http://www.number-10.gov.uk/). Der Autor nimmt dies zum Anlaß für - teilweise kritische - Anmerkungen zu den Auswirkungen, Chancen und Risiken der "elektronischen Demokratie". Er kommt zu der Schlußfolgerung, daß es zwar einen Fortschritt bedeute, mittels des elektronischen Mediums in sofortige Interaktion mit dem Bürger treten zu können, daß aber diese kurzzeitige und vereinfachende Problembehandlung in Widerspruch stehe zu den langfristigen und komplexen Fragestellungen, mit denen eine Regierung allgemein befaßt ist.
Electronic democracy is upon us in Britain. On 29 April Tony Blair became the first British Prime Minister to go online, with a question and answer session in Downing Street, broadcast on the Internet. As one might expect, the event was hailed as a great innovation taking advantage of the new opportunities presented by the Internet. The technology allowed the Prime Minister to interact with ordinary citizens; listening to their concerns, responding to their needs, and demonstrating a real and immediate accountability. Not least, it was a great publicity stunt. But beyond the celebrations of technological achievement, Tony Blair's online broadcast offers a clear indication of what 'electronic democracy' holds in store for us.JurPC Web-Dok.
68/1998, Abs. 1
Electronic democracy is a broad concept embracing the impact of various technologies on the established constitutional and political structures. Taken to its logical conclusion, it is a futuristic world where all households are linked up electronically to a nation-wide voting network: press a button every day or every hour to choose the new Prime Minister, to pass a new law, to settle government policy. Electronic democracy is, ultimately, an immediate and direct democracy in which a Parliament full of elected representatives is surplus to requirements.Abs. 2
This is, however, only the most extreme picture of electronic democracy. It is more an evolutionary than a revolutionary process, and in Britain there is already ample evidence to suggest the process has begun. The technology for testing public opinion by way of polls or consultation groups, for example, has developed enormously over the last 50 years. Where once only a national election could provide any vague indication of public opinion, political parties and governments now have at their fingertips every day detailed survey information of specific social groups on specific issues, long before any policy is even announced. In effect, this is electronic democracy establishing a culture of "government by opinion poll". Whereas indirect democracies envisage a four or five-year mandate for a government to carry out its policies before accounting to the electorate, government policies now increasingly following the whims of public opinion. It is a form of immediate daily accountability with one eye on any forthcoming election, even if it is years away. As a law-making process, it is simply a subtle variation on connecting every household to a voting network.Abs. 3
The politics of the electronic democracy are also transformed by this evolutionary process: a greater emphasis on populist and short-term issues emerges, as dictated by the latest opinion polls. Tony Blair's online broadcast is a classic illustration of the politics of electronic democracy in action. Though he answered a variety of questions from members of the public, two in particular dominated the reporting of the event in the news.Abs. 4
The first centred on the "scandal" of Mary Bell, who as a child served a 12 year prison sentence for murder during the 1970s, and has recently received a small sum of money for co-operating with an author writing a book about her experience. That a murderer should be seen to profit from her crime in this way was the top news story, dominating the front pages all week. Asked to comment on the story for the first time, Tony Blair reflected popular sentiment with a condemnation of the payment as "inherently repugnant" and "plain wrong"; the government would be considering legislation on the matter, he promised. His statement made headlines in every national newspaper.Abs. 5
The second question came from a fan of Newcastle United Football Club, asking the Prime Minister if he might help him obtain a ticket for the forthcoming FA Cup Final. Needless to say, this is a matter over which not even the Prime Minister can exert his considerable influence. However, this did give Tony Blair the opportunity to demonstrate his populist credentials by confessing that he too was a Newcastle fan, joking that he would sadly have to miss the final due to an inconvenient meeting with Messrs Clinton, Yeltsin, Kohl, Chirac et al.Abs. 6
These two questions and answers are as interesting for what they say, as for what they omit. The first centred on an issue of relatively minor political importance, which in a very short time had blown up a very large wave of public hysteria. Within weeks, if not days, it would all be forgotten, but in that particular week it was public concern number one. A perfect problem in an electronic democracy, and all the more so for its simplicity: a short-term problem for which a solution could easily be found with the promise of legislation. And for good measure the Prime Minister could lend his voice to the condemnation expressed by the outraged moral majority. Just what the opinion polls required.Abs. 7
Yet why is there no consideration of the issues at the heart of the book about Mary Bell? Will the government not also take action on the inadequate treatment of children convicted of serious criminal offences? What is the government doing about prisons throughout the country which are overcrowded and falling apart, for that matter? It is these more difficult questions which tend to be ignored in the electronic democracy. They are long-term problems involving complex issues, competing interests, and offer no simple solutions. Nor are they prominent in the public eye for these very reasons, unless they become an immediate short-term problem - following a prison riot, for example. Similarly, the public is more interested in the trivia of a football fan's cup final ticket than the impending G8 Summit hosted by Britain. There is greater short-term political gain for Tony Blair in associating himself with the country's most popular pastime than addressing, say, issues of environmental protection or debt relief to be discussed at the summit.Abs. 8
Of course, the format of the Prime Minister's online broadcast did not lend itself to the presentation of a long and detailed thesis on every subject. But this is the very point of electronic democracy, and one which the Prime Minister was no doubt aware of when he chose to take part. It is certainly a great technological achievement that the Internet allows the Prime Minister to interact with ordinary citizens; listening to their concerns, responding to their needs, and demonstrating a real and immediate accountability. But those concerns are often short-term and simplistic, far from the long-term and complex problems which a government must also address. It seems that government by opinion poll is all that these technological advances hold in store. Beware: electronic democracy is upon us in Britain.
JurPC Web-Dok.
68/1998, Abs. 9
* David Thorneloe is Webmaster of the English Service of the Law-Related Internet Project Saarbrucken. Previously, in 1996 he completed the LLB European Law degree with First Class Honours at the University of Warwick in England, and in 1997 completed the LLM masters degree in German Law at the University of Saarland in Germany. In September 1998 he takes up a post as a trainee solicitor with the Government Legal Service in London.

David Thorneloe ist Webmaster des "English Service" beim Juristischen Internetprojekt Saarbrücken. 1996 hat er sein "LLB European Law" Rechtsdiplom mit Auszeichnung an der Universität von Warwick in England abgeschlossen. 1997 absolvierte er mit Erfolg ein LLM Magisterstudium (Deutsches Recht) an der Universität des Saarlandes. Im September 1998 wird er eine - in der deutschen Juristenausbildung dem Referendariat vergleichbare - Stelle ("trainee solicitor") bei der Rechtsabteilung der Regierung in London antreten.
[online seit: 22.05.98]
Zitiervorschlag: Autor, Titel, JurPC Web-Dok., Abs.
Zitiervorschlag: Thorneloe, David, Electronic Democracy in Downing Street - JurPC-Web-Dok. 0068/1998