Essay, Serial

On the Limitations of the Citizen – Part I

In the last decade you may have noticed something appearing more frequently in your social media feed. Amongst the selfies and memes and usually accompanied with the commons green and portcullis—the symbols of constitutional democracy in the United Kingdom—you may find an e-petition.

In a rare break from tradition (hold the pen and clipboard please) and garbed in a digital  lingua franca, we are encouraged to start or sign a #petition in which to let #Parliament know what issues we, as citizens, want to see debated—by Parliament itself! (Of course, there is still plenty of room for tradition; you will find the hard-copy e-petititons alongside the paper petitions submitted to Parliament in the same green bag behind the Speakers chair in the House of Commons.)

However, while the phenomenon of seeing a petition online may be new, it is at heart an archaic form of political protest that has simply been given new life. To this end social media has been instrumental. It has moved the petition out of the confines of local municipalities and also, more significantly, out of nations and onto the world stage.

Here the e-petition has been emphatically embraced by celebrity culture. While ultimately unsuccessful the petition to prevent Donald Trump’s nomination as the Republican candidate in 2016 was signed and publicised by at least one hundred celebrities including the high-profile actors Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) and Samuel L. Jackson (Pulp Fiction). Closer to home, the popular British historian Simon Schama (though ironically for my purposes, is now based in the US) has publicised the petition to stop Trump’s state visit to the UK as well as, and most recently, a petition to prevent the abandonment of the Dubs Scheme for refugee children.

That Parliament, as we have seen, is actively promoting this form of protest is perhaps a sign that it is moving with the times. Modern democracy has evolved and continues to evolve to incorporate the mechanisms that ensure the greatest participation, the greatest democracy.

The practice of petitioning has always been about vocalisation, it is about informing government of public opinion; the internet has simply made this more popular and easier than ever. Owing the vast interconnectedness of modern society, the 100,000 signatures needed for your elected representatives to consider debating a public petition seems almost laughingly easy to obtain.

The general idea in signing a petition is that we intend to lend our weight as a citizen of a democracy along with others of similar viewpoints, to elicit political change from our government. It is a collective enterprise. Of course, some signatures are weightier than others, and there is some disparity in the exact mechanisations that lead one to sign in the first place. A philosophical perspective for instance would hold that a citizen has a moral duty to sign any petition if it was in response to a governmental (elected by the people) action that violated moral precepts or represented a viewpoint in which that the citizen broadly agreed with. Regardless of the reasons for signing however, the volume of signatures that e-petitions achieve is perhaps testament to a popular belief that they offer the best means by which public opinion can best be translated into achieving a practical political change. But how successful are petitions?

From a historical perspective, to say that the nationwide petitions against the slave trade in the eighteenth century, or for enfranchisement—first amongst working class males in the Chartist movement in the nineteenth century but later in the twentieth century suffragette movement—would be over-simplistic. While they certainly played a role, to limit our explanations to these moments of explosive human energy would undoubtedly be reductive. In all of the histories mentioned, countless petitions were discarded by Parliament.

How in comparison has the e-petition fared? Well, in short, no better than their historical predecessors. Over at the New Statesman Amelia Tait has done some calculations. Of the ten largest and most-shared petitions of 2016—including the demands for a second referendum and the first petition to ban Donald Trump from entering the UK—not a single one succeeded in achieving its intended outcome.

By all accounts we should be living in a golden age of political participation and real substantive political change helped by the newfound popularity of the petition—but we are not. Despite the ever greater volumes of petitions and signatories there remains little scope for either direct political participation nor for effective protest. Both petitioning and protest marches, the two forms of protest available to citizens in modern democracies are ineffectual and remain largely symbolic.

But how can we account for this? Perhaps while the online platform and social media outlets have provided a new modality in which the citizen can more easily interact with its government, there has been a concomitant increase in the raising of political consciousness? Or perhaps we simply cannot operate the levers of power because we are too far away from the controls?

In part two and developing these ideas further, I also ask just how democratic the petition is and what it can tell us about the status of the citizen in modern democratic societies. I want to know how we got to the point at which we as citizens are so far removed from the power to govern. In short I want to understand exactly what our designated role in the political process is and to ask whether this role is sufficient or whether we should want or rather demand more.

Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of Parliament


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