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Guardians of the Future?

It’s been good this week to see lots of debate over how best to bring the needs of future generations into UK democracy. The discussion has been triggered by the publication of Alliance for Future Generations member Rupert Read’s new paper, Guardians of the Future: a Constitutional Case for representing and protecting Future People.

The paper has been published by the new think tank Green House as a discussion paper for the Alliance for Future Generations, which was itself launched in March 2011 (not this week, as a blog post in The Telegraph incorrectly claimed).

Rupert Read’s proposal is for a sort of ‘super-jury’; a third House whose members would be selected by sortition (the same basis as jury service) to ensure that the needs of future generations were brought fully into the legislative process. 

The proposal is grounded in the idea that ‘the interests of future generations should be formally represented within our existing parliamentary democracy’; that what Rupert calls ‘future people’ should be given the nearest possible equivalent to a vote.

Given the practicalities (and the problem of numbers if future people were given a formal ‘vote’, since they would almost certainly outnumber those alive today – though by how much we cannot know), Rupert proposes instead a proxy veto; in other words the power to veto in whole or in part new legislation (or the repeal of existing legislation) that threatens ‘the basic needs and fundamental interests of future people’.

In addition, the Guardians might be empowered to force a review of any existing legislation that threatens the basic needs and ‘fundamental interests’ of future people; and potentially also the positive power to initiate legislation.

Rupert suggests that there might be a dozen Guardians. They would in principle be selected by lot from among the adult population, drawing on the electoral register; though possibly with a lower age limit than the current voting threshold. They might be selected for a term of between five and eight years. And they would be selected perhaps a year in advance, to give a period of year in which to ‘train up’ for the role. In their deliberations once in office the Guardians would be supported by a ‘high level and diverse support staff of administrators, facilitators and experts, including of course legal experts’.

This is far from an uncontroversial proposal.

My own unease stems from my understanding of democracy as being fundamentally about people who are alive today; from my conviction that the demos of any democracy should be drawn from those humans who are currently alive. Efforts to equip democracy to deliver sustainable development through regard for future generations would, then, focus on equipping a democracy of ‘present people with all their futures’ to make ‘future generations-regarding’ decisions.

Part of Rupert’s response to this objection is itself very attractive. For whilst the term ‘future people’ might be a ‘a bit weird’ as one commentator remarked this week; it allows Rupert to make one of his more powerful arguments: that we are all future people, because we all have futures, as people, that we have not yet experienced.

There is something quite compelling in the idea that we are all future people; but it leads me to want our system of democracy to find ways ensuring that we and our elected representatives express concern and proper regard for future generations, rather than offering future people a form of proxy representation by veto. 

I have very much enjoyed the discussion that Rupert’s proposal has triggered; particularly in the comments threads on a 4th January blog post by The Guardian’s Damian Carrington, on a strongly ‘anti’ blog post at The Telegraph, and also at a well-attended launch event earlier this week at the House of Commons, which was addressed by MPs Caroline Lucas, Jon Cruddas and Norman Baker, along with Alliance for Future Generations members Peter Roderick and Nicolo Wojewoda.

But I do not think that the metaphor of ‘enslaving’ future generations (as in Damian Carrington’s blog post)  is a happy one; and I’m concerned that the proposal is a hostage to charges of ‘ecofascism’ and worse (as in responses to Brendan O’Neill’s blog on the proposal on The Telegraph site). Neither word – ‘fascism’ nor ‘slavery’ – is one that should readily be associated with proposals to equip our system of democracy to become more ‘future generations-regarding’.

Warm congratulations to Rupert Read for opening out a discussion that is much-needed; and for doing so with a proposal that is sufficiently clear, and sufficiently radical, to stimulate imaginations and unearth closely held and often un-expressed beliefs about how, as people, we represent ourselves and make decisions.

It seems, indeed, that it’s a week for such ideas: the so-called ‘zero draft’ of an ‘outcome document’ for negotiation this year’s UN Conference on Sustainable Development was released this week. Among the proposals for negotiation over the coming months in a text titled ‘The Future We Want’ is this:

“57. We agree to further consider the establishment of an Ombudsperson, or High Commissioner for Future Generations, to promote sustainable development.

The scene is set for discussion on how to give institutional weight to future generations to gather momentum over the coming months.

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