Saturday, 4 April 2009

King John’s Lesson for the G20

In the early 13th century, King John sat on the English throne and thought nothing of deciding what was to be done in his domain without consulting anyone. After all, that’s what rulers were supposed to do – they acquire power and exercise it as they see fit. What he didn’t pick up was that the mood of the people was changing. They were increasingly agitated by their ruler taking decisions which took little account of their concerns. They were not prepared to put up with it anymore.

Those who had no chance of getting King John to hear them out took direct action. Some, such as those who came to be immortalised as Robin Hood and his followers, robbed from the powerful, fought their local Sheriff, and handed money to the poor. Others ambushed and confronted defenders of the establishment just to express their anger.

Higher up the social hierarchy, the barons were getting fed up with John’s ‘know it all’ hubris too. In 1215, they forced their King to sign the Magna Carta – a charter which would limit the powers of the ruler and make his right to take decisions on a wide range of issues conditional on proper consultation with the leading aristocrats in the land. Two vital consequences followed from this. First, once it was conceded that no ruler had any special power or wisdom to lead infallibly, there was no going back. Anyone trying ever again to reclaim the right to rule without letting others have a say would be overthrown by an implacable opposition.

Secondly, and even more importantly, the principle of engagement in decision making – it would come to be increasingly recognised – could not be ring-fenced to apply to just a few aristocrats. Each declaration that the ruling group could not possibly allow anyone else to join in was to be met with resistance until, eventually, everyone, regardless of race, gender, income or creed could vote, scrutinise, and stand for office.

The G20 is no King John. But in a globalised world, people can see that there are transnational institutions like the banks and energy suppliers whose actions have caused havoc and distress everywhere. Any international political grouping, be it the G20, G8 or any other combination, positioning itself as the vehicle to deal with these institutions and tackle other worldwide problems, will inevitably draw to itself the questions, “who do you speak for? And how have you given them a say?”

When the world’s most powerful people gather together to decide what is best for the world, the people who have not been given a say would be concerned with their interests being ignored by those decisions. What will be the investment priorities to revive the world economy? Why should the call for an independent global reserve currency be dismissed out of hand? What actions will actually be taken to close the offshore tax havens? Will more be done to tackle climate change? These are important issues which only a global authority can help to address, but no one individual or group can assume that authority without recognising that it has to be grounded on a global democracy to make it sustainable.

Sending the Sheriff out to catch Robin and the hoodies is not a long-term solution. Some day those in control of the world’s fate would have to face up to the need for a global Magna Carta which sets out transparently how people everywhere, regardless of their nationalities or socio-economic status, can vote, scrutinise, and stand for office in relation to the global authority acting in their name.

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