How democracy could be better off without elections - and why Scotland might be well placed to prove it

Journalist and author Patrick Chalmers says we need radical thinking to fix our broken political system

Patrick Chalmers, a former Reuters journalist and author of Fraudcast News: How Bad Journalism Supports Our Bogus Democracies, spoke to CommonSpace about his emerging series of nine documentary films about government by selection and deliberation.

Chalmers argues that, contrary to popular belief, elections may well be more of a hindrance than a help to democracy, and that Scotland could be perfectly placed to be a test case for innovation in how policy decisions are made.

“The idea we don’t live in a democracy is something people have trouble getting their heads around,” Chalmers says. “We’re brought up and we’re taught that democracy equals elections but actually this is not true - only in the last 200 years has this been the case.”

This, Chalmers says, is precisely why the political system is now experiencing such problems – from political distrust, to the over-simplification of complex debates, to the ineffectiveness of representatives in fulfilling electoral promises, to growing inequality and the rise of right wing populism.

“The more money you spend the more likely you are to get elected”. Patrick Chalmers 

The Scottish expat, now based in France, has produced and released one film so far which highlights an example of how government by selection can work in practice. ‘When Citizens Assemble’ tells the story of the Citizens Assembly in Ireland which successfully overcame years of political deadlock on one of the country’s most controversial issues – abortion.

Through a process of deliberation, concluding with a series of votes and recommendations, the Assembly opted to amend the constitution and improve provision, marking a considerable liberalisation of the current law and practice.

Ireland, however, is not the first example of such a process, and nor should it be the last, Chalmers argues. The next film in the series, for which he will soon be crowd funding, will start at the beginning: in Athens. The Ancient Greeks used a form of lottery system, which, Chalmers explains, was a conscious decision to avoid elections which they viewed as “aristocratic”.

“They knew the richest people with the richest donors would win elections,” Chalmers says, and this hasn’t changed. It has been widely evidenced, he notes, that in contemporary politics, “the more money you spend the more likely you are to get elected”.

The ill-effects of the election system are in evidence in modern Greece, Chalmers says: “Government by election in Greece today is economic crisis and very little political autonomy. It’s very much the EU and IMF who are directing policy in Greece.”

Through the series, which will look explore real and hypothetical examples from around the world, Chalmers aims to demonstrate how democracy without election “produces better results”.

Although the series will not look at Scotland specifically, Chalmers says that Scotland’s “unique set of circumstances” following the independence referendum and the fallout from the Brexit referendum means that it could be well placed to make radical changes to its system of government.

READ MORE: ‘Of the people’: 5 ways a citizens' second chamber could democratise Scotland

“Scotland is ripe for innovation - people are awake to politics in a way that I don’t get the sense is the case in the rest of the UK”, he says. “The country is also relatively small so the potential for change and innovation is greater.”

Chalmers points out that a proposal was set out early last year for a randomly selected second chamber in Scotland, which was detailed in a report by the left wing think-and-do tank Common Weal.

Chalmers explains: “Rather than the House of Lords - cronies who by virtue of having a title or having done a favour to the government have been given a position - you would have a revising chamber made up of a randomly selected group of people.”

This, he suggests, could be an ideal way to progressively implement a new kind of politics in Scotland, and prove that “people are smarter than we give them credit for”.

The core benefit of such a system, Chalmers argues, is the removal of the pressure to be re-elected which preoccupies political parties.

“If you don’t have to win an election you can look at all perspectives of an issue and not just the screaming headlines of the British press, which are often taken out of context,” he says.

“You wouldn’t have to worry about that or being re-elected. You are there for the period of selection, you are not relying on anyone to hold your position, and you are sheltered from the lobbyists from the oil firm or the wind farm or whatever else.”

"Parties get to power and want to stay in power - this is typical of a system based on election." Patrick Chalmers

The current picture in Scotland, Chalmers says, is another clear example of the shortcomings of an electoral system.

“You’ve got the SNP who got an overwhelming majority in the Scottish Parliament, and you can raise legitimate questions about what they’ve done with it. My gut feeling is the SNP are bound to suffer from being in office,” he explains.

“Parties get to power and want to stay in power - this is typical of a system based on election. It is inevitable that you’re going to behave in a way that will keep you in office.”

Part of the problem with this system, Chalmers says, is its inherently adversarial nature.

“You need to be able to make decisions in a very hostile media environment and a hostile political environment. Your opponents are not going to say, ‘oh yeah, that’s a good idea, I agree with that’, because they need to win elections”, he says.

“You’re dealing with people who have to slag off the other party because otherwise they would make themselves invisible.”

Nothing short of a major overhaul of the system of governance will deal with the “root of the problem” plaguing democracies, Chalmers says.

READ MORE: Robin McAlpine: If Scotland doesn't share power more evenly, we may come to regret it

For Scotland, Chalmers says he would personally favour independence because he believes that “democracy is done better at a smaller level”, and that greater autonomy to make political decisions is needed, not just in Scotland, but around the world.

However, he emphasises, in an independent Scotland the problem of elections would still remain to be solved.

In fact, Chalmers suggests, the deliberative process of decision making could be a better route to achieving independence than the kind of referenda Scotland and the UK have seen in recent years.

In both the independence and EU referendum, Chalmers says: “What you’ve got is quite divisive results. In those situations a black or white result is going to be unsatisfactory to a large group of people.

“If you had a citizens’ jury on independence or Brexit you could have much more room for well-informed and high quality discussion.”

There was too little of this during the lead up to the independence referendum, he says, and even less in the Brexit vote.

Through such a process, Chalmers suggests, “you could look at which aspects of political decision making should go in one direction or the other”, and from there you could then decide to hold a vote.

Chalmers acknowledges that a shift in how we think about democracy will take time, but the scale of the problems facing democracies at a national and global level means that progress has to start now. “We don’t have time to waste,” he says.

You can follow Patrick Chalmers’ work around democracy on his website.

Picture courtesy of PTSullins

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Peter Dow's picture

Peter Dow

Wed, 01/10/2018 - 13:32

Scotland would be better off if we had an election for head of state of Scotland, electing a president to replace the unhelpful Queen who does nothing while incompetent officers of the state run amok regardless of the law or of their duty.

The position of head of state is decisive and it does not matter what other elections there are.

Imagine in Nazi Germany, if victims held in a concentration or extermination camp had a show of hands to elect a representative before all were gassed then their bodies burned.

There is nothing that elected representatives of victims of the Nazis could do because the position of head of state of Germany was occupied by a dictator, Hitler, and was not itself subject to a free and fair election.

When the police had raided my house and took my irreplaceable science research data I asked First Minister Sturgeon at a public meeting to intervene
but she claimed she was unable to do so

So the state just does whatever the hell they like and no elected politician, even the First Minister of Scotland, can do anything to stop them wrecking people's lives.

Perhaps a better First Minister would have appointed better law officers and police chiefs who would stop such abusive misuse of police and prosecutor powers? I do not excuse Nicola Sturgeon's claimed "powerlessness" in this matter.

Scotland needs a First Minister who fights abuses of power and who does not simply state, as Sturgeon did at that public meeting -

"there are very good and sound and solid reasons the police and in their prosecution capacity, the law officers are independent of government and politicians rightly cannot instruct the police and the law officers in the decisions that they make".

- washing her hands of the whole matter, even though she had responsibility for governing the police and prosecutors - a responsibility she is content to duck as she did there.

So the powerless elected representatives, the ministers who wash their hands of responsibility, the all powerful state and the unhelpful monarch sum up the problem where the head of state is not elected.

We must elect a president of a Scottish republic and we make that demand by banning the Queen and the royal family from Scotland.

florian albert

Wed, 01/10/2018 - 19:56

'How democracy would be better off without elections.'

If a Tory, say Jacob Rees Mogg, wrote this, it would cause outrage.
For Common Space to associate itself with such an idea is an own goal.

One example cited is the Citizens' Commission on abortion in Ireland.
The author writes that it 'successfully overcame years of political deadlock.' That, hugely overstates what has happened. So far, it has made a set of recommendations, no more.
There is widespread suspicion among opponents of abortion that the Citizens' Commission was rigged. This suspicion is leading to increased, rather than diminished, polarization.
It was the elected government which set up the Citizens' Commission and it will be the elected government which will decide if/when a referendum on abortion is held.
It can be argued that, by seeking to avoid direct political involvement, democracy itself is undermined. This plays into the hands of those political figures whose commitment to democracy is open to question.
This, at a time when confidence in democratic processes is weak.

Patrick Chalmers

Thu, 01/11/2018 - 11:16

Hi Albert

You make some fair points but I think you're being way too harsh in what you're saying about the Irish Citizens' Assembly.

Yes - it was an elected government, a minority even, that put it in place - nothing wrong with that as such, that's the only means by which political decisions take place under the current system.

Yes - all it did was to make a series of recommendations - that was the limit of its mandate, so there's nothing particularly significant about that point either. Imagine the uproar if it had had direct legislative power or even the right to order a referendum and to set the language on the voting slips.

Its recommendations went to an all-party committee which itself has now made some recommendations of its own, as per this article (

The latter are not exactly the same recommendations and you could argue as to which group had the greater legitimacy.

Should we prefer a group of people chosen by election, a process that is structurally flawed and problematic (see this book for all the references and evidence you might care for -

Or would it be better to randomly select a more truly representative sample of Irish people, have them consider all sides of the argument over several weekends and come to deliberated recommendations without having to face the pressure of party whips, direct lobbying by well-connected groups or thoughts of re-election?

My money's with the ordinary citizens - regardless of what my personal preference on abortion laws might be. NB - I'm a white, middle-aged, heterosexual male so there's only so much weight my view should carry in any case. I'll never have to have an abortion - legal or otherwise - nor will any other male involved in a sexual act that leads to pregnancy. Should a woman's vote count more on this issue?

As you say, it is for the government to decide whether a referendum takes place - yup, that's also called the existing system.

It is very easy to chuck rocks at arguments for radical change. Just remember that the existing system is so spectacularly bad and unrepresentative that you should probably also bear that in the front of your mind when you bend down to gather minerals with a mind to hurling them.

As for the Citizens' Assembly further polarising the debate on abortion - I'd be interested to see your evidence for that. It was spectacularly polarised already from what I could tell.

What's great about what Ireland's done with the Assembly is to gather a huge body of evidence and testimony on abortion - information that all Irish voters can access via the Assembly website ( so as to make up their own minds how to vote on the basis of facts.

Would that the Brits, or Scots, could have done the same for Brexit and the indyref respectively.

I believe people ARE far smarter than they're given credit for by our governing elites, "left" or "right", and the media. I think it is essential that we honour that wisdom in our efforts to build more constructive, harmonious and fair political decision-making processes.

florian albert

Fri, 01/12/2018 - 20:39

'My money's with the ordinary citizens'

Yet you would exclude almost all of them from participating.

'the existing system is so spectacularly bad'

Ireland has, under the existing system, been materially transformed in a matter of a few decades. Most people view Ireland as a success story in the past forty years.

It is interesting that democracy is losing favour now that, in so many countries, the voters are turning away from 'progressive' ideas.

I suspect that if a citizens' commission came up with, what might be termed populist recommendations on a subject like immigration, enthusiasm for it would evaporate immediately.

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