UN Secretary General António Guterres’s desperate plea that we must take climate change seriously, at the start of COP27 seems to have fallen on deaf ears, as predicted by Greta Thunberg. The conference drew to a close on 18 November and, although it welcomed a stream of high profile leaders for very short appearances, nothing much was achieved.
And so it is with most long-term intractable problems facing humanity: whether you look at the environment, economic injustice, or geopolitical tensions and senseless violence between nations, the characteristics they all share is that they are all long-term challenges, and they suffer in common from the same lack of progress.
Most of the propositions put forward in our quest for a more egalitarian form of capitalism require this longer term perspective: for example, inter-generational rebalancing really needs to be embedded at constitutional level in order to match the human life cycle.
Some can be addressed nationally, some require a global perspective, but the same long-term consistency is needed to bring about lasting change.
In addition, while national governments occasionally state their determination to tackle these issues, they also lack both international influence and staying power.
International organisations, of which the United Nations is the only body which gathers all of us together, require authority to bring about lasting change: but that is clearly absent.
Just over twenty years ago, the UK government introduced a public consultation on reforming the House of Lords. No consensus emerged for the future of the UK's second chamber, and it continues to be a mix of mainly appointed, but still some hereditary, peers.
Gavin Oldham wrote into the submission asking for democratic elections, but with a significant difference to the House of Commons — not only that there should a longer term of office but also that voters should be asked to elect representatives on how they wished to see their country fifty years ahead — in other words, a genuinely long-term perspective, compared to the very short-term time horizon of MPs elected to the House of Commons.
The challenges we face are increasingly long-term in character, but our institutions focus in giving primary attention to living in the present, rather than caring about the future: thus completely out of kilter with the exponential rise in our impact in shaping the long-term consequences of today’s actions. However, when asked to think seriously about the conditions in which our grandchildren will have to live, people are able to focus on those long-term priorities.
Building democratic legitimacy for international bodies is also key to enabling them to bring about change, and it is becoming essential that the United Nations should start building that worldwide authority. Since it's unlikely that either the General Assembly or the Security Council would agree to bring about wholesale change in this respect, it should be initiated on a country-by-country basis.
So, our proposition here is that people sent to represent their nations should not be appointed by their government of the day, but should be elected directly by their people. That election should be based on a similar long-term perspective as that proposed for the UK parliament’s second chamber, so that the UN increasingly concentrates on those global long-term challenges of the environment, economic justice and peaceful coexistence. In our view it should be for a ten-year term (or less if the individual steps down) and elections should not be arranged on a simultaneous basis so as to discourage party formation, and to allow for election to be introduced at the discretion of member nations, over time.
So, because it’s unlikely that a wholesale move in this direction would be adopted, the change should be introduced at the initiative of individual countries. Gradually we would see the proportion of directly-elected representatives build within the General Assembly, and those representatives would increasingly command more respect and authority than appointed representatives — so the momentum would steadily build.
In March 2004 Gavin Oldham’s ‘Thought for the Day’ for BBC Radio 4 was entitled ‘Neighbours of Tomorrow’, and it focused on how the consequences of our actions at that time were already impacting so heavily on tomorrow's outcomes; more so than at any time throughout human existence. And those neighbours of tomorrow are global, not just within our own nations. We therefore need to look increasingly at bodies like the United Nations to put trans-national arrangements in place in order to facilitate a smooth and ordered transition to globalisation.
In order to do this the United Nations needs to become much more than a talking shop. It needs to grow in authority as the influence of individual nations wane, and that will only be possible if it is empowered by democratic legitimacy. This can be most logically achieved as a result of its representatives being elected directly by the populations they represent.