These days we accept democracy, unthinkingly, as a good thing. I have not heard a serious word against it since University, when some young men of my acquaintance affected to think it “a brave experiment that failed.” I begin to wonder if they were right, at least as to its British incarnation.
Something is clearly very wrong with British democracy. Our low election turnouts prove that. Our voters do not face bombs and bullets on their way to the polling station, but they show less enthusiasm to vote than the Iraqis who do. Perhaps we should arrange to stain British voters’ fingers with purple ink and have men armed by Iran take pot-shots at them? I am sure President Ahmadinejad would oblige.
One might expect the constant meddling, the authoritarianism, the sheer bloody priggishness of New Labour to drive people back to the polls. They were elected by a minority and they are imposing the views of part of that minority on the rest of us. Yet British non-voters I speak to are way beyond mere disinterest. They are militantly apathetic. They have enthusiastic contempt for the process.
Once every little boy and girl born into the world alive, was “either a little Liberal or else a little Conservative.” Yet now, we hear the fatal words, “they’re all the same.” So, indeed, they are. Perhaps it is not that our democracy is failing, but that it is working too well? Politicians have views as diverse as ever. There is no view too absurd to be represented in the House of Commons, as George Galloway sufficiently proves. To get and keep power, however, now involves concealing ones opinions. Men and women go into politics to pursue their agenda, but soon the peoples’ agenda is pursuing them.
The only effective “check and balance” in our Parliamentary democracy was the way in which, for centuries, the British divided neatly, sportingly, into two roughly equal political "sides". Whigs vs. Tories, Conservatives vs. Liberals, Labour vs. Conservatives, etc. Our dangerous three word constitution (“Parliament is sovereign”) was not a problem. We could always rely on the swing of the political pendulum to keep government honest.
We still have two major parties, but few feel any allegiance to them. Their memberships are derisory, smaller than a hotel loyalty scheme, larger than a decent-sized fishing club. Both are led by slimy, unprincipled populists. “I’ll tell you what I think” they seem to say, “as soon as I have worked out what I think you want me to think.” All of which means that we ourselves, dear readers, have become the problem. Constitutions protect people from each other, as much as they protect people from the State. In the shambles of our modern democracy, we are each other’s prey.
Alexander Tytler (1747–1813) famously observed that:
A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits ... with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy followed by a dictatorship.
He had it almost right. In truth, the masses can accept occasional fiscal discipline, but only if first brought to beggary by their own idleness and greed.
When Labour last wrecked the economy, the Tories under Thatcher won their reputation as “the Nasty Party". They made a sick nation take its bitter medicine. It had to be done, but no-one enjoyed it. Many who lived through it are bitter that our lives were thus blighted by the greed of previous generations who voted themselves unfunded benefits; so inflated the currency as to repay their debts in base coin and then left it to us to straighten things out. We are even more bitter now that New Labour has made all our efforts vain.
Our generation has paid for everything - twice - only to be told there is nothing for us. Our taxes, our pensions, have been diverted to bribe an army of Government “workers” and the mass of idlers on permanent benefits which now passes for “the working class”. Anyone who does work in Britain, if not for the State, is for much of the year in forced labour to feed the Government's hordes.
As has been sagely observed, “Labour always spends its way out of power eventually.” Cameron may pout, preen and posture now, but the Tories will be called into service as the Nasty Party again.
But enough of economics. What of politics? What, in particular, of liberty? Labour has opened our eyes to our constitutional danger. Though we were joyously ignorant of it, it seems that we were always at the mercy of an over-mighty State. All it took for habeas corpus to be repealed in Britain, was for the political balance to shift, so that one Party could do it without the other crying foul.
Focus groups and opinion polls have had the same effect on political thinking, as wind tunnels and CAD had on car design. They are a more scientific, but also a more soulless, way to do the job. They have led to less choice as politicians adapt their offer to comply with the "scientific" data. Had Jefferson and Washington had focus groups, there would have been no American Revolution. Most colonists favoured the Crown. A majority moved to Canada to remain subjects of King George. But the founding fathers were not followers, but leaders. They built a democracy from undemocratic beginnings.
How safe is a parliamentary democracy to live in when most voters fail to understand that powers given to our rulers for one reason may be used for others? All civil liberties objections crumble today in the face of the word "suspect;" which means no more than someone thought, by a fallible someone else, to have done something bad.
A democracy that works properly, will broadly give the people what they want. We have been remarkably tolerant of that in the past. More than 50 years on from the start of Communism in Central Europe, families whose businesses were stolen still lobby for restitution. Yet my grandfather’s business was stolen in 1946, and - while he did not like it (to say the least) - he accepted it calmly as the “will of the people.”
That my grandfather’s life work should be stolen was bad enough. But worse things than that can happen (and have happened) in a democracy.
What if what the people want is Hitler, as the German people did in the 1930’s? Given the clarity with which he stated his views in “Mein Kampf”, it could be argued that he had a democratic mandate for genocide. Perhaps that’s why our German friends are so keen to suppress his book? It is no worse (and after the Holocaust, is far less dangerous) than many classics of Communism, but it embarrassingly reveals they voted for Hitler in full knowledge of his intentions. Hitler, then, had a democratic mandate for violent use of State power. When he used that power, effectively, to demolish German democracy was that valid? Can one generation democratically deny democracy to the next?
Had Hitler been less mad, his regime might prosper yet. Listen to those who think President Ahmadinejad must be left in peace within his borders. People in the 1930’s said the same of Mr Hitler.
Had Hitler killed only those Jews within his reach; had he sought lebensraum only in the East, the Manchester Guardian readers of the day would have spoken movingly of “international law” and referred the matter to the impotent League of Nations. Hitler could have begun the Shoah under the same indulgent gaze they now bestow on his successor in Tehran, as he prepares to finish it. And all of this as democratic as you please.
What of Palestinian democracy? The world's most successful professional victims freely chose terrorist killers to lead them. While only a complete idiot believes the Cubans love Castro, it seems no-one seriously questions Palestinian support for Hamas and Hezbollah. No-one who saw their street celebrations after 9/11 would doubt it. Once again, if they confine themselves to killing only those Jews conveniently at hand, they may count on the affectionate indulgence of the Guardianistas.
Are there then then no limits to democracy? In Britain there are not. Our democracy is defective, because we have never clearly defined what power individuals have delegated to the State. Potentially, our lives, our freedoms and our worldly goods can be taken at any moment at the State's whim. That the State is under loose democratic control is of little comfort. Am I any less a serf if enslaved by a majority of my neighbours? Am I any less dead for being slain with their approval?
The State should enjoy only those powers delegated by individuals. Would any of us freely give the right of life and death? Would any of us freely give the right to tax us until we work most of the year for others, like indentured slaves? Democracy is a valuable, but not a sufficient component of a free society. We also need individual rights, which outrank those of the State, because it serves us, not vice versa. It is those rights that make us free, not the way in which members of the government are chosen.
Churchill said (and he was right) that:
democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried.
It is a mere human construct. If we do not question it and worry about its political and economic outputs, we condemn it ultimately to fail.
Guthrum blogged here recently about the need for constitutional reform. It has never been more necessary. If the Tories would like to stand out from the crowd and propose something to energise the masses, here is their opportunity. Sadly, that would require skilful, principled leadership and persuasive, powerful oratory, rather than cheap shots, sound bites and new hairdos.
Don't hold your breath, and keep your passport up to date.