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A brave experiment that failed?

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.

Pict0029_thumbnail_2Something 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.

2004_03_minolta_014_3_thumbnailWhen 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?23rd_september_2002_085_thumbnail_2

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.


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what asuper and well thought out post.

people do not vote becuase they do not care. the wealthy are rich enough to ignore the rapacity of the state and poor are betrothed too it.

This is labour legacy. In addition the EU monstrosity has taken away vast powers of government and people have grown used to the idea that even politicians can blame some far away and non-accountable institution.

Finally, the world is much more complex than it was even a few years ago. Jobs are not for life; all is fleeting. In this new world people have little time to concentrate on politics and when they do have only time for simple soundbites and sweeping generalisations.

We get the politicians we deserve.


"That's implicit in the idea of the courts "usurping" democratic power." Not what I meant. In the US the Constitutiuon defines, and thus limits, what power is given to the Federal government; the rest is reserved to the people and the states. The Supreme Couirt has a record of ignoring the limits on its own power and just imposing itself on things which are none of its business. A classic post-war example is the notorious Wade-Roe decision. Abortion is the business of individuals or the states that they live in - it is clearly no business of any arm of the Federal government. But all power tends to corrupt, and the Supreme Court decided to impose its views whatever the electorates might think, by inventing spurious constitutional doctrine. I don't know how a constitutional democracy can defend itself from that flaw.

Tin Drummer

I don't want a Constitution to tell me how to live. I want one that gives the men of power strict boundaries. I am not the threat; they are.

It's interesting that the language of MEPs and Guardian columnists makes eurosceptic individuals out to be exactly that: a threat. An individual who dislikes the EU is variously a xenophobe, a racist, a Little Englander, or accused of "peddling" lies and myths - hence I think we know exactly what a European or British written constitution of 2007 would assume of its citizens.


You're right that democracy itself does not equal freedom. In the case of Hitler and the Iranian, there does seem a tendency to madness the more one seizes the reins of power. I've just posted partly on Edward House in this regard.


Thanks, WL. You are too kind. I would certainly like a written constitution, but I am concerned as to what it would say if it were written in the current political climate. The Americans are blessed that their Constitution was written at what may yet prove to have been the high water mark of human political wisdom. A new British Constitution would tend to be full of garbage and could as easily make matters worse as better.

Even "Conservative" politicians now think they have a right to tell people how to live; rabbiting on about chocolate oranges and cigarettes as if we were all children. I don't want a Constitution to tell me how to live. I want one that gives the men of power strict boundaries. I am not the threat; they are.

I want a Constitution to prevent my government or my fellow-citizens infringing my natural rights as a human being. My problem is not a lack of rights, but too many people failing to respect them. There is nothing more debilitating than the mindset of those who believe "rights" are given by law. Laws are essentially negative. They are sometimes necessary evils, but they are always evil and rarely as necessary as our politicians think. As Montesquieu said, "If it is not necessary to make a law, it is necessary not to make a law."

I am not completely pessimistic (why would I blog if I were?) We lost our rights as individuals by degrees. We can gain them back the same way. Labour has done us a massive favour by disproving conclusively its decades-old theory that the public sector would work if there were massive increases in funding. NHS spending has doubled, yet the system is in chaos - because the system is defective. The police force is larger than ever, but 57 out of 58 policemen have their arses firmly planted in chairs. Education is a farce, with illiteracy on the rise in what is supposed to be an advanced nation. It's not the funding that's the problem, it's the system of state provision which divorces service providers from the righteous wrath of their "customers." Surely enough people are now open to real reforms after such a comprehensive failure?

History is tapping Dave Cameron on the shoulder. Let's hope he's not too busy fussing about his hairstyle to notice.

Welshcakes Limoncello

A wonderful post, TP and beautifully written. I agree that it is frightening how we just let our politicians get away with everything in Britain because we "can't be bothered" and the apathy of many young people there is truly sad. The freedoms that so may of our parents' generation thought they were giving their lives for are being swept away under our noses and so many people of my own age are understandably embittered when they are told, as you put it, that there is nothing left for them when they have paid into the system all their lives. And yes, we have some truly terrifying madmen in the world now. What do you think can be done? Do you think we should make a start by having a written constitution in Britain?


had he sought lebensraum only in the East

In fact he did seek it only in the East. No part of the conquered West (save the regions with some historical tie to Germany like Alsace Lorraine) were incorporated in the Reich. In Poland, he went far beyond that and the evidence is that he intended some kind of German Wild West in the Soviet Union.

...the Manchester Guardian readers of the day would have spoken movingly of “international law” and referred the matter to the impotent League of Nations.

Wasn't that George Lansbury's position?

Regarding democracy, I'm not sure what the answer is. The US does have courts to counteract government but the emergence of judicial activism (eg. Roe Wade, or the case where the courts ruled that the an owner had to sell to a developer because the result would be a higher tax yield), does seem to undermine this.

Your post is basically a lament for the decline in individualism. Personally, I think we on the right have given up on the culture war and consequently we start any argument at the disadvantage of being outside the prevailing orthodoxy. Nevertheless, I would agree with dearieme et al in thinking that direct democracy is a better direction to go than what we have now. It isn't ideal for the reasons you posit but there is a lot of residual "sensible" thinking which is opposed to the elite orthodoxy. Consider elected police chiefs: I can't see many electors priorities focusing on sensitivity training rather than reducing crime.

The other hurdle (and I grant it may be insurmountable) is to remove from state control as many of the current functions as is possible. This is not primarily because of their inefficiency, but because they tend to have a corrupting effect on the user. We have to restore individual responsibility and eliminate the asumption the state will provide.

If the current NHS fiasco continues, moving to a French insurance based system might be feasible. Similarly moving to a school voucher/all independent schools system is also viable. In Sweden, there was great opposition initially but it quickly became embedded.

John East

I have to admit to being one of those young men you referred to who questioned democracy from the early days of our political awareness, but I suspect our motives were more to shock and annoy rather than add wisdom to the debate.

Only in the last ten years or so have I come to realise we were correct, but do we need more, true democracy or less democracy? I’m afraid it’s probably too late for either. I agree that democracy is no more than a social construct, and as such there are no absolute rules or laws that can guide us. Not only are the correct institutions required, but the correct electorate as well. Tinkering with the former is pointless when voters have lost a common set of beliefs in morality, personal freedom, self reliance, and responsibility. Democracy will give us Sharia law across parts of Northern England, if not today, then in the near future, and it has given us a particularly prim, authoritarian middle class socialism in our regional assemblies and in many town halls.

So what’s the answer? I don’t think there is one.


Dearieme, that's where you and Wayne part company with me. There is an assumption in Britain that, perhaps because power was wrested in the Civil War from an absolute monarch, that Parliament's power should be absolute. That's implicit in the idea of the courts "usurping" democratic power. I disagree. Constitutional courts exist to prevent the government usurping the powers of individuals. Because I argue that the State should only have those powers surrendered to it by individuals. I never gave it the power to kill me, for example, nor to decide whom I should marry, nor a thousand other things that would be no more justified if supported by a majority, than if not.

Democracy is better than other forms of choosing a government, but every government power over my life that is more than is strictly necessary to restrain me from harming others, is wrong.

I was a believer in Britain's unwritten constitution, but its speedy collapse (look how Labour packs the House of Lords with cronies, sells peerages, has repealed habeas corpus so that you can be arrested and held on mere suspicion, has apparently empowered the police to send death squads out onto London's streets etc. etc.) has shaken my faith.

Our constitution wasn't unwritten, it now seems. It wasn't there at all!


Wayne is perhaps right though in his implication that if democracy is to be rescued, that more direct democracy is the direction to go in. And then you need a Constitution to limit the power of that democracy. One problem is clear from the US: how do you stop your constitutional court usurping the democratic power of electors and their legislators?


Colin, the Americans have not lost those rights. The US Constitution means that they need only go to the Supreme Court to get them back. Our constitution really comprises just the three words mentioned in the post - "Parliament is sovereign." And Parliament is currently whipped in like a pack of hounds; under the control of a barmily authoritarian Executive.

Wayne, I was not arguing for less democracy. I was merely pointing out that democracy alone does not equal freedom. Democracy needs to be limited by individual rights. Otherwise, it really is just two wolves and a sheep voting on what's for dinner.


We don't need less democracy. We need more. We need citizens initiatives like the Swiss model and we need to have recall elections.

People are only disengaged from the political process because they have virtually no say about what goes on in the country.

If people don't like what the government are doing they can't do anything for about 5 years. They have no way of changing things or even getting the people out of office. Initiatives and recall elections would change that.

Expat now, emigre soon?

"Keep your passport up to date". Right. Did mine last year. Some British Embassies, Cairo for one, are "experimenting", on a compulsory basis, with the issue of biometric passports at a newly inflated price for a 32 page passport. i.e. lots more personal data collected and stored by the government, at greater cost to the individual, for a small passport that most travelling ex-pats will need to renew in a couple of years.

Colin Campbell

It was interesting to me, living in the US prior to and after 9/11, how easily Americans surrendered many of their hard won political and privacy rights to fight the war on terror. Those will not be won back by individuals very easily, despite the enshrinement of many of these rights in their constitution and laws.

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