Should We Blame Democracy? (2004), by Sean Gabb

Should We Blame Democracy?
by Sean Gabb
(A Speech Given in May 2004 to the University of York Conservative Association)

Because I make a point of never buying newspapers, and because the railway company that I use only seems to clean its carriages when passengers complain about the mess in them, I often catch up on news stories a week after first publication. So it is with the subject of this speech. I have just seen a copy of Tuesday’s Independent. According to one of its headlines, the Prime Minister wants to let people vote at the age of 16, rather than at 18 as for the last 35 years.

I suppose this will start a debate in the usual media places – are people so young able to comprehend the issues on which they are called to decide? and so on and so forth. It is an important debate in the sense that Mr Blair would not be for enfranchising the very young unless he thought they might vote for him – and, so far as he may be right, here are grounds for opposing him. But it hardly seems to matter in general who gets to vote. Voting has so little effect on how the country is governed nowadays that we might as well enfranchise babies in the cot – or, for that matter, household pets and the dead.

I could move now to a reflection on the wickedness of Tony Blair, and how he has destroyed our system of government. But while he has been the worst peacetime Prime Minister of the past hundred years, his time in office has seen no radical departures from what was laid down by those before him. The problem we face is less what one man has done to our system of government than the system itself.

In theory, we live under a system of representative government. We elect Members of Parliament. These, together with an open and diverse media, keep watch over the executive, making sure that it respects our ancient liberties and generally follows our wishes with regard to the administration of the country. Such seems roughly to have been the practice before the Great War, and perhaps for several decades thereafter. It is not, however, the practice now. Instead, the main parties have been colonised by corrupt mediocrities. They compete for office and shout different slogans, but they are fully agreed that no regard for liberty or the present national interest – or any but our most rioutously expressed wishes –  should restrain their doing what they find personally convenient. They are assisted in their work by a mass media that may be concentrated into the hands of just a dozen men, and that are used to demonise opposition from outside the main parties. When the media fail to police dissent, the ruling party calls in the security services.

The result is that supposedly open elections have produced parliamentary majorities to abolish the death penalty for murder, to allow two great waves of mass-immigration that have transformed and are transforming the country, to hand over legislative powers to the European Union, and most recently to take us into a war at no time actively supported by more than a tiny minority.

Perhaps we are about to see one of those periodic convulsions that, while not quite a revolution, do bring changes in the policy of government. Perhaps on matters of both foreign and domestic policy, this government has gone too far, and perhaps it will be replaced by another that feels obliged to carry some of the reforms that it advocated in opposition. Or perhaps there will be some change of office holders within the present government, and then changes in policy. But, while not a revolution, this will not be a regular part of our constitution. If changes are made, it will not be because our representative institutions are still in working order. It will be closer in its nature to those riots in Ottoman Constantinople that could be appeased by showing the head of an unpopular Vizier. We may be able to force our rulers not to outrage our dearest prejudices. We cannot force them to represent us in any meaningful sense.

Why? Why is representative government dead in this country as a living system? Over coffee with a friend this morning, I blamed democracy. After all, one of the reasons why the Victorian constitution worked so well was because the electorate was both small and fairly well-educated. Because it was small, the votes of individuals weighed heavier for members of Parliament than they do in our age of giant constituencies. Because electors were educated, they knew what they wanted and how best to get what they wanted. Electorates now are both large and on average stupid. Votes go not to individuals on the basis of issues or character – nor even to parties on the basis of known principle – but to parties on the basis of class or ethnic identity. If votes do shift from one party to another, it is most often because of some trivial association of moods. 

So far as I can tell, the Victorian Constitution was representative. Its representative nature rested on various bases – a small and pretty well-educated electorate, a political class that had some regard for the national interest over the long term, a media that was diverse and open to outsiders, and a philosophy of government that stressed the limits of what could and ought to be achieved by political means. It is always easy to look on past times, noting the excellencies and overlooking defects that might have given those who lived then a less favourable view. But there does seem to have been a close bond between representatives and electors, and a general holding to account. Macaulay, for example, lost one seat because he upset his constituents, and was greatly embarrassed on another occasion by the publication of a letter he had written to a constituent he barely knew.

Though some more than others, these bases have been seriously eroded. The electorate is huge and its average standards of intelligence and education are inadequate for any reasonable scrutiny. The media, both public and private, are concentrated into the hands of perhaps a dozen men. Our philosophy of government may be summarised in the proposition that all good begins with a law and a grant of the taxpayer’s money. These erosions have enabled the rise of a class of professional politicians who are in politics either for the sex and money alone, or through commitment to some semi-totalitarian ideology. Because they dominate both parties, because they monopolise the selection of candidates, because they have the support of the media – even if not in every detail of policy – their hold on power has not so far been shaken.

And the cause of this, I repeat, is the formally democratic nature of our institutions. I do not know if it is more the size or the quality of the electorate, but it is the universal franchise that is largely to blame. It did seem a good idea to liberals in the past to trust the working classes with the vote. But the more intelligent workers then took their tone from a middle class that believed in the possibility and value of education. Nowadays, generations of social mobility have removed most people of intelligence from the lowest classes, so that differences of merit now correspond much more than in the past to differences of social position. At the same time, hardly anyone receives an education worth the having, or much notices its absence.

I wish I could say what ought to be done. But I cannot. It is easier to blame diagnose our ills than to prescribe for them. It is one matter to say that too many people have the vote. It is another to suggest an acceptable and workable principle by which voting may be confined to a few.

We can suggest a property franchise – so that only freeholders or long leaseholders could vote. This did once make sense, but makes little now. Such a franchise now would leave some of the most frivolous and dangerous electors untouched, and would deprive us of much common sense. But the real objection is that everyone at present would think it unjust. No matter how attractive it may seem, a principle is worthless if enough find it disagreeable. The same objection applies to a franchise based on payment of taxes or on education – assuming, this is, there were much worth the name.

One possibility is a franchise based on military service – of the sort described by Robert Heinlein in Starship Troopers. This would confine the vote to those most willing to give their lives for the community, and yet intelligent enough not to have given them. But the institutions of a science fiction utopia are no more to be recommended for the present than the institutions of the Greeks and Romans. If such a franchise were to be brought in today, we can be sure it would soon be corrupted from its original shape – perhaps, for example, would be supplemented or replaced for the children of the higher classes by a few years of teaching African paupers how to read the instructions on condom packets.

We are, I often think, in the same position of the French in the 1780s. They knew their constitution was in need of radical change, but could not agree what changes were needed, and doubted if any made could be generally accepted. By the opening of the new century, though, agreement had been reached, and on solutions far more radical than would once have seemed possible. From 2020, people may look back on Mr Blair’s latest constitutional “reform” with all the settled contempt it deserves. What they look back though I increasingly fear.

© 2004 – 2017, seangabb.

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