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The Party System
By Hilaire Belloc, Cecil Chesterton
IHS PressCopyright © 2007 IHS Press
All rights reserved.
THE REPRESENTATIVE SYSTEM
The Idea of Representation
It is hardly necessary here to argue the abstract question of democracy. All rational political systems that have ever been tolerated among men have been based ultimately on the expression of the popular will, and at the present time at any rate no party can be found that explicitly denies the doctrine of the people's sovereignty. During the last two elections the two parties were shouting against each other that "the Will of the People must prevail," and the only point in dispute was whether the Will of the People was best represented by the Duke of Sussex or by his son-in-law, the Right Honourable James Blagg.
It may, however, be worthwhile to define exactly what democracy is. Votes and elections and representative assemblies are not democracy; they are at best machinery for carrying out democracy. Democracy is government by the general will. Wherever, under whatever forms, such laws as the mass of the people desire are passed, and such laws as they dislike are rejected, there is democracy. Wherever, under whatever forms, the laws passed and rejected have no relation to the desires of the mass, there is no democracy. That is to say, there is no democracy in England today.
Pure democracy is possible only in a small community. The only machinery which perfectly fulfils its idea is the meeting of the elders under the village tree to debate and decide their own concerns. The size of modern communities and the complexity of modern political and economic problems make such an arrangement impossible for us. But it is well to keep it in mind as a picture of real democracy.
The idea of representation is to secure by an indirect method the same result as is secured directly in such communities. Since every man cannot, under modern conditions, vote on every question, it is thought that a number of men might combine to send a man to vote in their name. Men so selected may then meet and vote, and their decision, if they are faithful representatives of the people, may be taken as the decision of the people.
Under no circumstances would such a system work perfectly. But that it may work tolerably, it is essential that the representatives should represent. The extraordinary capacity of politicians for tying themselves in inextricable knots of confused thinking was never better shown than in the current saying that a representative should not be a mere delegate. Either the representative must vote as his constituents would vote if consulted, or he must vote in the opposite sense. In the latter case, he is not a representative at all, but merely an oligarch; for it is surely ridiculous to say that a man represents Bethnal Green if he is in the habit of saying "Aye" when the people of Bethnal Green would say "No." If, on the other hand, he does vote as his constituents would vote, then he is merely the mouthpiece of his constituents and derives his authority from them. And this is the only democratic theory of representation.
In order that the practice may correspond to it, even approximately, three things are necessary. First, there must be absolute freedom in the selection of representatives; secondly, the representatives must be strictly responsible to their constituents and to no one else; thirdly, the representatives must deliberate in perfect freedom, and especially must be absolutely independent of the Executive.
In a true representative system the Executive would be responsible to the elected assembly and the elected assembly would be responsible to the people. From the people would come the impulse and the initiative. They would make certain demands; it would be the duty of their representatives to give expression to these demands, and of the Executive to carry them out.
It must be obvious to everyone that these conditions do not prevail in England today. Instead of the Executive being controlled by the representative assembly, it controls it. Instead of the demands of the people being expressed for them by their representatives, the matters discussed by the representatives are settled not by the people, not even by themselves, but by the "Ministry"–the very body which it is the business of the representative assembly to check and control.
It will be the main business of this book to inquire what is the force which not only obstructs but largely reverses the working of the representative machine, turning into an engine of oligarchy what was meant to be an organ of democracy.
The detailed causes of this reversal will require some careful analysis; but if the thing which makes representative institutions fail here must be expressed in a phrase, the two words which best sum it up are the "Party System."
What the Public Thinks
We have just attempted a sketch of representative government as it ought to be, and the English people long believed that they had got, if not quite that, at least a decent approximation to it. It was their boast that without bloodshed or violent severance with the past they had as much of the reality of self-government as the most perfectly planned Republic could have. In what degree this was ever true will form the matter of discussion later. But undoubtedly it was widely believed. Most Englishmen until very lately, if told that they were not self-governing, would have laughed in your face.
But now a dim suspicion has begun to arise in the minds of at least a section of the people that this historic optimism is not quite as true as it looks, that the electors do not as a fact control the representatives, and that the representatives do not as a fact control the Government, that something alien has intervened between electors and elected, between legislature and Executive, something that deflects the working of representative institutions.
That thing is the Party System.
A method of government has grown up in our country under which the representatives of the people are divided into two camps which are supposed to represent certain broad divergences of opinion. Between these two the choice of the election lies, and the side which secures the largest measure of support forms a Government, the minority undertaking the work of opposition.
How this system arose, how it has changed, and how it actually works, will be subjects of future consideration. At present we are concerned with the attitude of the public towards it.
First, it must be said emphatically that the body of public opinion upon which the Party System operates is in the main still honest and public spirited. Not to admit this would be to nullify the effect of all criticism of the evil which we are trying to expose; for, as we are all aware, the theoretic differences at least between policies proposed is considerable, and often corresponds to the difference of schools of political thought; and even if we regard the politician as a mere advocate, he does hold a different brief according to the side of the House on which he sits, and though this brief may be unreal to him, and though, as it is the object of this book to show, he may have, and probably has, no intention of making it the basis of action, yet it is often real enough to those to whose support he appeals. Thus a Conservative leader must denounce the land taxes which the body of his followers in the country quite sincerely detest, and though, as they begin to suspect, he has no intention of repealing them, yet it would be childish to question the genuineness of the feelings which he is attempting to exploit.
The Party System, which is a game (and a source of profit) to the politicians, is often a matter of deadly earnest to their honest backers in the country.
There are still very many who believe implicitly and fervently in the reality of the conflict. There are Conservatives who are convinced that the Liberal Government is only prevented from dragging the nation through spoliation to destruction by the noble patriotism of the Conservative opposition. There are Liberals who look on Mr Asquith and Mr Winston Churchill as the tribunes of a people rightly struggling to be free, confronting with undaunted courage the frowns of a haughty oligarchy. The old lady who, on Mr Gladstone being pointed out to her at the funeral of some public personage, remarked: "Oh, I hope he hasn't come to make a disturbance!" is still with us, and so is the enthusiastic and credulous Radical who believes that Mr Churchill has become an outcast from his order by bravely taking the side of the people.
There is another kind of enthusiast who helps to keep the Party System going. This is the man who earnestly desires some particular measure which one of the two parties has espoused, or (what comes to much the same thing) has an intense repugnance to some measure which the other party has espoused. Thus many men, more or less indifferent to politics generally, think that Tariff Reform will benefit their industry, and accordingly vote for the party that advocates it. Again, a man will often find his particular religion affected by legislation in regard to education or religious establishments, and will support the party identified with his views. To the same class belong the militant teetotalers, and the Irish, to whom nothing matters but the cause of their nationality. Men of this type do not form a very large section of the electorate, but they are of importance at elections, and the politicians have to take them into account.
Finally, there is the mass of ordinary voters, largely indifferent to political problems, yet at times keenly interested in politics. How shall we define their state of mind?
Perhaps the best parallel to the attitude of the general public towards politics is to be found in the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race. Of the crowds that line the towing path every year from Putney to Mortlake there are few that have ever been to either University, have ever known anyone who has been to either, have even the remotest or most shadowy connection with either. Yet they take sides enthusiastically, and would almost be prepared to shed blood for their "fancy." Note that this is not a mere question of backing your judgment on the merits of the two crews. Not one man in ten knows anything about that, and many are proud of always sticking to the same side year after year, of being always "Oxford" or "Cambridge," whether their favourite colour wins or loses. And just as they vehemently take sides with a University to which they have never been, so they take sides as vehemently with a party which they do not control and from which they can never hope for the smallest benefit.
Such are the mass of the supporters of either party. They derive their political opinions originally from some family tradition or some fanciful preference, but they back them with all the passion of sportsmen. In a vague subconscious way they know it is a game, but they happen to enjoy playing the game.
Nevertheless, there is a section of the public, not perhaps large, but certainly increasing, which is beginning to be uneasy about the Party System. It is natural to men to wish to have voice in the government of their native land, and many are beginning to feel that they have no such effective voice today. Laws which they detest are passed, passed easily by the consent of both parties, and they are powerless to defeat or even to protest against them. Measures which they ardently desire and which they know that most of their neighbours ardently desire are never even mentioned. Acts of the Government which seem at the very least proper subjects for criticism and inquiry are suffered without comment. Scandals and blunders of which they have caught a glimpse are suddenly covered over and buried in silence.
And along with the discontent engendered by these things goes an intangible suspicion that they are in some way the victims of a conspiracy. Why, asks such a man, does not his own side follow up its advantages? Why do his leaders unexpectedly spare their opponents at the very moment when these appear to be in their power? How many honest Radicals were bewildered when the Liberal leaders joined with their rivals to stifle the inquiry into the Jameson Raid! How many honest Unionists have been puzzled by Mr Balfour's hesitations and equivocations in the matter of Tariff Reform! How many on both sides have felt somehow fooled and betrayed when they saw the wild agitation and counter-agitation of last year end in a meaningless "Conference"!
It should be remarked, however, that those of whom we speak are generally very far from realising the full truth of their own suspicions. That something is wrong they instinctively feel. What is wrong they would find very great difficulty in defining. They lay the blame now on one leader, now on another. They hardly yet see that the evil is in the system itself. Thus Radicals will say that Mr Asquith is too Whiggish, that he does not fully enter into the feelings of his party in regard to the House of Lords. They do not realise that the whole Liberal Front Bench is as deeply interested as he in keeping the old game going in accordance with the old rules, and dreads as much as any Tory could dread any violent change which might suddenly alter the conditions and perhaps put a summary end to the contest. Thus, again, enthusiastic Tariff Reformers condemn Mr Balfour as weak. They fail to see that the real difficulty is not that he is weak, but that he is strong–strong in the traditions of party, the complex system of relationships and alliances that cover English politics like a net, much too strong to allow his hands to be forced by the Tory Democracy. Men of all opinions were puzzled, bewildered, and somewhat perturbed by the Conference, not knowing that it was but a more formal type of those thousand private Conferences between opposing leaders behind the Speaker's chair and at dinner parties and social clubs which give their real direction to the politics and to the destinies of modern England.
Past and Present
It is an error to suppose that the Party System was always the organised imposture which it is today. There was a time when it had a meaning–nay, even within times comparatively recent it meant more than it means now.
During the seventeenth century there was in England a definite conflict of political ideals. The old conception of kingship was at war with the theory of Parliamentary Government; and the vital reality of the struggle was proved by the one infallible test, the fact that men were willing to fight and kill and be killed for their own ideal. The war went on with varying fortunes until the Revolution of 1689, which marked the final triumph of one doctrine over the other.
It is a great though a not uncommon mistake to suppose that that triumph was a triumph of democracy. The Revolution took for its excuse indeed a democratic theory, simply because some excuse of the sort must be taken by anyone who attempts to put his political success upon a moral basis. There is not, and never has been, any moral theory of sovereignty conceivable that was not based upon the ultimate sovereignty of the community. But neither in motive nor in practice was there a democratic force behind the Revolution of 1689.
The Revolution of 1689 was not made by the people. The populace of London and of certain prosperous southern towns may have been in favour of it, but the mass of ancient and rural and then numerically preponderant England was certainly against it. The Revolution was made not only by but for a group of wealthy intriguers with an object in the main financial. That group of men and their successors proceeded to enrich themselves at the public expense in every conceivable way. Perhaps the best commentary upon the Revolution of 1689 is to be found in the enclosure during the century and a half which followed the accession of the House of Hanover of more than 6,000,000 acres of common land by the rich landowners and their satellites who had drawn the sword for "civil and religious liberty."
What triumphed in 1689 and again in 1715 and 1745 was not the people but the Parliament. The Parliament did not represent the people; indeed, it hardly professed to do so. It was jealous of any publicity given to its debates, it gloried in the private possession of seats in Parliament by particular magnates, and perhaps the most significant symptom of its character was the comparative effacement of the House of Lords.
The Parliament, then, represented a narrow class, which had for its base the great landowners, but for its buttresses the merchants, and for its recruitment wealth in any form however gotten. But it should be remembered that within this class there were real differences of opinion. The political conflicts of the eighteenth century were therefore, compared with our own, real conflicts. The Parliament might have little regard for the mass of the people, but it was powerful as against the mere Executive. The fact that strong Ministers were obliged to spend enormous sums in bribing the legislature proves that the legislature was able to control them, and, if not placated, to overthrow them. Such direct bribery has now ceased, but it may be questioned whether this cessation is not due rather to the growing impotence of the House of Commons than to any increase in public virtue. So again the conflicts of Pitt and Fo had this difference from the conflicts of rival politicians of the present day, that they extended to the sphere of private life. The two men did not speak to each other. They belonged to the same class, no doubt, for it was the only class possessed of any political power. But they did not, like Mr Asquith and Mr Balfour, belong to the same set.
Excerpted from The Party System by Hilaire Belloc, Cecil Chesterton. Copyright © 2007 IHS Press. Excerpted by permission of IHS Press.
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Table of ContentsForeword Congressman Ron Paul 7
Introduction Prince Sforza Ruspoli 15
Preface Hilaire Belloc Cecil Chesterton 21
The Party System
The Representative System 25
The Governing Group 38
The House of Commons as It Is 54
The Secret Funds 76
The Control of Elections 86
The Defence 99
Can It Be Mended? 124
A Note on Co-option 135
A Note on Collusion 140
A Note on the Press 144