« Jill Kirby: Nurses should be carers not managers — the Willis report raises serious questions about NHS neglect | Main | Bruce Anderson: What do the American elections tell us about British politics? That is easy to answer: nothing. »

Andrew Lilico

Andrew Lilico: One reason for constitutional monarchy and against fixed term parliaments

One of the most important constitutional disputes is that between the Jeffersonian (or "Democrat") and Burkean conceptions of democracy.  For a Jeffersonian Democrat the people are sovereign and the task of democracy is to reflect the popular will in action.  Elected representatives take on board the instructions of their electors and act as delegates, implementing what the People want.

By contrast, for the Burkean the will of the people is properly a constraint on action, not the determinant of it - indeed Burke claims it is logically impossible to serve as both exerciser of and constraint upon authority - and the role of an elected representative is to exercise his own judgement; if the voters do not like what he does and prefer someone else, they are free to replace him next time.

The modern push is increasingly Jeffersonian, with referendum and recall carrying the day.  Politicians are not expected to spend their time developing their own thoughts or pressing their own agendas but, instead, to be asking their constituents how they should vote or occupying their time in mundane constituency business that mainly falls under the proper authority of the town or county council.  Beware the modern politician who, as Macleod said of Bevan, made attending his constituency "something...in the nature of an annual event."

My sympathies have always been Burkean.  In my view, Jeffersonian Democrat concepts, even if they had ethical support (which I dispute - but that's a question for another day), are impractical.  Most people do not want to spend their time gathering enough information to have an informed opinion on most policy questions.  They have lives.  What they want is to appoint someone else to spend her time conquering all the detail and thinking about the key philisophical or technical questions and then make a decision for them.  They want to elect their rulers, not to rule themselves.  The Jeffersonian concept inevitably degenerates into a tyranny of the interested party - she who shouts loudest and has most time for shouting wins.

The Burkean concept does, however, face a challenge.  What if a party or individual is elected on one basis and then does something completely different from what was promised?  To some extent we can embrace that, and say that the problem here is the lying, not the not doing what the public wanted.  Any rule attempting to forbid this that was not Jeffersonian would seem to face the impossible challenge of discriminating between a situation of outright lying and a situation in which circumstances changed after the election - as Keynes didn't say: "When the facts change, I change my mind.  What do you do, sir?"

But it is still discomforting.  Yet the Burkean need not despair, here, for the Whiggish constitution had anticipated this problem and provided a solution: the constitutional monarch.  The way it should work, and has worked in recent history, as we shall see, is this.  If a Party enters into government saying it will do one thing and then wants to do the opposite, or if it is elected without mentioning some very major change it then seeks to enact, the constitutional monarch and/or the House of Lords should invite it to seek a mandate for this new policy in a new General Election.

There were two famous instances of this in the twentieth century.  First, the January 1910 General Election was triggered when the Lords invited the Commons to seek a General Election to demonstrate that the wealth taxes in its "People's Budget" reflected the popular will.  (It is usually forgotten that the Liberals lost this election badly, as well as the December 1910 election, with the result that because the Liberals stayed in power only by forming a coalition with Irish Nationalists, even though the Lords accepted the General Election result and then passed the People's Budget, the Irish Nationalists made it a condition of coalition that the power of the Lords was curtailed through the Parliament Act 1911.)  Secondly, the Conservative government of Bonar Law was elected in 1922 on a pledge not to introduce tariff reform without a subsequent General Election, so when Stanley Baldwin took over in 1923 and wanted to introduce tariff reform, he sought and was granted a dissolution leading to the December 1923 General Election.

This does not mean that every significant change of policy must trigger a General Election - the constitutional monarch can exercise judgement over which cases require this and which do not; that is, after all, one of the great advantages of having a person determining these things rather than an abstract rule.

But what should be clear, from the above, is the following.  In a Burkean representative democracy, in which elected politicians are to exercise their own judgement, the unelected House of Lords, the constitutional monarch and its power to force an early General Election are key bulwarks that protect a Burkean system from those that might otherwise exploit their discretion through lies and tyranny.  If we do not want a Jeffersonian Democrat constitution - and surely as Conservatives we do not! - we should never lazily drift into thinking that the constitutional monarch is a merely ritual post.  Otherwise - heaven forfend! - we might end up favouring radically un-Conservative and constitutionally destablising notions such as fixed term Parliaments.  And we wouldn't want that, now, would we...


You must be logged in using Intense Debate, Wordpress, Twitter or Facebook to comment.