Regular readers will know that I’m sceptical of democracy. To me democracy is simply a marketplace for the buying and selling of political favours. Politicians sell their services. Sometimes they sell their services for cash. This kind of blatant corruption is actually the least terrible kind. Sometimes politicians sell their services in exchange for campaign funding. This is worse but it’s still not the most pernicious element of the system.
More often politicians sell their services in exchange for votes. In other words they sell their services in exchange for power. Voters sell their votes in return for political favours. This is the real problem. It’s like prostitution – it corrupts both the buyer and the seller.
The theory behind democracy is that voters will vote for the party or candidate who will do the best job for the country. This is pure fantasy. People vote for the party or candidate who will do the most for them personally, or for the particular interest group with which they identify.
There are conservatives who think that democracy works reasonably well in an ethnically and culturally homogenous society. There is some truth to this. If a society is divided along ethnic and cultural lines the problems with democracy will be exacerbated. However, even in an ethnically and culturally homogenous society democracy (as we know it) will still fail. No society is truly homogenous. There will always be interest groups. There will always be farming lobbies, mining lobbies, trade unions and countless other interest groups intent on getting the best deals for themselves. There will always be groups that coalesce around some ideology. There will always be groups that self-identify along cultural lines, or class lines. There will always be regional interests. The voters of Lancashire will put the interests of Lancashire ahead of the interests of Britain. The voters of Tasmania will put the interests of Tasmania ahead of the interests of Australia. There will always be special interest groups. Democracy still ends up being a corrupt system of patronage.
The question is – is there any way that democracy can be made workable? Do we need to throw out the baby with the bath water?
There are a few things that might help. Governments in Australia are always complaining about how difficult it is to pass new laws since they need to get them passed by both houses of parliament and it is almost impossible for a government to control a stable majority in both houses. In actual fact that is a feature, not a bug, of the Australian political system. Changing the law and passing new laws should be difficult. It should be very difficult indeed. It should be difficult because mostly the laws do not need to be changed and most new laws are either entirely unnecessary or positively dangerous. If you can’t have sensible government it’s better to have weak government.
What we really need to do is to return to being a constitutional monarchy. At the moment we are not a constitutional monarchy in any meaningful sense of the term. A true constitutional monarchy should have a balance of power between Crown and Parliament. The function of the Crown should be to protect us from the follies and the corruption of politicians, and from the follies and short-sightedness of the electorate. A monarch with the ability to dissolve Parliament and force a new election at any time on his own initiative and with the ability to veto unwise laws would have saved us from many unwise legislative stupidities. The royal veto would not need to be absolute. You could allow a mechanism for overruling such a veto. A good mechanism would be to allow a prime minister in such a situation to ask for a dissolution of Parliament. If he can win the subsequent election, get the law through the new Parliament and then have it passed by a referendum the veto would be nullified. If the law was genuinely necessary, or at least harmless, that would not be a problem. If the law was unnecessary, or dangerous, there’s a very good chance it would fail at some stage of the process.
It would be cumbersome. That’s the beauty of it. A king who exercised his veto too often would become very unpopular so it’s likely that it would only be exercised sparingly. A prime minister who tried to force through potentially harmful legislation would almost certainly find himself out of office.
The essence of a workable political system is that it should be based on a genuine balance of powers and it should err on the side of caution. No current western democracy fulfills those two conditions. A truly workable system is just about possible but it will require some major changes.