Too Much Democracy

Most of us in the West believe in democracy. Although it is no longer regarded as proper to “civilise” people by teaching them about God and European ideas about law and order – a clever way of empire building – we do still find it acceptable to try to persuade Johnny Foreigner to embrace our Western democratic values.

But do we, ourselves, have an excess of democracy? I would argue that perhaps we do.

Firstly, there is voter apathy. For a number of reasons, people choose not to vote. They feel that their vote won’t make any difference. Or that all politicians, regardless of party, are either self-serving, useless, or both. Or they simply can’t be bothered. Turn-out in May’s local elections will, no doubt, be rather low.

Secondly, there is the question of legitimacy. Which democratically elected body has jurisdiction over any given issue? That is one of the arguments advanced by those who do not wish to have an elected House of Lords.

Thirdly, democratic campaigns can complicate the process of government. It’s bad enough when we have a general election campaign lasting about three weeks. But at least the whole country has a say in the final outcome. But what of battles within political parties?

On 7th July last year, Boris Johnson bowed to the inevitable, and announced his resignation as leader of the Conservative party. He would resign as Prime Minister once a successor had duly been elected in his stead. The parliamentary party would choose two candidates for the membership as a whole to vote on, and the result was to be announced on 5th September.

On 15th February this year, Nicola Sturgeon announced her resignation as leader of the Scottish National Party. The result of the SNP’s election will be announced in just under two weeks, on 27th March, when Sturgeon will then resign as First Minister of Scotland.

The Conservative leadership battle was long, tedious, and brutal. The SNP’s election campaign isn’t quite as long, but has so far proved just as tedious and brutal, and there’s no indication that things will change. In both cases, candidates have carried on as though there opponents were from different parties, which never implies post election stability.

For two months last summer, the Tories had no leader. On the face of it, that was their problem. However, it meant that the UK had a prime minister who could most charitably be described as a “caretaker”. He could only, as Winston Churchill might have put it, “mind the shop”.

Likewise, by 27th March, the SNP will have been leaderless for six weeks, and Scotland’s First Minister will similarly have been in office, but not in power.

Both situations are absurd, but in both cases, the party faithful have been asked to exercise their democratic rights. Conservative members were, and SNP members are in the process of being, asked to vote for people that they had almost certainly never heard of, about whom they know nothing and care less, who they have never met, and probably never will meet, and probably wouldn’t like them if they did. Hence the weeks and weeks of speeches, televised debates, articles, interviews, briefings and counter-briefings, preening and prevarication, character analyses and character assassination, hyperbole and hypocrisy.

The whole process is wrong. Not only do we have the aforementioned insane lame duckery, but these mini electorates tend to be very stupid. Let us consider the Conservatives.

In 2001, the first time that the membership outside Parliament had a say, they elected Sir Iain Duncan Smith, a man so hopeless that within two years, he had been forced to resign because he had lost the confidence of his MPs. In 2019, they voted in droves for Boris Johnson, a man whose compulsive mendacity, in addition to his extreme libidinous productivity while evading responsibility, made him thoroughly unsuitable for high office. Last summer, they went for the crazy Liz Truss. All three were the least favoured options of parliamentarians. MPs work with these candidates. They get to know their strengths and there weaknesses.

To be fair, although their only leadership campaign while in government was rather understated, the membership of the Labour Party has dropped a couple of electoral clangers. In 1980, they elected Michael Foot, who presided over a split in his party, and contrived to make Labour unelectable for a decade-and-a-half. And in 2015, they went for the horribly divisive Jeremy Corbyn, who caused another split in the party, and lead them to their worst electoral drubbing in eighty-four years.

The SNP’s membership, though, is more complicated. Duncan Smith, Johnson and Truss all appealed to the Tory right, and Foot and Corbyn to the Labour left. However, a similar thing isn’t really possible with the SNP. This is because the cause of Scottish independence is the single unifying policy. It is an idea that attracts progressives, centrists and conservatives alike. If she were not so obsessed with the breaking up of the UK, Nicola Sturgeon might have become one of the movers and shakers in the Labour Party. Similarly, given her social views, leadership hopeful, Kate Forbes, might now be a rising star in the Conservative party. So they, the members, have to decide, not who would be the best person to run the Scottish Government, but who would communicate well enough to try and persuade unionists to change their minds, and who would be best at trying to intimidate the UK Government.

Although these contests have a certain appeal to political nerds, they really should be consigned to history. For the sake of the people, indeed, for the sake of the country, All parties should abandon the idea of “one member one vote”, and return the matter to their parliamentary representatives. That way, campaigns would be shorter, and the business of government could be better managed.

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