Democracy was never a soft option. Unlike other forms of government, it requires the consent of the vast majority of the people. Citizens need to know the rules, have a degree of confidence in the rulers and be prepared to accept legitimate authority. It follows that an amoral, undisciplined society will not, forever, be a democratic one. So we need parties that are both deeply democratic and firmly committed to strong leadership. At the moment we have neither, and our political malaise starts there.
On the one hand, we have a party of authority, the Conservatives, that has, from long years in office, lapsed into a state of torpid complacency about the condition of democracy. That complacency undermines the authority that Tories say they exist to protect: the country chafes under their rule, questions its basis, leaps on its mistakes.
On the other hand, we have two leftish parties, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have become, after years in the wilderness, dangerously squeamish about authority and discipline. They have been driven away from hard choices, too terrified to offend voters, too keen to placate. This lack, in an increasingly discontented society, is as damaging to a healthy democracy as Tory complacency.
The authoritarians. Old Tories did not worry too much about democracy. It was a word for upenders of order, appeasers of the mob. Tories believed first in order and custom. Reconciling old Toryism with mass democracy was Disraeli's great achievement, the reason why he deserves such a high place in the Conservative pantheon. In 1876, he boasted to Buckinghamshire electors: 'I have endeavoured to reconcile change with that respect for tradition, which is one of the main elements of our social strength.' Respect first, democracy second. Lord Gilmour, the former cabinet minister and Tory theorist, has written: 'Conservatives do not worship democracy. For them, majority rule is a device. . . .'
As it happens, the party of authority is currently having a little war of its own, between complacent authoritarians, mostly in government, and irate, dispossessed authoritarians outside government. It need not concern us here, except to note that this week's attempt by peers to destroy Maastricht has a High Tory purpose, even though it comes cloaked in the democratic populism of a referendum. The rebels want to turn Britain back to full parliamentary sovereignty where, eventually, a truly strong national leader could again hold sway.
Ministers are, unlike the Tebbits and Rees-Moggs, self-satisfied about the quality of our democracy but with little justification for their smugness. There are examples aplenty - the withering of local government, the rise of unelected quangos, Tory contempt for the very idea of voting reform, and Tory bafflement that their secret overseas paymasters should even be an issue.
Perhaps the best recent example of such smugness and its political price comes from Scotland, where, last week, the local government reforms were widely attacked as a piece of ruthless Tory gerrymandering. The Government has a case to answer. An analysis for Scotland on Sunday concluded that six of the 28 new councils were likely Tory gains. Of those, five were unexpected. Oddities, both in terms of size and geography, abound - small new councils, safely Tory, Labour ones joined across the Forth, or split into two. No consistency, few explanations.
There are various responses the Scottish Office can give. Any new carve-up creates some oddities. Single-tier authorities will make local government more comprehensible and that gain is worth the political flak. But because the Government used private ministerial meetings to carve up the new councils, and holds only 11 of the 72 Scottish seats, the exercise merely drew attention to Scotland's democrat deficit.
Take the comments of Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, who, at the weekend, attacked the Opposition for scaremongering and hyperbole: 'Labour's front bench can have no credibility left with the electorate.' Well, perhaps so: their Commons antics last week were laughable. But, they might ask, who is Lord Fraser of Carmyllie to cite the views of the electorate? Since 1987, he has been Solicitor General for Scotland, Lord Advocate, and minister of state in charge of hospitals, doctors, social work, the police, criminal justice, prisons, courts and constitutional affairs.
But this powerful figure has not been elected to parliament, or anything else, for a decade. I have nothing against Lord Fraser. But he illustrates a problem. Too often, this government's actions lack the full- hearted assent on which authority in a democracy properly rests. The worst possible construction is put upon them and ministerial explanations are met with mocking laughter. Why? Because they seem insufficiently scrupulous about establishing their democratic credentials. Disraeli would have been alarmed.
The democrats. Ever since Pericles, democracy has seemed, to some people, as clear and pure a political principle as there is.
The world's most successful nation, the United States, was founded on democratic principles, has been copied around the world and has outlasted many tyrannies. On the left, from the Chartists onwards, democracy was regarded as an ultimate and unqualified good, far more important than tradition, order or any other Tory shibboleths. By and large, that case is now undisputed.
The heresy, however, is to regard democracy as an end in itself: just get the voting system right, and have the maximum number of votes, and everything else will necessarily follow. Leaders need only look to the public as the single and constant source of wisdom. Current opinion-poll popularity equals success. This democratic heresy explains why, for instance, referendums are becoming popular as a way of settling tough decisions on taxation or social policy. (Californians do it: the radical think-tank Demos proposes it; Paddy Ashdown hints at it.)
But political systems need leadership and advocacy as well as democratic legitimacy. Both are essential and it is hard not to see democratic extremism as a cop-out by would-be leaders. The public voice is not necessarily wise. We are quite capable of voting for much better services and much lower taxes on the same day. Britain has hard choices to make - about social spending, taxes, crime, education - that will not be determined by referendums.
What is really worrying is that the referendum is symptomatic of a wider uneasiness on the left about taking power and doing the right things, popular or not. Labour and the Liberal Democrats instinctively seem to wish to placate. They would like to pretend that social services can be improved painlessly, that tax increases are only for somebody else, that crime can be solved by more government expenditure.
In this increasingly tough, cynical country, a patriotic nostalgia for Never-never-land fails to convince. If the left is not keen to exercise authority and talk the language of social discipline, it will continue to be deserted by its own voters.
This analysis does not lead to a counsel of despair. It suggests two ways out of the cynicism that is degrading our democracy. The breakthrough will be achieved either by a Toryism that returns to the democratic basics or by leftist reformers able to convince voters that they really want to lead and take hard decisions.
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