Friday, 17 November 2006

What is liberal government?

The most common and yet most dangerous aspect of our great democracy is the tendency to view electoral success as carte blanche to enact one's wishes. Liberals, conservatives and socialists alike take the opportunity of a majority in the House to pursue their agenda and to reward their people irrespective not just of the wishes of the losers but also of their interests and liberties.

So with a Conservative victory comes tax breaks for the wealthy and benefits for landed interests, while Liberals and socialists in their turn "Soak the rich", diverting people's hard earned wealth to their pet projects. Politicians cite their democratic mandate to attack those whom they view as their political opponents (the "evil rich", the "lazy poor"); in the 1970s, Denis Healey wanted to "make the pips squeak" with high taxation.This is not what liberalism is about.

On the contrary, this is the very reason why liberals are concerned with the power of government. Government may be chosen by the majority but it still must represent the whole of society. Otherwise, we have the elected totalitarianism of Venezuela or the tribal politics of Kenya, where whoever wins rewards their allies and kinsmen at the expense of the rest.

Individuals, no matter how high-minded they might be, cannot be trusted to rule in a neutral and even-handed manner. We are all fallible; we are all biased. Thus, liberals must rule in a manner that recognises their own fallibilities and ensures that government does not serve any particular portion of the population, no matter how large and how needy they may be. Government should not serve the deserving. Government should limit itself to providing the basic framework within which individuals may thrive.

Democracy allows us to choose who will rule us and what the rules will be, but it does not excuse governments turning upon or exploiting the losers.

1 comment:

FEC said...

First of all, congratulations on setting up this blog! Carry on in the same vein and I'll be a regular reader.

I want to draw together a couple of strands from your pieces and pose an old, but certainly not tired, question.

The "democratic mandate", as you correctly point out, is a commonplace phrase wheeled out by governments to justify their actions. This nonsense has been happily repeated ad infinitum by all governments since the meaningful extension of the electoral franchise. But in the British context, the myth of the mandate is even greater due to our bizarre electoral system.

Many argue that this system, which has returned a government with a working majority on little more than a third of the popular vote, is a positive force as it produces strong governments with the ability to force through their manifesto commitments. I can’t agree. This argument effectively gives a blessing to the “tyranny of the majority” and accepts that the winners take all. It also accepts that under our current system countless thousands of voters go to the polls on GE day knowing there is a decent chance that their vote will not count at all. Countless more stay at home for the same reason. How many more voters would turn out if they knew that, although they might not be backing the winner, their vote would count for something? Liberals everywhere should, and for the most part do, abhor our electoral system as a barrier to one of our most important freedoms, ie the ability to participate fully in choosing our government. That’s why we demand PR, in one form or another.

But PR is not an easy cure-all remedy for our sick political system. It’s a difficult choice to make. It forces governments to deal with its opponents more often, and, of course, this can lead to slow process and even deadlock. Should liberals fear this? Of course not. Firstly, the slower and more inclusive process will force governments to think their policies and legislation through more thoroughly in advance so as to avoid problems later on. We’ve seen enough bad legislation from the current government to last us a lifetime – think how things may have been different if they’d been the majority party in a governing coalition. Secondly, and most importantly, PR may force governments to think twice before introducing legislation at all. We cannot legislate a problem away - new laws should always be the last resort rather than the automatic first choice. Whether intentionally or not, a rapidly expanding statute book only serves to limit the choices we can make in our lives.

So how do we get PR on the agenda of the government of the day? The Lib Dems are the only party interested in the idea and they have little or no prospect of gaining power under the current arrangement. Part of the problem, I believe, is that PR looks like a party issue. It’s one of the many Lib Dem manifesto commitments, and is as such indistinguishable to many voters from removing the lower rate of tax or opposing the Iraq War. Electoral reform should not be about party politics; the arguments for and against are not drawn along the traditional partisan lines. Electoral reform is not the same kind of problem as university top up fees. It is an issue that should touch every MP who genuinely cares that thousands of voters in his constituency have been disenfranchised. Every government that has even vague aspirations to represent all its people should make this issue a priority.

I have to admit that I have little idea how the case for reform can be meaningfully advanced. You point out in another piece that liberal values tend to be advanced quickly only when they happen to be aligned with the needs of the other parties. This may be too broad a statement, but in the case of our electoral system it neatly describes why no reform is on the agenda despite the overwhelming arguments in favour of such change.

FEC (a freedom lover of no fixed political abode)