I don’t know for sure where I first heard it — it may have been Frank Muir Goes Into … — or who actually first said it, but the mere suggestion of this aphorism won me a commendation.
It goes like this …
Democracy is a system where you say what you like and do what you’re told.
This perhaps proves that I was born a cynic and didn’t become one as a result of my journalistic career.
You might think that they would have found a better alternative to democracy by now.
There have been many attempts: theocracy, monarchy, even dictatorship. The original dictatorships seem like quite a good idea: the dictator was a citizen elected to the post, who ruled — totally — for a fixed period, usually the course of a battle or natural crisis. Management by committee can be downright dangerous at such times. When the emergency was over, power reverted back to the people — some of the time.
Of course, other dictators have been less than happy to relinquish power: genocide usually ensues before the dictator is deposed by popular uprising, external intervention or The Grim Reaper. It never ends well.
With this in mind it’s no wonder these days that people are nervous about going the dictator route.
You might think that they’d be backing democracy then: the will of the majority. Compromise. Accommodation.
Not a bit of it.
At the last British General Election, no single party won an overall majority (of seats, that is. Truth is, the UK Parliamentary Elections System means that few elected governments have held a popular mandate. In other words, more people voted agin ’em, than for ’em).
We now have a coalition government — the largest party joined the third largest party to gather enough seats to allow unpopular legislation to be passed. What this means depends on where your political allegiances lie.
- If you’re on the British Political Right, the Coalition means that necessary changes to remodel the UK along good business lines as a low-tax, entrepreneurial society are being blocked by soft liberal influences such as those portrayed by Margaret Thatcher and Donald Rumsfeld.
- If you’re on the Political Left, the Liberal Democrat leader has abandoned the principles espoused by his party and previous Lib-Dem leaders including Michael Foot, Tony Benn and Arthur Scargill to allow the Tories to wage an ideological war on the peasant classes.
- Even if you’re a member of the Liberal Democrats, you are torn between doing what’s needed to turn the country around and taking to heart the claims of treachery, betrayal and U-turnage.
On mainland Europe, the wheeling and dealing of coalition government is a much more familiar political necessity. Compromises are made, “cherished” (yet embarrassing) polices are quietly shelved, and minority parties get the chance to punch above their weight.
In Dear Old Blighty, the erroneously named “First Past the Post” system means that we get it the other way round: majority parties get to chance to punch above their actual mandate. The current Coalition therefore is a beyond the average Brit’s understanding. S/He can’t get her/his head round the idea of politicians actually having to negotiate.
The Coalition is a mass of compromises: Tories and Lib-Dems have had to abandon cherished parts of their programs simply to find some common ground upon which to govern. For the Lib-Dems, the most obvious example is the pledge to vote against any rise in student fees. Clegg and his cohorts have been accused of all types of iniquity because they changed policy over student fees.
These accusations are wrong on so many levels. For example,
- All parties reverse, abandon or simply sweep under the carpet all sorts of manifesto promises as soon as they get into power.
- The Left has pounced on Student Fee increases as an example of Tory policy designed to keep poor people out of university when in fact it is middle class kids who will have to pay the fees and then only at a rate of £30 a month once their salary tops £21,000 per year (linked to inflation). American graduates would welcome that deal, I’m sure.
- The crazy drive to get 50% of all teenagers into “universities” has meant an exponential increase in soft courses which offer little final value in the form of a degree and the fact that more students now live at their parents’ home while studying than ever before means that they don’t even gain the experience of living away from home
Never mind the anecdotal observations that many of those complaining most about tuition fees are those least affected by them.
And there is evidence that the Liberal Democrats were planning to abandon the Fees pledge ahead of the election.
But the real reason the chiding of the Lib Dems is very wrong is that the pledge was part of a manifesto of policies which they would introduce as a Lib Dem Government. In this the Lib Dems were perhaps doubly unfortunate: no-one ever expected them to be in government in any form.
Certainly not the Tories. How could anyone lose against the most unpopular Prime Minister in living memory after the first meltdown of the globalisation era? Well, David Cameron almost did.
Cameron, an old-Etonian, is a dangerous Leftie in the eyes of much of his party and I’m sure that the Lib-Dems have proved the perfect cover to quietly drop some of the Tories’ more “rabid” ideas.
The Liberal Democrats aren’t the government, they are the junior partners. We know this because Lib-Dems have been given all the jobs that might make the Coalition unpopular with voters. But that means that their manifesto promises aren’t worth the paper they’re written on (just like all manifesto promises).
Indeed, simply joining a coalition seems to have caused some root-and-branch Lib-Dems to quit the party.
This can’t be because it’s a coalition, Liberals have been praying for a crack at shared power since Lloyd George. No it must be because it’s the wrong sort of coalition, i.e. not one with the Labour Party, despite the fact that Clegg said before polling day that he owed it to the British electorate to try to form a government based on popular mandate, in other words, joining the party with the most votes.
I beieve this shows that the exodus of “Lib-Dems” which followed the formation of the coalition was not made up of true Liberal Democrats. I think they were Labour Party sympathisers who couldn’t bring themselves to join a party of people who were happy to call themselves “Socialist”. The same thing happened with the SDP and the Liberals back in the 80s: there were some who just couldn’t bring themselves to join David Steel’s party (David Owen foremost).
No, it seems there is precious little democracy around today. People only seem to be in favour of it as long as they get all they want.