BOOKS AND ARTS
30 June 2011, Review by John Barnes
Foremen of a work in progress
British Prime Ministers and Democracy: from Disraeli to BlairRoland Quinault
Tablet bookshop price £58.50 Tel 01420 592974
In this fascinating if ultimately disappointing study, Roland Quinault focuses on the attitude and approach of 10 prime ministers to the advance of democracy, discussing also their attitudes to democracy within the Empire and in their approach to the rest of the world.
Quinault is particularly interesting on the Indian problem. His detailed conclusion compares their thinking, deals with influences on them and suggests their approach to the extension of democracy was pragmatic. The model of constitutional reform has been characterised vividly as “routine punctuated by orgies”. The influence of successive nineteenth-century French revolutions looms large, as does the example of the United States. Less is said about the development of a strand of nineteenth-century totalitarian democracy, although the twentieth-century prime ministers studied (Blair excepted) had to cope with its consequences. All came to see it as a pernicious and dangerous heresy.
Quinault’s choice of prime ministers is skewed, with only two growing to political maturity after 1940 and none at all in the first half of the twentieth century. Asquith, author of a substantial contribution to the written part of Britain’s uncodified constitution and a major protagonist in the battle for supremacy between Lords and Commons, is excluded, as are the two master politicians, Harold Macmillan and Harold Wilson, and that most autocratic of prime ministers, Neville Chamberlain. No reasons are given.
Some of the book’s limitations are accounted for by Quinault’s preference for exegesis rather than detailed critical analysis. He is not good at setting his subjects in the context of the intellectual debates taking place when most of those he studies were growing to political maturity. It could be said that these men were practising politicians, foremen rather than architects in the building of Britain’s parliamentary democracy. That
The Victorians in particular would have found constitutional debate part and parcel of their political lives. If they were nervous about democracy, it was because they paid attention to what was happening abroad and especially to the revolutions in France. They flourished in what has been well described as a “time of foreboding” and were well aware of dangers of democracy identified by James Mill and his contemporary critic, Fitzjames Stephen, by W.E.H. Lecky and by Gladstone’s friend, Lord Acton. Sir Henry Maine gave powerful voice to those fears in his Popular Government. There was a common concern that the demos would prove more tyrannical than any absolute ruler and too greedy for its own good. Social cohesion rested on holding a balance between the classes. One man, one vote, might destroy that balance. There was a fear too of “wirepullers”, demagogues who could whip up popular passions for their own end with little heed as to what might follow.
Quinault is prepared to discuss these fears in the context of the thinking, for example, of Gladstone and Salisbury, but he fails to relate them to a debate which shaped both the architecture of the modern British state and the model of democracy that is all-pervasive in Britain’s political culture. He chooses not to define democracy, seeing it simply as work in progress. It is possible to guess from some of his incidental judgements that proportional representation looms large in what he thinks it ought to involve. Not one of the prime ministers under study would have agreed, but rather than take their arguments seriously, Quinault brushes them aside as the almost inevitable consequence of their political opportunism. That is at best a partial truth.
All have in common what has been misleadingly described as the Tory view of the constitution. This identifies a bipolar structure of authority, a monarchical element, initiating, directing, energising, which is located now in prime minister and Cabinet, and a checking, criticising element, once to be found simply in Parliament, but now finding wider expression. Over the last two centuries, our political leadership has managed to preserve the monarchical element and to ensure that democratic elements of the constitution have grown within the existing framework of authority and accommodated themselves to it. This does not look to be chance.
Concepts of parliamentary government and representative democracy have been used by leaders like Stanley Baldwin to shape Britain’s political culture: it could even be argued that he was the architect of what might be termed Britain’s “electoral democracy”, a system in which the leadership is chosen by the people but in which its freedom to act is tempered only by the need to secure re-election.
Quinault’s conclusion, that Britain’s democracy remains a “work in progress”, seems, therefore, deeply flawed. As he acknowledges, modern British politicians and their electorate have shown scant enthusiasm for constitutional debate, let alone change. Europe or, less likely, devolution, might yet prove catalysts for that to alter, but whether that happens or not, Salisbury, Baldwin and their Labour counterparts merit further study as architects of what has proved a highly resilient political system.
THIS WEEK’S BOOKS
Boredom: a lively history
Reviewed by Tim Heald
Yale University Press, £18.99
Tablet bookshop price £17.10
The Pursuit of Italy : a history of a land, its regions and their peoples
Reviewed by Desmond Seward
Allen Lane, £25
Tablet bookshop price £22.50
Reviewed by Sarah Hayes
Tablet bookshop price £15.30
Story of Ireland: in search of a new national memory
Reviewed by Anthony Gardner
BBC Books, £20
Tablet bookshop price £18
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