Thursday, October 25, 2007

Can It Be Mended? Part One

by Hilaire Belloc and Cecil Chesterton

When the question is asked: "Can a dying institution be revived?" it is in the whole tendency of modern learning to answer that it can not. The House of Commons has ceased to be an instrument of Government. Its ancient functions have been killed under the prolonged and continuous action of hypocrisy. It affords to-day (if we except the three Irish parties, which have a definite political object and pursue that object) no more than an opportunity for highly lucrative careers. That career is founded upon the bamboozlement of the public (whose faculty for being duped these professionals hope to prey upon indefinitely), with the complicity of nobodies content to write M.P. after their name as a sufficient reward for supporting the Party System: to whom, of course, must be added the lawyers and business men for whom Parliament offers definite financial rewards, and that in proportion to their indifference to their representative duties.

All modern scholarship, we repeat, would tend to say of any institution which had fallen into such a condition that it was past praying for; and history is there with a hundred examples to support this modern conclusion.

We have in history case after case of a national institution falling into contempt and some other more vigorous organ supplanting it. The greatest case of all is, of course, the slow substitution of the Empire upon the ruins of the ancient Roman system of government.

It is here precisely that the crux of our problem comes in. Nothing is appearing that can take the place of Parliament. In its decay and futility it still makes our laws, and makes them and unmakes them at a greater rate than ever it did before. True, most of those laws are the work of the permanent officials; but some of them, or some parts of them, are due to the professional politicians.

In other words, the House of Commons, though fallen into a universally recognised decay, is still our only instrument for making laws. Nothing is rising to take its place, and in its decay it continues to work very appreciable evil.

The progress of the disease is now so rapid, its probable future effect so menacing, that, desperate as it must always be to attempt to revive a dying institution, it is the business of every man who cares for his country in the crisis through which it is passing to ask whether some remedy might not be devised.

Electoral changes will do nothing. A mere extension of the franchise, if the party machine were left as it is, would make little or no difference. Where to-day ten thousand apathetic men are seized by the paid agents of the machine and worried to the polls in groups as nearly equal as can be arranged by the managers of the show, to-morrow twenty thousand would be similarly drilled and run. The abolition of plural voting is common sense, but it would go nowhere near the root of the trouble. If it gave to one of the two teams a permanent preponderance over the other, the honour which obtains among gentlemen would compel the two in combination to devise some cry which should make the parties more nearly equal again.

To forbid canvassing would have the effect of course of enormously reducing the number of voters, the vast majority of whom vote under a sort of moral compulsion, and after several days of heavy badgering, concluded by a forced march to the polls. The bulk of men can never really care for the issues, either false or unimportant, which the bosses provide them with: nay, in the last election there was no issue at all, and the people were too weary to invent one for themselves, as they had done in the Chinese Labour Agitation in 1906.

But this decrease in the actual number of voters, though it would show up the nonsense, would have no practical effect: the game would still be played just as it was played before, and the actors would be of the same general competence in human affairs.

Payment of election expenses and payment of members are measures obviously desirable in themselves, but they would do little to break the Party System now, though they might once have done much to prevent its coming into existence in its present form. The official expenses of an election are a very small fraction of what the candidate has to find, so that their payment by the State would still leave the independent at a grave disadvantage as compared with the party hack, who could draw without limit on the Party Funds. The payment of members might make it easier for an honest man to remain independent, but it would in no way restrain the Front Benches from corrupting members by the promise in the future of pecuniary rewards larger and of a far more stable character. To the contractor, the merchant, the newspaper owner who enters politics with an eye to their corruption, the little sum thus guaranteed is insignificant. The great press of lawyers are looking for posts, the least of which will be a matter of 800 a year, the highest of 10,000 and 15,000. The professional men, to whom this or that permanent job as an inspector or departmental chief is the bribe, would not be the less eager to take money because he had already received it.

It has been suggested that the auditing of the secret Party Funds might undermine the Party System. To inaugurate such a practice would certainly deal the Party System a heavy blow, but the success would not be final. Side by side with the officially audited Party Fund another secret fund would at once spring up. A drastic penalty might indeed be attached to any such form of secret bribery.

But the law would tend to be a dead letter in the absence of an alert public opinion behind it; for secret bribery, when it has become a national custom, is not so easy to eliminate. Nothing is less easy to prove, since all parties to the crime are concerned in defending it and in hiding it, and no one person can feel himself aggrieved. It may further be urged that the very high expenses of an election remaining what they are, the depletion of the Party Funds, which would probably follow the publication of their accounts, would advantage the wealthy candidate as against the poor one. The independent candidate would indeed benefit, for his funds would be no less than now, while those of his official opponents might probably be reduced; but the poor man financed by the Party System would probably suffer. Whether or no this would be an advantage in other words, whether the direct rule of the rich is better or worse than the rule of their hired dependants may be an open question. In any case, with the payment of official election expenses by the State, and the stricter limitation of unofficial expenses, this tendency might be checked.

From The Party System
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