Monday, February 12, 2007

The Party System

by Hilaire Belloc

It may, however, be worthwhile to define exactly what democracy is. Votes and elections and representative assemblies are not democracy; they are at best machinery for carrying out democracy. Democracy is government by the general will. Wherever, under whatever forms, such laws as the mass of the people desire are passed, and such laws as they dislike are rejected, there is democracy. Wherever, under whatever forms, the laws passed and rejected have no relation to the desires of the mass, there is no democracy. That is to say, there is no democracy in England today.

Pure democracy is possible only in a small community. The only machinery which perfectly fulfils its idea is the meeting of the elders under the village tree to debate and decide their own concerns. The size of modern communities and the complexity of modern political and economic problems make such an arrangement impossible for us. But it is well to keep it in mind as a picture of real democracy.

The idea of representation is to secure by an indirect method the same result as is secured directly in such communities. Since every man cannot, under modern conditions, vote on every question, it is thought that a number of men might combine to send a man to vote in their name. Men so selected may then meet and vote, and their decision, if they are faithful representatives of the people, may be taken as the decision of the people.

Under no circumstances would such a system work perfectly. But that it may work tolerably, it is essential that the representatives should represent … Either the representative must vote as his constituents would vote if consulted, or he must vote in the opposite sense. In the latter case, he is not a representative at all, but merely an oligarch; for it is surely ridiculous to say that a man represents Bethnal Green if he is in the habit of saying "Aye" when the people of Bethnal Green would say "No."

If, on the other hand, he does vote as his constituents would vote, then he is merely the mouthpiece of his constituents and derives his authority from them. And this is the only democratic theory of representation.

In order that the practice may correspond to it, even approximately, three things are necessary. First, there must be absolute freedom in the selection of representatives; secondly, the representatives must be strictly responsible to their constituents and to no one else; thirdly, the representatives must deliberate in perfect freedom, and especially must be absolutely independent of the Executive.

In a true representative system the Executive would be responsible to the elected assembly and the elected assembly would be responsible to the people. From the people would come the impulse and the initiative. They would make certain demands; it would be the duty of their representatives to give expression to these demands, and of the Executive to carry them out.

It must be obvious to everyone that these conditions do not prevail in England today. Instead of the Executive being controlled by the representative assembly, it controls it. Instead of the demands of the people being expressed for them by their representatives, the matters discussed by the representatives are settled not by the people, not even by themselves, but by the "Ministry" -- the very body which it is the business of the representative assembly to check and control.

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