After reading this article you will learn about how the rights of political liberty affect the structure of government.
‘Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country.’ To be entitled to contribute to discussion is the same thing as to have ‘the right to take part in the government’; for the process of political discussion is the essential activity of government in a politically organized community. The process of political discussion has evolved, in the course of time, a number of organs for its operation.
These organs, distinct and yet connected, form a successive series, in which, as in a relay race, each of them hands to another the task of ‘carrying on’ from the point which it has reached itself. We may distinguish four of these organs, and proceed to trace their connexion.
The first of the organs of political discussion is party. Party, is a social formation which also discharges a political function and has thus, as it were, one foot in Society and one in the State. Each party is a voluntary association; but each party also formulates a political programme for the consideration and choice of the political electorate, and each party submits to the vote of that electorate candidates for election to Parliament who offer themselves as symbols and exponents of its programme.
At the first stage or lap in the process of discussion each party discusses in its own counsels the programme which it proposes to formulate; and each, when the programme is formulated, proceeds to discuss and debate it in public, before an attentive electorate, with the other party or parties.
The turn then comes for the second organ, the political electorate. That too is an organ of discussion, at any rate in periods of election (which is not to say that it is dead, or ceases to think and interrogate, in the intervals between such periods); it canvasses and considers the programmes, and examines and cross-examines the candidates, submitted to it for choice; and when it has made its choice, it hands over the further conduct of discussion to the representatives whom it has chosen, trusting them to carry it into far greater detail, and to carry it on with a far greater degree of continuity, than it can possibly do itself.
The third organ then succeeds in its turn to the same double task—the task of conducting discussion itself, and the task of preparing the way for further and later discussion. This organ is the representative body; the core and centre of the whole system of representative democracy; the Parliament which, as its very name indicates, is peculiarly engaged in the activity of ‘parley’ and constant discussion. But the function of Parliament, like that of the electorate, is a twofold function.
It is not only an organ of discussion itself, engaged in a process of constant debate intended to translate a general programme into legislative enactments: it also helps to create, and it continually serves to support, a government which it expects and trusts to carry discussion into even greater detail, and to conduct it even more continuously and intimately, than it is able to do itself.
We thus come to the fourth and last organ in the successive series; the responsible government or cabinet, which is the organ of government par excellence (though also, and at the same time, only one of a number of organs of government in the wider sense of the word), and which is therefore commonly called ‘the Government’.
This government is ‘responsible’ in the sense that it must necessarily command the support of the representative body from which its members are drawn; but it may also be said to be responsible in another and even deeper sense. It is responsible for carrying the process of discussion to that crucial and final point at which it issues in decision.
A responsible government, organized under its head, is at once the innermost core of discussion and the originating motor of action. Not that the decision at which it arrives, and the impulse which it accordingly gives, is necessarily final or absolutely conclusive.
The decision, on any grave issue, will flow back, as it were, to the representative body for approval and confirmation; it may even flow back to the electorate, either for informal approval by what we call public opinion, or even for formal approval by an electoral vote in a general election at which a proposed decision is made the main or a dominant issue.
The process of discussion may thus return on itself; and after flowing from the electorate to the representative body, and from that to the responsible government, it may in turn flow back from the government to the representatives, and then from them to the electors.
There is thus a general system of discussion which operates through a number of organs. The difficulty of this system is to reconcile two necessities: the necessity, on the one hand, that each organ should concentrate on its work with a free vigour and a fresh impetus, as if everything hung upon the conclusion at which it arrives; and the necessity, on the other, that each of the organs should also keep in touch and harmony with the rest, acknowledging that they too, as organs of the same general process, have the right and duty to do their work, in their place and at their time, and that their right and duty must always be respected.
The peril of the system is that one or the other of the organs concerned should lay an exclusive emphasis on the first of these necessities, and arrogates to itself an exclusive and predominant importance. If that is done, the results will in any case be unhappy, because they will necessarily involve a disturbance of the whole system; but they will vary according to the nature of the organ on which an exclusive emphasis is laid as being the organ of discussion par excellence and therefore the dominant organ.
If it is the organ of party which asserts its predominance, you may have the open tyranny of a single party (whether of the Right or the Left), or the secret tyranny of a cabal which unites the leaders of several parties in an interested coalition and controls behind the scenes both the representative body and the nominal government.
If, on the other hand, it is the representative organ which is particularly conscious of its own importance, you may have a parliamentary autocracy, with the enthroned deputies installing and evicting governments as and when they think fit.
The system of political discussion is a delicate as well as a difficult system. To remember, and to seek to observe, the two necessities which it imposes is to face the problem of doing simultaneously two different things which seem almost contradictory: on the one hand, leaving each organ free to act with an original vigour to the full stretch of its capacity; on the other hand, keeping each organ within the limits of its capacity (so that, in the Platonic phrase, it ‘does its own business’ and no more than its business), and thus keeping all the organs in harmony and co-operation.
This is the general problem of representative democracy; and there is no way of avoiding the problem—except by substituting the dictatorship of one organ for a system of discussion divided among several.
To do that is to abolish discussion, at any rate as a general process in which all, at some stage, have the right to participate. (There may be left some fragment or simulacrum of discussion within the organ which holds the dictatorship; not that a fragment or simulacrum is anything more than a travesty.) But if discussion be the vital process of the life of any organized community, to abolish discussion is suicide and the end of the common life.
Representative democracy, considered as a system for giving effect to the rights of political liberty, is often defined as a system of government by all, or of government by the people. It is that; and yet it is something more than that. The right of everyone to take part in the government of his country is not a simple matter of all men saying, as a single aggregate, what is their will and what is the object of their volition.
On the contrary it is a complex matter of all discussing, through a variety of organs which are necessary for the purpose of full and thorough discussion, what is their thought, what is the content of their common conviction, what is the idea which they consider right and ripe for realization.
Ideas have quality in them, as well as quantity behind them; and while the quantity of wills assembled behind an idea matters, and matters greatly, the quality or value in an idea is also something that matters, and matters at least as much.
That is a reason, a fundamental reason, for the time and the pains which we spend on the process of discussion, (It is not the only reason; for we also exercise and breathe our minds, and develop the capacities of our personality, in the course of the process.)
We want to get at the quality and value of the ideas presented to us, and we cannot do that without taking discussion through stage after stage, sifting and sifting at each new stage. The courts of law and the methods of justice offer an analogy: there, too, ‘the rights of the matter’, which are the object of search, are sifted and clarified by a process of inquiry which rises from instance to instance by a progressive refinement.
The short cut of an immediate decision is tempting; but the only sure way of arriving is the way of successive stages. The electorate is one stage; but it is only a stage, and a general election is neither the beginning nor the end of the matter.
Government by all, in its true and full sense, takes time: it is not only a matter of the voting of all the electors: it is also, and even more, a matter of the deliberation of all the organs concerned and involved in the process of mature and considered decision.