02 June 2022

Democracy without parties (2)


Democracy without parties (2)


Topic by James

Essay by Lawrence



Once upon a time there were no parties, in the modern sense of parties, in assemblies or councils in various countries. At the most assemblies had factions or maybe support for a person in the council.


Even early seventeenth or nineteenth century parties were in transition from factions to parties. For example the Whigs (UK, 1678-1859) were mainly against absolute monarchy and supported constitutional monarchism but they started as a faction in the UK “parliament” and by the time they were dissolved they had evolved into a party.


The Tories, the name is modern Irish, tóraí, meaning "outlaw" (check Wikipedia for these early parties), had quite a chequered history, but their main philosophy has always been that inheritance brings stability (see Tories Wikipedia). Today many people who are anti Tory, even though officially the party is called the Conservative party, would characterise this party as people who feel they are entitled to hold power and have a birthright to be wealthy.


The Whigs, who merged into the Liberal Party of the late 19th century, and many would say were then overtaken by the Labour party, were the “anti establishment” party over time. By the time Labour became the natural opponents of the Tories during the 20th century they became more militant, but their major weakness has always been that they never understood the international nature of socialism. It can be argued that this historical evolution has led to the catastrophic economic and political consequences of Brexit in the UK by failing to understand Britain’s role in geopolitics.


I mention these examples of UK parties mainly because I understand their history, but also because of our restrictions on Spanish politics. But there is nothing extraordinary about these parties. What matters is that political parties tend to reflect factions and interests in society and gain legitimacy by members of the parties being elected to parliaments.


Under the British system political parties are recognised by the parliamentary system through various constitutional instruments: the Whips office, budgets, the official opposition office, and so on. These instruments are confirmed through parliamentary votes rather than being mentioned in a codified constitution.


If we’re to be pedantic about the meaning of democracy, this term would mean what we think it means today only these past fifty or sixty years. The populist meaning of democracy today is voting for a government meaning parliament, during elections. Historically, democracies excluded women from voting, slaves, and non-land owners from the election process. Today many millions of people are excluded from the election processes simply because they are not citizens of the country they are official residents: but they are citizens enough to pay taxes. Unfortunately, I would argue that we are not better off from the American colonialists who gave us the democratic slogan: no taxation without representation.


The first philosophical issue we come across is the idea that democracy is power of the people. It is clear that names (or words) do not give meaning to the said word. I have tried to show that democracy does not mean the people because not everyone is allowed or has been allowed to participate in the election process. Secondly, the “-kratia” part of democracy, that is “power, rule” is once again not what we understand by power in everyday use today.


In the British example at least, the parties or factions in parliament exercise any power they have in parliament to meet the demands of their supporters in the country. But a key factor of democracy, however, is that the government is supposed to look after the interests of all the people and the country.


So can you see the second philosophical issue? Parties are elected to parliament to look after the interests of those who supported them during the election, usually based on a manifesto or ideology. But the government are made up of members of parliament who have the support of the majority of MPs. And yet these same people who form the government are supposed to look after the interests of the whole country and all citizens. You will remember that 16million people voted for the UK to leave the EU, yet the population of the UK is approximately 65million people. QED


Another reason why I am using the UK as a question example is because it is an extreme case even under normal circumstances. Having said that, the philosophical and political philosophy issues of the UK example are, more or less, the same for most countries.


Even if we can agree what democracy is at the practical level, or ought to be at the philosophical level, we still have the misconception mentioned by Lincoln during the Gettysburg Address “….government of the people, by the people, for the people” (see Wikipedia or other sources). Granted that in the USA they do some things different, in my UK example, Members of Parliament only swear an oath equivalent to be loyal to the Queen. In the USA and Spain the equivalent legislators swear an oath to protect the constitution. My point is that no one swears an oath to protect the people, or to serve the people as Lincoln tried to argue. I agree that written constitutions are more robust than uncodified constitutions, but constitutions can still be changed.


For me the underlying philosophical issue of this topic is that parties in parliament, and I have argued this in the past, are incompatible with the concept of members of parliament having absolute power. MPs have a priori proclaimed they will protect the interests of those who voted for them yet they are theoretically support to protect the interests of the whole country. At the very least this is muddled philosophical thinking.

A possible solution to the problems presented by our topic is to remove the Whip system in parliament. Political parties can function outside parliament, maybe on the lines of NGOs, but members of parliament can vote according to their conscience in a secret vote.


Best Lawrence


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