DAILY TELEGRAPH MAGAZINE March, 1974

Towards A New Sobriety

DAILY TELEGRAPH MAGAZINE — March, 1974

The democracies grow increasingly ungovernable. No one now disputes this. Never has power been as centralised as it is today. The immense mechanisms of government can be controlled by switches on the Minister’s desk. Yet the democracies grow increasingly ungovernable. It is a phenomenon of perversities. Governments fight inflation while printing much more money than the value of output. Demands for equality grow in violence in inverse proportion to the narrowing of all discernible gaps. Industrial indiscipline mounts with the affluence of the workers. The shorter the hours, the greater the absenteeism. Contempt for the politicians grows with the people’s power to choose them.
O Lord, save us from ourselves.

A century ago most men in Britain over 21 were still not on the voter’s roll. Full- male suffrage is less than three generations old. The first time all women were able to vote in Parliamentary elections was in 1928 — 18-year-olds first voted in 1970. In every other Western democracy, except the U.S., full adult suffrage was introduced more recently still – in many cases after the Second World War. The limit of five years maximum for any elected Parliament became law in Britain only in 1911.

For everyone but children to vote for brief Parliaments is not therefore a right accorded by God to our mythic ancestors. It is a device a lot younger than the aeroplane. Nor was it what the Greeks, who coined the word, meant by democracy. It is true that in the city state of Athens, with a population smaller than Brighton’s, the inhabitants did briefly adopt a system of government in which all citizens could theoretically get up and speak in the assembly – everyone, that is, except the slaves (40 per cent) and women (50 per cent of the remainder). But it soon crumbled into feuding factions. Plato witnessed the collapse of Athens when he was 23. He regarded the failed system as ceding power to a headless monster. His pupil Aristotle devised a formula which required moderate property qualifications for service in the assembly. Citizenship — voting rights — was confined to those who bore arms for the State.

Such experience as I have had in nursing seats for Parliamentary elections suggests that the muddle-headedness, credulity and susceptibility to bribes of the bulk of the electorate are incurable under the present system. The people’s instinct is trustworthy. But that instinct is now smothered by aspiring politicians who have learned the skills of grievance-mongering as a route to power. Of course, it is the anti-traditionalists that fabricate dissatisfaction most assiduously. But all parties today are champions of perpetual change. It has become sinful to be content.

From the day any governing party becomes the Opposition it must offer a new heaven and a new earth. The process is as cynical and mechanical as soap powder promotion. The stuff you are now using leaves all the stains despite what was claimed for it last time round — but the new stuff’s perfect. Flattered and alarmed and deceived by the ad men, more and more people chop and change. They ‘float’. But, like soap powders, in modern democratic government policies can in fact change only marginally. Real power stays solidly with the bureaucracy, exercising the vast expanding corpus of interventionist legislation which government after government is bound to leave largely untouched if it is not to frighten off the growing floating vote.

What is to be done? A qualified franchise could swiftly stabilise government and help to restore Parliament’s authority. The simplest method would be to pluralise the votes of those most likely to exercise sober judgement, and to give each government time to let its policies work through to manifest results and prove themselves to have been good or bad. This is what I propose:
1. The voting age is returned to 21.
2. Every householder has two votes.
3. Everyone over 40 has two votes.
4. Parliaments are elected for seven years.
5. No one has more than two votes.

I believe that such a modification would be received with thankful relief by the existing electorate. Statistically, most male voters are householders and there are more voters over 40 than under. If it were offered, the electorate might well accept it. (I do not think for a moment that any party will offer it any more than I think the nation will give up smoking.)

Aristotle’s view was that people should be brought together by their common interests in proportion as they severally attain any measure of well-being, and that well-being comes from contributing to society rather than from wealth or high birth. To weight the votes of the more mature generation and of those with a measure of responsibility to other human beings and property, which the term ‘householder’ implies, leans towards the Aristotelian concept.

A ‘householder’ needs definition. Ideally it should mean the rate-paying, freeholding head of the family who really has to look after himself and those he loves and not rely on subsidies and handouts. But even if it included all ratepayers, the right shift of emphasis would still be there. An extra vote for the over-forties would strengthen the hand of the pensioner and could foster pensioneering by the parties. Here I have an original suggestion. On receipt of a certain level of state welfare, you lose the vote. That is to say, you can vote big welfare for others but not yourself — at least, not for yourself at once.

I have aimed at simplicity and for what might be acceptable to the existing electorate. Yet innumerable alternatives suggest themselves — and have variously been used, such as educational qualifications, additional votes accorded to certain professions, tiered electoral ‘colleges’ and all sorts of permutations involving qualified voters for upper and lower parliamentary chambers with differing powers.

It is time to re-open the constitutional debate. In Britain, whenever we hit a crisis there are calls for coalition government. The people’s instinct is right again. It is the perpetual auctioning to the public of half-understood solutions that exacerbates the big problems. But I am not a believer in coalitions: it is the first step to one-party rule and a far deeper interference in our fundamental liberties than a moderate weighting of the vote. One day, when we have fallen into anarchy or tyranny, this article will be found among the debris or passed from hand to hand in a political prisoners’ camp. ‘How simple it would have been,’ they will say, ‘for them to have listened to Stacey, whoever he was, when they still had the chance.’

© Tom Stacey 1974