The Case for Anarchy

By Heffer, Simon | The Spectator, May 18, 2002 | Go to article overview

The Case for Anarchy


Heffer, Simon, The Spectator


IT often seems to be forgotten that one of the functions of a democracy is to protect the rights of minorities. It is an easy mistake to make. In a democracy, power is supposedly reserved for those who command the greatest support from an electorate. It is also assumed by some, out of ignorance or occasionally out of wickedness, that this allows those who have the power to use it as they will. The late Lord Hailsham recognised this problem more than 30 years ago, when he spoke of an ,elective dictatorship'. He was referring to the capacity for a government - in that specific case, the Labour administration of Harold Wilson - to do as it pleased in the intervals between having to seek a mandate from the people.

Lord Hailsham was not to know it, but things were far better in the late 1960s than they are now. Because the House of Lords still had its large hereditary element, it was both independent and filled with expertise. The Salisbury-Addison convention meant that the Lords did not obstruct the passage of Bills that were the result of manifesto commitments, so it respected democracy. The House of Commons had a numerically strong opposition that could, and did, prevent potentially harmful legislation from going through.

In 1969, a coalition of Enoch Powell and Michael Foot ensured that attempts to reform the House of Lords in a way that would have made it the tool of the Commons did not succeed. There were fewer professional politicians, and therefore more who were prepared to face down their whips and follow their consciences. Powerful forces in the Cabinet could ensure that the prime minister did not inevitably get his way - as was seen when Wilson's own colleagues effectively squashed In Place of Strife. The Queen was treated with respect as a head of state with important prerogatives and not as a tiresome ceremonial impediment. The prime minister's wife did not have a semiofficial function. In short, there were checks and balances. As a result, the public might not have agreed with what the government did, but they were governed properly, and the system more or less worked.

Now, the system does not work. Democracy is in retreat. Parliament has become the personal fiefdom of the Prime Minister and a group of his unelected cronies. A majority of almost 170 ensures that he can have whatever business he likes put through the Commons. The Lords have been neutered. Even the press is being emasculated, thanks to the ending of the lobby system and its opportunities for the consistent, forensic questioning of the government's spokesmen. Accountability is a thing of the past. Great disasters happen - like foot-and-mouth last year and the government absolutely refuses a public inquiry. A secretary of state lies on television and to the House of Commons and yet keeps his job. When he comes under what would once have been intolerably heavy pressure over his lying, he is protected by colleagues who simply lie further in order to shield him. The public feels alienated, despised, irrelevant. Meanwhile, the government plots more ways to remove the voter still further from the political process.

The main victims of this flight from democracy are to be found in Middle England. Ordinary people (as Lord Falconer would call them), minding their own business, find themselves more and more ignored by politicians and betrayed by the political process. Their opinions go unrepresented and probably unregistered. They start to fear that voting changes nothing. As a result, they either cease bothering about the way the country is run, or they begin to consider other options.

The government can, of course, turn round and say: ah, yes, but you see we were elected to do certain things by an enormous democratic majority, and, by golly, we are doing them. The problem is that they are doing other things that they were not specifically elected to do: the wreckage of so many means of accountability comes under that heading. …

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