Windows on the world


Whither Party Politics?

The last millennium has seen many forms of government, and with the benefit of hindsight we can see some of the successes and failures. Perhaps the various systems can be broadly divided into those where power was imposed (by a monarch, a dictator, a church or a party etc.) and those where power has been given to the people. Whichever system we examine we have to admit that there are flaws.

The First Question

Recent years have seen questions asked of some traditionally-held views. Should Britain opt for proportional representation? How far should devolution go? Should Britain abolish hereditary peers in its Upper House? Should Australia become a Republic and sever connections with the Crown? But the first question should be even more fundamental. What is the best form of government and how can that be achieved with the resources available to us at the beginning of a new millennium?

There is an old Hermetic axiom 'as above so below'. Which simple means that we can learn about the behaviour of galaxies by studying atomic physics; we can learn about social intercourse by studying family dynamics. By the same token, social development can be compared to psychological development. As the child needs to be parented, so a simple people need to be governed: a wise and benign monarch or dictator to nurture them in peace, an aggressive and cunning general to defend them in war. For much of the second millennium uneducated peasants benefitted from such government. Unfortunately, the people also had to suffer under many leaders who were weak, selfish and cruel. All forms of government work in theory, but in practice they tend to be undone by the vagaries of human nature.

Coming of Age

However, the Human Race has now moved beyond childhood, and in recent centuries democratic nations have enjoyed a degree of self-government. In the same way, a teen-ager might still be dependent on his parents but takes part in deciding the rules governing his own behaviour. Accepting that he does not have the experience or wisdom to decide his own destiny he allows his representatives (his parents) to make some decisions for him. But now, for the most part, we are educated, articulate and have access to knowledge. In this era of technology and information the world is ready to 'come of age'.

Churchill once said: "Democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time". In theory, at least, democracy grants the individual the right to make his or her own decisions. Representatives are elected, public debates are held, and voting takes place. In most modern democracies the powers of the elected parliament are curbed to some extent by the presence of a monarchy or an upper house. Increasingly, however, this vital counterbalance has become more and more symbolic. Ironically, having stripped the monarchy of all real power, the people then begin to question its relevance. In a climate where politicians repeatedly demonstrate greed, self-interest, weak morals and poor judgment, it might be better to give more power to the monarchy, not less.

Flaws of the Present System

Although there are many specific areas (health care, transport, education, policing, etc.) with apparently insoluble problems, our multi-party democracies fail on two general points. The voter is not always in a position to make informed rational decisions, and the elected representative is not always able or prepared to vote as the individuals in his constituency would wish. These points have to be examined if we are to improve on the last millennium.

The present system calls for infrequent elections at which a proportion of those eligible seek out a polling booth and register their votes. They have a limited choice, basically between two or three parties. With this single vote, for a single representative of a single party, the citizen has to declare his wishes on all issues, from foreign policy to fox hunting. If he cannot find one of the main parties whose policies coincide with all his wishes on all aspects of society he has to compromise some of his principles or choose not to vote at all. Low turnouts might not be about apathy; they might be a direct result of the frustration felt by voters at the lack of options.

Time for Revolution

It is time for a political revolution. In the past the only way in which decision-making could be granted to the people was by some form of representation. We now have the technology for a more direct approach. Each citizen could be allowed to vote on specific issues. With the current state of telecommunications it should be possible for every household to possess the equipment necessary to register direct votes. The few who are excluded from household telecommunications could be given access to equipment in public buildings such as libraries.

This should not happen overnight but by political evolution, rather than revolution. It would have to start with a small number of referendums each year and our elected representatives would have to devise means by which information regarding options could be disseminated. Issues would need to be clearly defined, separated into their constituent parts, and possible ramifications identified (a move which would benefit our present confused debates!). Gradually, as we became more discerning and aware, the balance of power would shift towards the people. For the first time we would have a true democracy.

The End of Party Politics

Our politicians are fond of chastising us for not embracing the potential of modern technology. Perhaps it is time for them to show courage and bring government into the electronic age. Just as parents have to prepare their children for life and then step back, so the politicians would bring about their own demise. Ultimately, of course, the system of party politics would become redundant. Whither party politics? To the scrap heap! Who, other than the politicians, would mourn its passing?


Harvey Tordoff
February 2000