Political thought you should know

Back in 1866, opposing a bill to reform Britain's parliament, Benjamin Disraeli said while it was important to adapt to circumstances, "the original scheme of the Plantagenets may always guide us." Such a remark would get him laughed off Parliament Hill today if anyone could even figure out what he was talking about. Maybe it shouldn't.

For one thing, just one year later Canada acquired a Constitution "similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom," written by men on both sides of the Atlantic who talked and thought that way. So if you agree that our political system doesn't now work the way the picture on the box suggests, it might be worth going back and rereading the instructions.

We could start with another criticism of the 1866 reform bill, by one Robert Lowe, who said that the key question in an electoral system was not the person or riding "that obtains the power of sending Members to Parliament, but that Parliament itself in which those members are to sit" and that to talk of giving the vote to people "because we think them deserving ... is in my opinion to mistake the means for the end."

This proposition comes across today not as wrong but as heretical.

But why?

Most of us would not accept the claim in Edward Bellamy's best-selling 1888 utopian novel Looking Backward that a man should have an equal share in the economic system "because he is a man." Yet that is exactly our view of politics, as if it were more important to vote than to eat.

I am not suggesting that we let the government go around taking away individual people's right to vote. But to avoid some pitfalls of the current system and resist bogus reform proposals, we do need to open our minds to other ways of understanding the nature of voting than the one we now take for granted. Like Disraeli's 1866 argument that MPs "do not represent an indiscriminate multitude, but a body of men endowed with privileges which they enjoy, but also intrusted with duties which they must perform."

Privileges? Duties? What's this stuff? It may be startling but it was no chance utterance. Disraeli frequently spoke of popular privileges and explicitly contrasted them with the democratic rights he supposed to exist in America, for instance also asserting in 1866 that "this House should remain a House of Commons, and not become a House of the People, the House of a mere indiscriminate multitude, devoid of any definite character, and not responsible to society, and having no duties and no privileges under the Constitution."

Humour me while I explain how this line of reasoning might apply to proposals to adopt a system of proportional representation. We often hear that "PR" would give us a Parliament more reflective of Canadian society. The proposition is debatable on technical grounds, since certain personality types will be more attracted to politics under any system. But it is also more fundamentally debatable, because surely our first concern is to get a Parliament that acts fairly and wisely.

That a Parliament broadly reflective of the populace is likely to be more fair-minded than one composed of aspiring politicians I think quite reasonable. And while such a body is likely to be lacking in some of the technical skills required to legislate wisely, legislatures full of politicians frequently exhibit similar infirmities.

What really worries me is that PR is likely to produce a Parliament that has grave difficulty acting at all and only manages to legislate on the basis of vulgar political expediency. The need to assemble coalitions after rather than before an election, and between parties rather than within them, is fatal to the coherent development of a legislative program. And it makes it harder to experiment with dramatic changes of policy direction when circumstances change.

If voting is a right, allowing me to validate my being and admire myself in the mirror of politics, this objection is irrelevant.

But if Robert Lowe is right that the point is to return Parliaments well-suited to the task of legislating, including holding the executive branch to account, then PR is irrelevant, because it answers the wrong question.

The right question is how we get back to regarding voting as a privilege that carries a social duty to cast intelligent, responsible, public-spirited ballots, not a right allowing us to howl, grab or preen.

Yes, it goes against the temper of the times. But is there not at least superficial plausibility to the claim that the "fairer" our electoral methods have become, in our terms, the shabbier the resulting politics?

If we do not miss Gladstone, Disraeli or Robert Lowe today, it is essentially because we never heard of them. It's no laughing matter.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson