Monday 29 November 2010

'Weak' Democracy - A Principle in Defence of Monarchy.

Considering recent discussion around the announcement of Prince William's wedding this seems as good a time as any for a good look at the underlying principles that support our Constitutional Monarchy system.

Those in favour of a Republic in this country often argue along the lines that a Monarchy is inherently illegitimate because it is unelected.  That is, neither I nor anyone else have ever placed a cross in a box with the Queen’s name in it.  I disagree with this, and my disagreement with this is based on a basic disagreement about our understanding of the nature of Democracy.  

I do not believe in the necessity of democracy in the terms that are being used in this argument for a republic, but rather what I shall call 'weak' democracy.  I believe this is the correct expression of political principle and it is one under which Monarchy is not essentially illegitimate.  In fact nor is pretty much any other system, except under certain particular stated restrictions.  

The first thing to point out though is that in referring to 'weak' democracy I am explicitly not making any value judgement about the concept or its correctness compared to anything else, or the system we have today.  I am fundamentally a democrat and believe in the central moral importance of Democracy in any political system.  But I believe something very particular by this.  And I not only believe 'weak' democracy is the more correct and full understanding of Democracy and the idea of legitimacy for a state than the 'strong' democratic idea implicit in some republican criticism but also that it is, really, the understanding practically implicitly instantiated in our, and indeed almost all, actual democratic systems both in our country and around the world.  The reference to 'weak' democracy merely refers to the fact that it is a logically weaker claim (in the sense of not requiring as strong assumptions) to make about what is necessary for Democracy than that implicit in the 'strong' democratic argument.    

The distinction between the ideas of 'strong' and 'weak' democracy is mostly the distinction between election and consent.  To exercise authority and power a leadership does not need election, as the republican criticism of monarchy seems to state.  It merely needs effective consent.  A Monarch does not have to be elected to be legitimate and have “weak” democratic consent, they must merely have the support and consent of their people to continue in that role in that system.  

Firstly, it must be conceded even that neither authority nor power necessarily needs our consent to hold legitimacy over us.  Ultimately, of course, all legitimacy, power and authority comes from God.  For believers God is then this thing, an authority over which they have no veto, for non-believers morality may be substituted.  Both hold a lawful authority over us without requiring our consent, let alone our election.  

In more earthly terms, though, our consent is required, due to our basic sovereign right as human beings.  This consent does not necessarily require explicit statement though, nor on a society wide level does it require each individual to like what is going on.  It merely requires the society in general to accept the structure of things as they are.  In Socratic terms we consent to the laws and constitution of the society we live in as long as we do not speak and act against them to change them, and hence cannot object when they act against us.  A more precise definition of the concept is difficult to fashion, precisely because it is  but we can more easily describe what it is not.         

My contention is that not only is the 'weak' democratic ideal superior, that it is actually the ideal that almost all human systems of democracy are based on, but that the implicit principle of 'strong' democracy is frankly ridiculous, and almost impossible.

We can look at the relations between smaller non-state human associations and organisations.  A person can lead a group, can lead an organisation, without having to rely on explicit democratic election or decision-making.  It would be nonsensical to demand that a group of friends meeting together could not legitimately decide where to go or what to do without a secret ballot, or to demand that a person can not lead a group, or be followed by that group, without his action being put to a ballot of all the concerned parties.  A requirement for consent is all that is required in all cases.  A group of people together self-evidently has the right to follow the commands of a person they designate as their leader, without requiring each decision taken to be put to a vote.  

This is relevant because I would argue that States are not essentially metaphysically different to other social bodies and human groupings.  They have international sovereignty, but even what that means is difficult to pin down.  They are still subject to the law, though they also shape it, as well as morality and the basic requirements of human decency and legitimacy.  States are of course different to other bodies, but then all bodies are different to other bodies.  A tribe is different to a family, a friendship group is different to a local government body, an international organisation is different to a national one.  But the state is not differently different in any metaphysically significant manner to other human social groupings such that radically different rules apply.  They are still figments of the human mind, a concept and institution invented and described to serve and represent a useful practical purpose.  The same basic standards of legitimacy and morality apply. 

When looking at the ideas of Monarchy and Republicanism, the more useful distinction we need is on the basis of Democratic consent and election or the lack thereof.  In other words, it is between governments where a single individual or individuals has unique sovereign power irrespective of consent or otherwise, one where consented and responsible “representatives” of one kind or another govern, and an absolute democracy where there is no group to which power is delegated, and everything must be done on the basis of election.  This scheme takes into account the relevant point, of direct election or consent, and in it one can obviously see that representative republican democracy and constitutional monarchy, however constitutionally strong that monarch may be, stand on the same strata. Note that by a constitutional monarch I mean one whereby the monarch is held to be himself responsible under the law to the same extent as his citizens, rather than having arbitrary power to act as he pleases, however few actual codified legal constraints there may be on the monarch’s power.  Such a restriction under law is itself, after all, again merely a phrased restriction under morality.  At it is this compliance with morality and the practical and effective nature of the system that matters when considering it.

In any representative democracy there will always be a distance between the election and vote of the populace and the legal and political choices of the system, and this is both a good and necessary thing.  It allows specialisation, quicker decision making, recognisable responsibility and a system whereby decisions are given their proper time.  It is the natural human way.  Any group of people, however small, even a married couple instinctively specialise into leaders and followers for and better and swifter organisation and decision making, and their is no reason that the state should not be similar.  This is universally accepted.  No one I know of is actually advocating a return to Athenian style direct democracy, both for reasons of practicality and because where it has been tried it has never historically turned out well.  But that is the principle that is being expressed when people complain about the Monarchy's lack of 'democratic' legitimacy.  

The legitimacy of consent does not need to explicitly applied through election in each specific case.  Rather it defuses outward from the elements of election we do have in the system and the common understanding of the system and the widespread general acceptance of it.

Until May of this year, at the age of 21, I had never voted in a general election and hence had never been given a say into the decision over who governs me.  This did not give me the right to disregard the constitution and laws of my country, merely because I have not been consulted, only specific breaches of morality or care would make this acceptable.  Furthermore as a child I have continually been in the grip of power over which I have no account, whether school or parents or law.  Society, indeed I suspect all societies, readily accepts the principle of legitimate unelected power over its members.  The authority held by such bodies is not justified by election by those over which the authority is held but rather by wider principles of justice, social obligation and organisation and natural common sense and justice.  Even under an absolute democracy a minority of the people are consistently disenfranchised, effectively.  In our own society to consistently reject the principle of non-elected power and authority, even just in a constitutional sense, one would need to be equally opposed to European Commissioners, Quangos, the House of Lords, the civil service, non-elected judges and an inherited constitution, just for a start.  But almost no-body seriously is actually equally opposed to all those things.  In debate on the monarchy the argument is a cat's paw for other objections, rather than a serious issue in of itself.

The implicit use of this ideal within our political system can be seen by the recent protests against the Lib Dems' higher education policy.  Those Liberal Democrats have been legitimately elected and by the rules of the system are then well within their rights to vote whatever way they want on whatever proposals they want.  But there is the sense that in acting opposite to their promise they are violating the sense of consent, which underlies the whole system, and is its true source and basis, and thus their actions and election is in a sense, illegitimate, regardless of the constitutionality and even reasonableness of their actions. 

I would say that it is possible for a system to have consent and hence legitimacy as a system even if it does not in any way contain formal legal mechanisms for any popular election.  As long as it has the consent of its populace and is governed in a responsible manner.  I would not recommend such a situation to any actual state because it is too wide open to abuse.  But I would not say it necessarily lacks legitimacy.  Otherwise we are in the situation of claiming that every government or form of authority in history that does not contain a certain prescribed amount of election is illegitimate.  And that is a very strong claim that I do not think makes any sense.  Since any particular answer given for a certain amount of election as compared to consent will always be ad hoc rather than related to any fundamental underlying principle.  Nor is there anything rationally sacred about simple majority rule, or any other type of defined majority.  It is merely the accommodation we make to protect the sense of consent that is necessary for the legitimacy of the system.  Not what actually establishes that legitimacy itself.  

People have the right and ability to be legitimately governed in whatever way they please, without having to go through some sort of formal prescribed process.  And as we go back there have been a great many systems of human organisation and government, which I don't think it makes any sense to say are intrinsically 'illegitimate' in any way.  Partially because were you to say that to those people themselves they would not consider it so.  Now, some may argue that this describes an idea about what is necessary for the legitimacy of a state or other body, but not a democratic standard.  However, democracy just means rule by the people.  An idea of consent is a democratic idea, it merely describes an implicit and general and flexible democratic idea rather than a precise and explicit one.      

I would even go as far as to say that in situations where absolutism enforces itself through force, and enacts oppression and injustice towards the deprived of society it becomes apparent that the problem with that government is in fact not its lack of a democratic mandate but rather its immoral and oppressive actions.  On the flipside, just because a body is democratically elected this does not make any of its actions any more or less moral nor its rule more acceptable.  To a great extent it is what a government does, and whether it has the general consent of its citizenry and not mainly anything particular about its constitution that establishes its legitimacy.  

On a particular level I would argue that our Monarchy has legitimacy from the high-levels of public support for Monarchy as seen in opinion poll and other measures, and the extremely low levels of general negative public feeling towards the Monarchy and Royal Family, compared to so many other issues.  It should also be noted that the above article is meant to establish the particular point that a Monarchy is not illegitimate as a form of government merely because the monarch themselves may be either unelected or not regularly elected.  This in of itself is not any argument that a Monarchy is a superior or desired system of government or constitution but rather that monarchy is not democratically illegitimate or unsuitable to hold such a position (or any more so than a republican democracy) merely on the grounds of being a Monarchy.  Any argument for or against it must take place on the level of actual arguments about its practical contribution, or lack of it, to our constitution and national life, not emotional appeals to any intrinsic illegitimacy to Monarchy in general.  And that is a whole other discussion.


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