‘Nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action,
but not the execution of any human design.’
Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767)

04 August 2010

Safeguarding the Liberal-Tory Consensus

Whitehall’s renewed interest in once-mighty British think tanks is the focus of a column in a recent edition of The Economist. In these uncertain times, when politicians seek to avert financial meltdown and the risks of sovereign debt, what are the implications for One Nation Toryism?

After years of creeping irrelevance and funding difficulty, political, economic, and social organisations devoted to policy formation/programme implementation once again have the attentive ear of Government. The change in Ministries following the general election may account for this resurgence; more relevant still is the economic crisis in which the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government finds itself, as ‘the most ambitious think-tanks believe the crisis could lead to a fundamental rethink of the way government is run.’ Equally important, newly sworn-in servants of the Crown are eager to buttress the substance of party manifestos, motivated in no small part to reconciling ‘the competing philosophies of the Tories and the Lib Dems.’

The report highlights the work of several groups in particular: the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Adam Smith Institute, the Centre for Policy Studies, and ResPublica. I can attest to the scholarship of all, having personally benefited from their numerous publications and from communication with staff members.

Besides reviewing some of the policy recommendations these think tanks will be presenting the new government, the Economist article includes a provocative sentiment from the Director General of IEA, Mark Littlewood, who

thinks the government should have started with a blank sheet of paper, worked out what the state should do and eliminated unneeded programmes entirely.

Framed thus, this is an axiomatic viewpoint: its contrary is rendered meaningless, since it advocates the State to undertake what it should not undertake.

The problem, of course, lies in deciding just what legitimate activities lie within the State’s purview. From one end of the spectrum, the libertarian position best described as anarcho-capitalism or market anarchy, the answer is short: individuals within reciprocating society are paramount, and there should be no State at all. [1] From the other end, of full-blown social democracy that morphs into socialism (whether openly articulated as such or hidden euphemistically), the answer is equally concise: there are relatively few areas of public interaction into which the State should not intervene. The coalition government has ambitions to resolve this dilemma, according to The Economist, and is intent on ‘an attempt to break away from the idea that political action is a simple choice between big government and isolated individuals.’

Let me set these two extremes aside for present purposes, and focus on what may be assumed to be Littlewood’s aim, that of promoting the liberal tradition—given the IEA’s mission ‘to improve understanding of the fundamental institutions of a free society by analysing and expounding the role of markets in solving economic and social problems’—which, I believe, is closely allied with organic Toryism, so as to form what can be called the Liberal-Tory consensus.

Thus, herein lies the first quandary: What programmes should the State legitimately perform?

The classical liberal position confines itself to maintaining law and order (comprising domestic security and contractual obligations) and defence from foreign threats. Yet, within the contemporary Anglo-Canadian tradition as practised, this list has come to include such provisions as education, healthcare, and basic welfare (encompassing national insurance/old age pensions and unemployment benefits—the social security net). Liberals may differ as to whether the State should provide these as either standard prescriptive entitlements (contingent, but not absolute) or as measures of last resort, preferring individuals to exercise responsibility where at all possible (while making basic services available to those in obvious need). Regardless, this liberal practice is very far from the night-watchman minimalism of its classical liberal forebear.

Simon Heffer is an example of the standard-entitlement liberal; in a recent Telegraph column, he wrote:

The state’s functions, in a compassionate and ordered society, can be confined to relatively few things. It should protect the public with a police force and armed services. It should provide education and health care, while perhaps finding ways to incentivise people to use non-state provision wherever possible. It should give the support that the elderly and the disabled require to live with dignity. It should see that public hygiene and essential infrastructure are maintained; and that’s about it. This requires a revolution in our way of viewing the state’s relationship with us.

As for the last-resort liberal, Philip Booth, IEA’s Programme Director, stated in a recent BBC Analysis programme, ‘Time to Get Real’ (broadcast 12th July and available on-line until January 2099!):

The State must defend itself, protect private property, and so on—what was often called the night-watchman State, the sort of thing that the State did in the nineteenth century. But there are other things which in a democratic society the majority of people believe ought to be in some way financed by the State. And so health, education—make some basic safety net welfare provision—and so on. But what the State should be doing in providing those things is assisting people to obtain education, healthcare, &c and not designing bureaucratic mechanisms which are inflexible and which they impose upon the population. (Professor Booth articulates the ‘last resort’ aspect particularly with respect to pension provision, further along in this broadcast.)

What intrigues the organic Tory is how closely this variant of liberalism hews to One Nation Toryism; perhaps the most important distinguishing feature consists of determining the absolute/prescriptive quality of entitlements. Unlike market anarchists who view the State only as a coercive entity, organic Tories conceive it as a means of realising communal ends that can only be met by the united efforts of all, over an indefinite period of time—through the obligatory State.

This school of conservatism may adopt some goods that liberalism forswears to the private sphere—e.g., museums and galleries and other cultural organisations that the Tory believes the State should support as part of a civic, patriotic entitlement. Nevertheless, it can be argued that contemporary liberalism and One Nation Toryism exemplify what Aristotle called ‘the golden mean’, the former presenting a variant of deficiency, the latter of excess, but both clustered around ‘the right course’.

And so we return to Littlewood’s ‘blank piece of paper’ and the thesis that Liberalism and Toryism have more or less shared ideas about what constitutes legitimate State activity. The next hurdle concerns funding.

According to the Rahn Curve—a measure of optimal government spending, in relation to Gross Domestic Product, for economic prosperity [2]—20 per cent approximates the ideal level of government involvement in the economy. Positive outcomes begin to decline (and disincentives to personal initiative rise) past this level. It is hoped that the State where the Liberal-Tory consensus thrives straddles this percentage.

Taxation rates must be set to meet these obligations, ceteris paribus, in a balanced budget framework; that is, government revenue should be sufficient to pay for government expenditure. Unfortunately, most countries have deficits and debts that make this equilibrium impossible.

Within the Liberal-Tory consensus, two alternatives are available—one minor, one draconian:

  1. Governments may raise taxes beyond what is necessary to support the Rahn ideal, with the excess revenue devoted to reducing deficits to zero and then to attacking the debt. However, according to the Laffer Curve—a measure of optimal government taxation, in relation to GDP, for economic prosperity [3]—if taxes are raised too high (especially on investors and entrepreneurs), the initiative of private enterprise will be compromised, with resultant lower taxes than expected.

  2. Another possibility is to compromise the Liberal-Tory consensus; One Nation Tory programmes will be sacrificed in the short term, and last-resort liberalism will be more prominent than the standard-entitlement variant. It is possible to conceive of even more stringent measures of a minarchist or libertarian character (i.e., the night-watchman model), but given the popularity of current entitlement programmes, it is doubtful that the public would tolerate such strict austerity measures except in the most dire economic conditions imaginable. In Canada, however, slaying the deficit and a return to balanced budgets and surpluses, achieved by the Liberal government in the mid-1990s, was accomplished by just such a public consensus.

    I call this the ‘Franklin Effect’, after the ill-fated attempt by Sir John Franklin’s Arctic expedition to return to civilisation after his crew abandoned their ships to impassable ice floes: minor concessions are taken initially in pursuit of one’s goal—in the case of Franklin’s men, leaving the comfort of the ships and carrying the accoutrement of society (such as books and silver tea sets) in their trek southward —but, confronted with mounting obstacles that hinder progress, more stringent measures become necessary (later adventurers discovered a trail of ‘household debris’ in the frozen tundra as Franklin’s men despaired of their condition and jettisoned more personal belongings in a vain attempt to lighten their loads and reach safety). [4]

So much for a theoretical examination of determining what functions of civil society belong to the purview of the State and of addressing how to pay for them. The key measure of success of such a governing framework—as in most things in life—is achieving it in reality.

Herein, then, lies the second quandary: How does the State finance its chosen programmes?

Given the nature of the deficits and debts in most Western countries, and the growing burdens placed upon them by their largely unfunded, ever expanding, entitlement programmes—particularly healthcare and social security requirements—the prospects appear grim.

Britain has taken the leading role (at least cosmetically) in prescribing austerity measures and implementing a series of retrenchments that will doubtless be studied by similarly indebted countries. Yet far from being sanguine of long-term results, the record of effectively curbing the appetite of the welfare State isn’t encouraging. Eamonn Butler, Director of ASI, was disappointed that the recent UK Budget ‘looked like salami-slicing, but that is not a sustainable way to cut spending.’

Will the twenty-first century echo the seventeenth’s penchant for radically recasting the role of the State? With socio-political norms having coalesced in the mid-twentieth century, will looming economic catastrophe in the new millennium end politics as we’ve known it?

And what of the Liberal-Tory consensus? How will the organic values of One Nation Toryism withstand the financial pressures to further restrain the obligatory State—if a minimum level of basic entitlements cannot be sustained? For however much the organic Tory stares at his own blank sheet of paper, he cannot change the laws of economics. Ultimately, they will shape the contours of the obligatory State. But he can act now to safeguard more of its contribution to the Common Good rather than less, and ensure better odds for One Nation Tory values to flourish again in the future.


1. See, for instance, Murray Rothbard’s ‘Society without a State’, Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s ‘Reflections on the Origin and the Stability of the State’, and the short monograph by Robert Murphy, Chaos Theory. [back]

2. For more information on the Rahn Curve, see Daniel Mitchell’s Center for Freedom and Prosperity Foundation video, plus his chapter in A Beginner’s Guide to Liberty (ASI, 2009), ‘Taxation and government spending’. [back]

3. For more information on the Laffer Curve, see Daniel Mitchell’s CF & P Foundation videos I, II, and III, plus his aforementioned chapter in A Beginner’s Guide to Liberty. Also see Thomas Woods, Jr’s entry in American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia. [back]

4. In Man and the State, Jacques Maritain wrote that while at the beginning of the modern age many reformers envisioned various welfare measures for the Common Good—for instance universal education—these plans could not be put into practice until the market economy advanced to the point where a portion of its bounty could be channelled to these public endeavours. In the Franklin Effect scenario sketched above, it may be necessary to scale back public policy advances on the same principle—that current economic conditions can no longer justify their expenditure. [back]

01 July 2010

A Royal Example for Progressive Conservatism

This week, the Queen began a week-long homecoming to Canada. On the 1st of July, she and the Duke of Edinburgh will be in the nation’s capital to celebrate Dominion Day, marking 143 years since the enactment of the British North America Act and Canadian Confederation.

Yet the United Kingdom and Canada have more in common than Queen Elizabeth II and constitutional monarchy: the rule of law, parliamentary government, and inter-twined histories are just a few political realities shared by these two Commonwealth members (and countless others). Both countries are also witness to the successful exploits of One Nation Tory politics—‘progressive conservatism’—of which the Victorian prime ministers, Benjamin Disraeli and Sir John A. Macdonald, were master practitioners.

The monarch, serving in Walter Bagehot’s ‘dignified capacity’, is above the hurly-burly of partisan politics, and offers to all parties the benefit of its accumulated wisdom, signified by its prerogatives rights to be consulted, to encourage, and to warn. ‘The nation is divided into parties, but the crown is of no party.’ Nevertheless, the monarchy represents two ideals that have especial resonance for progressive conservatism: limited government and the obligatory State.

Limited government, as historians will attest, is predominantly a Whig tenet. But when the alternative on the political spectrum is the all-encompassing State, setting limits to legitimate government becomes no less a conservative principle, too. King Louis XIV is rumoured to have boasted, ‘L’état, c’est moi’, setting up visions of material and financial rapacious as the ends of absolute monarchy, though this is not necessarily the case, according to Hans-Hermann Hoppe.

Professor Hoppe is a libertarian economist (or ‘anarcho-capitalist’) and, true, if he had his druthers, there would be no State at all, but simply free people co-operating voluntarily amongst themselves. That being said, he believes that monarchical government has a valuable lesson to teach democracies: ‘if one has to choose between two evils, a monarchical state or a democratic state, then monarchies have certain advantages.’

Because everybody knew I cannot become a king, there was resistance against attempts on the part of kings to increase taxes and to increase exploitation of their subjects. Under democracy, the illusion arises that we all rule ourselves even though it should be perfectly clear, of course, that also under a democracy there exists rulers and people who are ruled. But because of the fact that everybody can potentially become a public employee, the illusion of “we rule ourselves” arises and this then leads to a reduction of the resistance that existed vis-à-vis kings when it came to the attempt of increasing tax revenue.

A king sits on the throne with only the impediments of old age to curtail the longevity of his reign; he views public lands as personal property, to be passed on to his heirs, and tends it with care and with an eye for its future prosperity. Likewise, his subjects, knowing that they will never directly partake of the royal bounty, are jealous of their own property rights. A relationship of mutual (if wary) respect is established, which is reflected in restricted policies of appropriation and aggression: an overzealous king must always fear the loss of popular support and ensuing revolution. Monarchy thus inculcates, after its own fashion, the conservative beliefs in personal freedom, property ownership, and the modest State.

In a democracy, however, the tension between rulers and ruled is weakened, since it is widely held that ‘we are the government’. The limited government that constitutes the relationship of king and people morphs into the unlimited government of citizen legislators. Elected officials, holding office for the short-term—and with no concern for the circumstances of their political successors—more readily spend for immediate public gratification (and sometimes for the benefit of their associates and hangers-on). Furthermore, according to public choice theory, these leaders are more apt to spend on initiatives that will help them get re-elected. Citizens, meanwhile, who see themselves as possible office holders themselves one day, are less jealous in defending their rights. As many public works will benefit them, and with the tax burden spread among many, democratic welfare programmes are welcomed. Funding concerns are left to another day. Bagehot, in words that predate Hoppe, believed the Crown could provide a salutary counterweight:

But a wise and great constitutional monarch attempts no such vanities. His career is not in the air; he labours in the world of sober fact; he deals with schemes which can be effected—schemes which are desirable—schemes which are worth the cost.

These are the dangers of atrophied accountability and the evils of expanded government, that centuries of royal rule and experience can teach modern democratic States—but these lessons are wholly of a negative character: a caution against democratic government encroaching upon our rights. A more positive libertarian approach to the monarchy is to emphasis our natural rights as individuals, which no authority, royal or democratic, can morally infringe. ‘Governments are instituted among Men,’ in Jefferson’s immortal Declaration, ‘deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed’. This is the truest sense of equality under the law. As Seán Cronin argued in ‘A Libertarian Defence of the Monarchy’:

But the most important, if least tangible benefit of a constitutional Monarchy, is that if forces [the First Minister] to refer to himself as ‘Her Majesty’s Prime Minister’. He is Her Majesty’s servant, and not just him but all politicians. The constant reminder that there is someone set above them, that they serve someone else, must have a salutary effect on the most arrogant mind. It is true that these are only symbolic words, and real power lies with the Prime Minister—as is perfectly proper, because we exert some control at least over his excesses. But anyone who doubts the importance of symbolic words in politics is ignoring the reality of what is, in favour of what they believe should be. [...] Better for my freedom, and yours, that our Head of State be a constitutional Monarch, able to rein in politicians but not to reign politically, than the alternative.

Admittedly, the United Kingdom and Canada are both constitutional monarchies, yet each has seen exploding deficits and crippling debt accumulation—where is the royal reproach when we need it? Obviously, the virtues of limited government need additional proponents than the example set by the monarchical model. Still, the relationship between the Crown and the premier is a symbol of the limits of power—whether exercised by the Crown or its ministers—a lesson not to be forgotten by prime ministers in relation to their cabinets and backbenchers, and duplicated by governments toward the people.

This is the conservative element in royalty and politics.

The Crown also serves as a symbol of the obligatory State. What do I mean by the obligatory State? Libertarians, as exemplified by Professor Hoppe, view the State as a coercive institution, compelling people through its laws and tax policies to redistribute property from those who generate wealth to those who don’t. True concern for the least advantaged, they argue, is exemplified by voluntary charity, given freely and without force.

Under the obligatory State, however, our natural relations, arising from time immemorial—‘no man is an island’—are understood as embodying more than the voluntary associations of civil society, as valuable as they are. As members of society we have obligations that transcend the here-and-now. ‘As the ends of such a partnership cannot be maintained in many generations,’ insisted Edmund Burke, ‘it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.’

Classical liberals, for instance, make the case that it is quite legitimate to pool our resources to pay for security services (domestic and foreign) and to establish a legal system. Yet if it’s permissible to establish government services in these affairs, why not go a step further to support community initiatives, as well? Why be bound by arbitrary definitions of State action? Why not progress to a more inclusive, more organic, point of view?

The question of the degree of government support will always arise, and it is important to remain vigilant about the insidious growth of welfare statism—ever mindful to resist majority tyranny over the minority—but that is no reason to spurn using the levers of government altogether to achieve community-approved goals. Even Simon Heffer, a Gladstonian liberal, advances a template of government activity that hews fairly closely to the One Nation Tory vision:

The state’s functions, in a compassionate and ordered society, can be confined to relatively few things. It should protect the public with a police force and armed services. It should provide education and health care, while perhaps finding ways to incentivise people to use non-state provision wherever possible. It should give the support that the elderly and the disabled require to live with dignity. It should see that public hygiene and essential infrastructure are maintained; and that’s about it. This requires a revolution in our way of viewing the state’s relationship with us.

The Monarchy, in addition to its own charitable causes, patronises voluntary organisations and honours those selfless volunteers who give of their time and skills for the public welfare. And as Head of State, the Crown sanctions those government activities that aim to help the young, the aged, and the disadvantaged. These are obligations we owe to each other as inter-dependent citizens, obligations that are beyond the finite abilities or comprehension of civil society—obligations that are as ageless as civil society itself—which, as the overseers of government, we direct our elected representatives to undertake on our behalf.

This is the progressive element in royalty and politics.

In British political history, the monarchy has deep and long-lasting roots—a tradition that spread throughout the Commonwealth and is nowhere more evident than in Canada. The Tory tradition, too, is strong in both countries. Together, the Crown and Conservatism stand for government limited to its proper sphere, in service to the people who are its governors; at the same time, the monarch and the Conservative party are proof that government has a legitimate role in offering progressive legislation that aids and embodies society’s aspirations for the Common Good.

Our Queen’s presence in Canada to celebrate Dominion Day is an opportunity to remember our continuing blessing under the Crown and our glorious progressive conservative legacy.

Vivent la reine et le pays du Canada!

Happy Dominion Day!

25 May 2010

Debating the Future of the Senate of Canada

At noon to-day, the Centre for the Study of Democracy (Queen’s University) will hold a debate on Senate reform.

The principal question: ‘What, if anything, is wrong with the Senate of Canada, whether it should be reformed and, if so, by what means.’

The debaters are Senator Hugh Segal (Conservative party); Senator James S. Cowan (Liberal party); David Christopherson, MP (NDP); and Richard Nadeau, MP (Bloc Québécois); with Jane Tabor, political reporter for The Globe and Mail, as moderator.

The Centre posted a Facebook page with Senate links, discussion opportunities, and CPAC broadcast information, plus an invitation to the public-at-large to submit questions for panellists.

As visitors to my Advocacy for Appointed Upper Chambers page will attest, I am an opponent to the recently proposed reforms, whether with respect to eight-year term limits or to public consultations at the provincial level.

And, given the previously declared positions on Senate reform stated by the debaters (or most of them, anyway)—either in favour of election or simple abolition of the Red Chamber—I’m not optimistic that the current status of the Senate will receive much of a defence. May I be proved wrong.

Nevertheless, I have submitted my own queries to the CSD debate format, centring on the crux of ‘reform’:


The primary object of reform is to transform the appointed Senate into an elective body. As such, have reformers addressed and answered any of these three separate, but inter-connected, questions:
  1. Reform is best directed at known abuses or failings: Of what failing of achieving good governance—with supporting evidence of malfeasance—does the Senate of Canada stand accused?

  2. If abuses can be identified, does an elected Senate correct them, without introducing unfavourable consequences of its own (mindful, of course, of the possibility of unforeseen consequences)?

  3. The presence of two elected chambers in Parliament will inevitably clash for dominance, given that each will enjoy a mandate of ‘democratic’ legitimacy and the near co-equal status conferred on both the Senate and the House of Commons by the British North America Act, 1867 (save for the origination of ‘money bills’); what realistic proposals have been advanced to ensure harmony between the chambers, given present constitutional parameters—or to amend constitutional powers and jurisdiction to that end?

Fellow students of Edmund Burke will see his influence at work in my focus on a ‘metaphysics of reform’. Sir Robert Peel expressed this sentiment in his Tamworth Manifesto, which was a commitment to ‘a careful review of institutions, civil and ecclesiastical, undertaken in a friendly temper combining, with the firm maintenance of established rights, the correction of proved abuses and the redress of real grievances’.

Or, as Burke himself wrote: ‘A spirit of reformation is never more consistent with itself, than when it refuses to be rendered the means of destruction.’

In this spirit, I challenge those proponents of Senate reform, in good faith, to assure Canadians that their review is undertaken in a friendly temper, is respectful of the chamber’s established rights, and will not be rendered the means of destruction.

16 May 2010

Introducing the ‘Salisbury Initiative for Parliamentary Traditions’

Respect for parliamentary traditions is at the core of an organic Tory philosophy. A reverence for the past embodies what it means to be a ‘Tory’, while providing the evolutionary foundation—the ‘tradition’—for organic development.

In light of recent events in British politics, where ‘non-partisan’ conservative political practices are threatened with renewed calls for change, a new project—in keeping with the ideals and aspirations of the Disraeli-Macdonald Institute—has been formed to promote and defend the conventions of the United Kingdom Parliament: the Salisbury Initiative for Parliamentary Traditions.

In the lead-up to the 2010 General Election, the Conservative party sought to re-establish its rapport with the British people—as a political party for the twenty-first century—by emphasising its progressive programme for Britain’s future. Focussing on ‘progressive means for conservative ends’, Conservatives are intent on addressing the ‘broken society’ and ‘broken politics’.

While there are many laudable improvements that can be realised through progressive measures, the Salisbury Initiative was established to act as a safeguard for the conservative principles that must form the core of the Conservative party.

The necessity of buttressing conservative beliefs has risen in importance, in consideration of the coalition government that has been formed between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats to create what some analysts have called a ‘progressive alliance’. With no wish to undermine the strong, stable government this coalition brings forth, there is equally a desire to remain true to the tenets of Conservatism.

While there are many figures in the history of the Conservative party who embody these cherished principles, the figure of the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury was especially poignant: Lord Salisbury is renowned for his scepticism of the true long-term benefits of institutional ‘innovation’—serving, at times, as a reactionary caricature—and of his faith in history as a reliable counsellor when undertaking salutary political reform.

The Salisbury Initiative is an ally of the Conservative party and seeks neither to undermine its period in office nor its continuing success. ‘The complaints of a friend are things very different from the invectives of an enemy,’ wrote Edmund Burke. ‘It is our duty rather to palliate his errors and defects, or to cast them into the shade, and industriously to bring forward any good qualities that he may happen to possess.’ But, as Burke, explained:

When his safety is effectually provided for, it then becomes the office of a friend to urge his faults and vices with all the energy of enlightened affection, to paint them in their most vivid colours, and to bring the moral patient to a better habit. Thus I think with regards to individuals; thus I think with regard to antient and respected governments and order of men.

This is the intent of the Salisbury Initiative: ‘A spirit of reformation is never more consistent with itself, than when it refuses to be rendered the means of destruction.’

The objectives of the Initiative are simple:

  1. Support for constitutional monarchy;

  2. Support for the British constitution and Parliament—namely, the House of Lords and the House of Commons—and a defence of their arrangements, practices, and the political values they uphold; and

  3. Support for traditional conservative political principles: while necessary reform is a salubrious undertaking, and a fair appraisal of progress underpins evolutionary development, a foundation of enduring principles is at the core of Conservatism.

Plans are to highlight articles and news items relating to constitutional and parliamentary reform—which will be archived on the Initiative’s ‘News’ page—on this blog. Readers are encouraged to forward links which touch on SI’s mandate, and to follow SI on Facebook and Twitter.

Many thanks, tell your friends, and please visit the Salisbury Initiative often!

06 May 2010

Election Day in the United Kingdom

To-day’s the sixth of May, so it must be election day in the United Kingdom!

Platform 10, an internet site devoted to the idea of liberal conservatism—where ‘progressive ends are best achieved by conservative means’, fulfilled by ‘a modern, liberal Conservative government’—very kindly posted, over the course of the campaign, my thoughts on comparing a liberal conservative programme with Organic Toryism.

Published over a number of weeks, I’ve gathered the essays together for easy selection:

It promises to be an exciting day of voting, as the Conservative, Labour, and Liberal Democrat parties vie at the polls for public support to form a Government—with the winning leader moving into No. 10 Downing Street as Prime Minister.

For the first time in decades, though, no one party has a clear lead, and the outcome is very far from assured. It will be a long night as the media, party members, and the country-at-large await results from the ballot-box.

Who will finally kiss hands with the Queen, and become Her Majesty’s next First Minister?

27 April 2010

An Appreciation for the House of Lords

Imagine my surprise when I received an email notice from David Cameron, announcing my invitation to join the government of Britain. How wonderful! As a firm supporter of the Commonwealth and as a Canadian who shares Sir John A. Macdonald’s belief in our golden ties to Great Britain, this was an incredible offer.

However, in place of an opportunity to swear oaths of fealty to the Queen, was a copy of the Conservative party’s 2010 political manifesto. I quickly found the chapter on ‘Changing Politics’, with its overview of restoring faith to the political process and of renewing the bonds of participatory democracy between citizens and the representatives chosen to serve them.

I agreed with much of what I read in the section on governing structures—or was willing to grant the desirability of reform in areas that could be made to work even better—save for this section on the Upper House:

We will work to build a consensus for a mainly-elected second chamber to replace the current House of Lords, recognising that an efficient and effective second chamber should play an important role in our democracy and requires both legitimacy and public confidence.

The Parliament of Canada itself faces pressure to reform the Senate, from an appointed chamber whose members serve until retirement age to an elected body of limited, eight-year terms. In both countries, though, I fear that this democratic impulse is short-sighted and motivated less by a desire for good government than by the mistaken belief that the electoral mandate is the only valid means to legitimate political ends.

Fortunately, in the United Kingdom the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber performs yeoman service in pointing out the strengths of the current arrangement and the weaknesses of various proposals for reform. Unfortunately, the Senate of Canada has not enjoyed an equally concerted defence of its merits (although I have collected articles and reports and posted a file on Advocacy for Appointed Upper Chambers).

In the British context, the Campaign website highlights excellent arguments by Lord Norton of Louth and Lord Howe of Aberavon (among others) that emphasis the virtues of the appointed model. Such appreciations include these fundamental observations:

  • Whereas the present House of Lords serves a complementary role to the confidence role that is the purview of the elected House of Commons, two such elected bodies will inevitably create gridlock as both chambers exercise their democratic mandate;

  • A hybrid House of Lords between appointed and elected members only illustrates the reformers’ muddled-headedness: they backhandedly concede the benefits of experience and expertise that appointment makes available, but add confusion—and internal jealousy—by introducing an elected element which will only lead to a two-tiered category of peer; and

  • Appointed peers enjoy legitimacy indirectly via the executive offices which oversee the process—which are themselves accountable to the people—much as in the selection of judges and other government officials, who exercise authority yet not through courtesy of the ballot box. If the ballot is the sine qua non of legitimacy, then the very foundation of the British monarchy is threatened, too.

And, until questions of dodgy expenses and charges of influence peddling tarnished the reputations of both Houses of Parliament, the Lords received more favourable reviews than its Commons partner, as a non-partisan body whose revising function added value to the shambolic legislative programme of two Labour prime ministers who aspired to presidential status. ‘Public confidence’ clearly resided with the Upper Chamber, and it is sheer effrontery for the Lower Chamber to cast aspersions elsewhere.

One may assume that a modernising, progressive liberal Conservative’s position is clearly with the reformers, but not necessarily so: first, it bears repeating that it is not the case that democratic legitimacy is found only through the popular vote; and second, even from the classical liberal position, a strong case can be made that ‘more democracy’ only leads to ‘more Government’—which, in many respects, is anathema both to liberalism and to the Conservative party’s larger aims to decentralise power to the people.

In both instances, the current House of Lords proves an admiral bulwark of the citizen’s rights, remaining both ‘efficient and effective’. It is also to be remembered that while Conservatives may be liberal or progressive or traditional, they all share the basic convictions for conservatism. Edmund Burke undertook a similar exercise in writing An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs that, regardless of changing circumstances, core principles of political institutions and practices still held true: ‘Our fabric is so constituted; one part of it bears so much on the other, the parts are so made for one another, and for nothing else, that to introduce any foreign matter into it, is to destroy it.’

The fabric of Westminster has evolved so that two Houses—one elected, one appointed; the first serving as the primary voice of the United Kingdom, the second as counsellor to the first—form a vibrant, organic Parliament. Any elected element in the House of Lords would be to introduce a foreign matter, destroying both it and the whole.

Burke also wrote that ‘To innovate is not to reform’; little imagination is required, therefore, to see that innovation should not be equated simultaneously with progress.

No, for whatever its minor faults which can be readily amended, the House of Lords is still fit for purpose.

19 April 2010

Primrose Day, Progress, and Enduring Toryism

To-day is Primrose Day, a date singled out by British Conservatives in the late-nineteen-century to honour the achievements of Benjamin Disraeli and to inspire the party by his example. It is named for the flower that figured prominently in one of his novels, which later became his floral emblem.

19th April is, incidentally, the day Disraeli died in 1881: His monarch sent a wreath of primroses—‘His favourite flowers, from Osborne, a tribute of affection from Queen Victoria’ read the legend—to adorn his grave site. A controversial figure in his own time, he has become for many the exemplar of the Conservative party, with one stroke embodying a blend of progressive and preserving principles, from a Young England romantic to a sagacious elder statesman. His timeliness with the currents of modern Toryism is nowhere more evident than in a reform speech he gave in Edinburgh in 1867:

In a progressive country change is constant; and the great question is, not whether you should resist change which is inevitable, but whether that change should be carried out in deference to the manners, the customs, the laws, and the traditions of a people, or whether it should be carried out in deference to abstract principles, and arbitrary and general doctrines.

Progress, yes, but progress that is made the servant of the people and their sensibilities. If one is left in any doubt, Disraeli was uncompromising in his conservative credentials in his treatment of political history, Vindication of the English Constitution:

This respect for Precedent, this clinging to Prescription, this reverence for Antiquity, which are so often ridiculed by conceited and superficial minds, and move the especial contempt of the gentlemen who admire abstract principles, appear to me to have their origin in a profound knowledge of human nature, and in a fine observation of public affairs, and satisfactorily to account for the permanent character of our liberties.

The Conservative Manifesto adheres to many of Disraeli’s goals: decentralisation, and trust in the responsibility of communities and civil society, echo his Ministry’s Victorian faith in permissive legislation, favouring individual and local initiatives which were in ‘the character of a free people’—not enforced through compulsion by Whitehall diktat. The defence of the Union was always at the heart of Disraeli’s patriotism; in 1872, he proclaimed in Manchester that ‘the programme of the Conservative party is to maintain the Constitution of the country’, while in 2010 his party reaffirms that ‘We are a unionist party and we will not put the Union at risk.’ Meanwhile, policies to heal a broken society share the aspiration he called at a Crystal Palace gathering ‘the elevation of the condition of the people’:

...is it at all wonderful that they should wish to elevate and improve their condition, and is it unreasonable that they should ask the Legislature to assist them in that behest as far as it is consistent with the general welfare of the realm?

In that 1872 speech, Disraeli set out a social programme to bridge what he called in the novel Sybil the divide between ‘the Rich and the Poor’—his answer was One Nation Toryism and a series of bills addressing housing and health, finance and trade, and education. In these points and more, the Manifesto may with justification be said to mirror the One Nation vision.

Now, immersed in the fray of a general election campaign, candidates and their supporters would do well to remember his biting witticism about Gladstone, paraphrased for contemporary benefit: ‘If David Cameron fails to become prime minister, it would be a misfortune; but, if Gordon Brown were to remain at No 10, it would be a calamity.’

‘You must act as if everything depended on your individual efforts,’ were Disraeli’s parting words to the Conservative activists assembled at the Crystal Palace. ‘The secret of success is constancy of purpose.’ Happy Primrose Day!

[A version of this essay was published by Platform 10.]

24 February 2010

A Libertarian Defence of the Appointed Red Chamber

While conservative in my politics, I don’t consider myself a libertarian—being rather more in tune with the Tory values that exemplify the career of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. Yet when thinking a bit about the fate of the Senate of Canada, and particularly about its method of composition, I begin to see the outline of a libertarian defence for appointing senators.

Recent weeks have been spent reading a number of seminal tracts in the libertarian tradition (a theme to which I shall return in future), and I can report with some confidence that it is divided into two main camps: moderates who adhere to what are commonly called classical liberal beliefs or minarchy (sometimes taken to be synonymous with modern conservatism) and those who are rather more radical in their principles, the philosophical anarchists (or ‘anarcho-capitalists’).

The first, while not exactly boosters for the status quo, will admit grudgingly that the State does have its uses. It adjudicates contracts between contesting parties and upholds security of person and property: by applying law and order for domestic disputes, and supplying the armed services against foreign invasion. Ideally, then, for this branch of libertarianism was coined the belief that ‘government is best which governs least’.

The second band of libertarians, no doubt, considers the first group soft. No form of government is acceptable to them. Social action is based upon voluntary agreements entered into freely. All transactions, therefore, take the form of simple market processes, ergo the ‘capitalist’ label. Anything not openly agreed to—and thence with no means of ‘opting-out’—is coercive and an affront to fundamental natural law and human rights.

But what has this to do, you ask, with the benefits of an appointed Red Chamber?

In the general outlines of libertarian thought—basically a paean to limited government—is where the genius of our existing Senate lies.

Surely I am raising a provocative paradox; wouldn’t a philosophy of freedom advocate for democratic senatorial representation, unfiltered through the prism of responsible government?

Yet, if your objective is less government, then your goal is not an elected Senate.

If your objective is less self-important legislators, less legislative gridlock, and less regulatory intrusion—all with the potential of inhibiting personal liberty—your goal is not to encourage their expansion. Your goal, as a libertarian, is to maintain what is by comparison a lesser obstacle to freedom.

Consider this an axiomatic warning: as surely as night follows day, a senator elected by popular will, with the wind in his sails and newfound electoral legitimacy conferred upon him, will feel duty-bound to live up to expectations to be as energetic and industrious as his colleagues in the House of Commons.

He will be constrained, by articles in the BNA Act, from introducing money bills in the Upper House, but that is the only constitutional restraint by which he will be bound.

By former convention the Senate was to act as a chamber of sober second thought, an evolutionary development because, lacking in directly democratic bona fides, the Senate was considered at best a complementary chamber in league with the confidence chamber that was the House of Commons. No more.

However, with a ballot-box mandate, the Senate will enjoy the full sanction of Canadian voters—more so, in fact, since the provinces have no greater number of senators than MPs; for instance, the present distribution of seats means that the twenty-four senators representing Ontario will wield a larger population-base, and greater clout, than the province’s 106 MPs.

At last, the Senate will become the equivalent in power of its nineteenth-century model, the House of Lords; this Canadian institution will fulfil, in word and deed, the dream of the Fathers of Confederation for ‘a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom.’

Ask David Lloyd George, though, how his People’s Budget fared in 1909 and 1910, as successive bills were voted down by the peers. The Parliament Act of 1911 is the answer. The powers of the obstructionist House of Lords were severely curtailed. And the Liberal government had it easy; its antagonists were hereditary in nature, not democratic.

The alternative to Senate reform favoured by some of the opposition parties is abolition. Certainly, from the anarcho-capitalist standpoint—that is, the ideal libertarian response to any form of meddling government—get rid of the irritant altogether. But does this make for less, more effective government, or an overall worse situation?

Who will scrutinise and improve legislation in a unicameral Parliament, when the Commons hasn’t the time to revise it now? How many, in the lower chamber of competing interests and egos, exemplify the experience and non-partisanship of the upper chamber?

Bad apples reside in both places, I know. But that is as much an argument against turning the Senate into a carbon-copy of the Commons as a whole-cloth condemnation of an institution that has counselled Parliament—and Canadians—well since 1867.

Faced by these prospects, the moderate libertarian answer is clear: If we must have governing institutions, then let them be the best institutions that we can have, undertaking the people’s business with a minimum of fuss and bother, both to themselves and the populace they serve.

Let us scorn an elected Senate as the self-aggrandising monstrosity of our nightmares and preserve our modest appointed Red Chamber.

This is one libertarian position to which even Sir John A. could raise a glass.

See Advocacy for Appointed Upper Chambers (pdf file) for more information.