Book review: British PMs and Democracy
Written by Cultureon 21 January 2013 in
This article is from the February 2013 issue of Total Politics
This book is indispensable reading for all British politicians, including the prime minister. Roland Quinault deals with only 10 prime ministers in his chosen period, excluding, no doubt for good reason, Edward Heath and John Major, both of whom refused a referendum on the European question.
David Cameron is not included, but the events now unfolding on the European front will be the test of his democratic credentials, no less than the other prime ministers whom Quinault describes. If he does not hold a referendum before the next general election and put before the British people a choice as to whether or not to continue with the existing relationship with the EU, then his democratic standing will be severely diminished. At least he has already indicated that he would have a referendum in the next Parliament, but whether this is sufficient, given the uncertainties inherent in the opinion polls, suggests that a referendum cannot be delayed until after the next general election, when the time and opportunity will be seen to have expired.
What is extremely valuable, however, is the methodical manner in which Quinault traces his chosen prime ministers’ attitudes to democracy. After all, if prime ministers themselves are not advocates of democracy, there is not much hope for the rest of us. There is a concluding chapter that summarises their views on specific matters – on democracy itself, attitudes towards ‘the people’ and the extension of the franchise and electoral reform, the House of Lords and the monarchy, Ireland and foreign policy.
Quinault concludes that, “In almost every case, they responded to pressure for reform from the wider community rather than initiating it”. Unsurprisingly, as his biographer, I was disappointed that he did not highlight, in his chapters on Disraeli, Gladstone and Salisbury, the role of John Bright in the successful pressure for democratic reform in the mid-19th century. “In principle,” Quinault states, “the Victorian prime ministers had reservations about democracy, whereas the 20th century premiers embraced it”.
He shows Disraeli’s reluctance to embrace democracy, and that he “was consistently opposed to democracy when defined as either universal suffrage or an egalitarian society” – not to mention that he “regarded untrammelled democracy as a threat to the political ascendancy of the landed interest”.
He regards Gladstone’s “personal contribution” to democratic reform as “fitful and often partisan”, pointing out that he was influenced by the course of events abroad, avoiding “the explicit language of democracy” but emphasising “the need for government to be based on popular consent and liberal values”.
The author argues that Robert Cecil, Marquess of Salisbury, “despite having reservations about unqualified democracy, believed in popular government to a much greater degree than has been generally recognised”. However, he believes that in his earlier period, Cecil “feared democracy, not because it gave power to the people, but because it gave unlimited power to the poor”. Cecil, he tells us, wanted to protect minority rights, which influenced his opposition to Home Rule and to “an elective government of India”.
Lloyd George is accused of failing “to live up to his reputation as a reforming democratic” and of betraying his principles, not least because of his admiration for Lenin and Hitler. Baldwin, on the other hand, is described as “the first Conservative prime minister who openly endorsed democratic government,” including extending the franchise to women under 30 in 1928 and in his opposition to Communism and Nazism. Ramsay MacDonald comes off badly, not least because of his social climbing and his consorting with aristocracy.
Winston Churchill was uneasy about the impact on democracy of the 1931 financial crisis, yet did not favour the democratisation of the Indian government. He was vehemently opposed to Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler because it would undermine democracy in Britain, and he opposed the way in which the Labour government in 1947 used its large majority in the Commons to implement its nationalisation proposals without previous approval by the British people. As we know, Churchill referred to democracy as “the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried”.
Clement Attlee summed up his own position with the words, “Democracy means government by discussion, but it is only effective if you can stop people talking”. Quinault argues that, “Attlee’s support for democracy was a consistent thread running throughout his career,” including his enthusiasm for the Commonwealth and his hostility to the European common market, which, he complained, had created “a federation” run by officials. He was, however, doubtful about the capacity of Britain’s ex-colonies to practise democracy. He put socialism before democracy while being thoroughly opposed to Communist totalitarianism and believed in the democratic Anglo–American alliance.
Coming up to date, Quinault regards Margaret Thatcher as supporting democracy in its own right, but also as an aspect of “her support from free market economics” and as a Christian concept. He notes that she opposed proportional representation and devolution, but that she stood up for the democratic rights of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland. He admits that she promoted the notion of democracy in South Africa and bitterly opposed the lack of democracy in the Soviet Union and what is now the European Union. She regarded the “worldwide extension of democracy as a fundamental foreign policy objective” and he concludes that, “Thatcher was a democrat by conviction, if not by temperament”.
It’s clear that Quinault has less respect for Tony Blair, stating, “Blair frequently proclaimed the need for more democracy both at home and abroad”, but that his attitude “lacked any obvious theoretical or intellectual roots”.
He concludes, as regards the European Union, that Blair thought it should be “a powerful voice for democratic values in the rest of the world”. As we know, however, Blair refused a referendum for the British people. Quinault roundly condemns him for his attitude towards the war in Iraq and refers to his “wishful thinking rather than hard evidence” that democratic developments were gaining ground in the Middle East.
He adds that “Blair’s enthusiasm for democratic reform faltered” partly because his Labour government had such a large parliamentary majority, and concludes that Blair failed to reduce the democratic deficit of the EU. Ultimately, Quinault argues, Blair frequently “evoked democracy” but “increasingly, however, took the name of democracy in vain and by so doing he devalued both his own reputation and that of democratic government”.
Given that members of Parliament and governments derive their sole authority by virtue of the consent of the electorate, it is alarming that, in the country that Bright described as “the mother of Parliaments”, so many of our prime ministers have been so ambivalent about democracy. Government by whip is not the same as government by consent. Hopefully, our present PM will read this book, as the UK’s call for a referendum on the EU grows ever louder...
Dr Roland Quinault, Bloomsbury, £58.50 (hardback)