J. L. (John Leofric) Stocks.

The voice of the people; an essay on representative democracy online

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An Essay on Representative Democracy




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Chapt. Page

I. The Idea of Democracy.. .. ii

II. The Election of Representatives 24
(i) Representation
(ii) Constituencies

(iii) Proportional Representation or
Single-Member Constituencies

«. J"*


Parliament and People . .

.. 44


Ministry and Parliament . .



The Second Chamber

.. 91


Democratic Policy . .

.. 118

* (i) Internal Affairs

3 (ii) Imperial Affairs

^ (iii) Foreign Affairs


This essay was planned and partly written during
the last year of the war in the intervals of miUtary
service in England. At that time the strain of
the war, the complete suppression of democratic
forms of government, and the strange incapacity
of political leaders in all countries except America
to formulate a programme worth fighting for, had
produced much bitterness of feeling both within
and without the British army. The mind turned
with some relief to the consideration of parlia-
mentary institutions as they existed in this country
before the war and as they might exist again after
it, perhaps with some inclination to magnify their
possibilities and their superiority over the existing
order. The precise question here proposed for
investigation was no doubt influenced by the
situation. I asked myself what this democracy,
now so plainly absent, really was, and how far it
was or might have been realized in the forms of
government established in this countr}' before the
war. Later, after my release from military service,
I had the advantage of submitting my attempt
at an answer to these questions, in the form of
lectures, to a Summer School of the Workers'
Educational Association at Oxford. To its
criticism and encouragement the essa}- owes much.

8 Preface

It seemed that a discussion which flourished so
vigorously there might be not without interest to
a wider pubHc.

It is not yet at all clear in what direction our
political institutions are likely to develop. Since
this essay was completed, Mr. Lloyd George
appears to have attempted to recreate the Cabinet ;
but it is not certain how far the attempt has been
either genuine or successful. Meanwhile many
voices celebrate the approaching downfall of
representative government and of the nation-
state. To those whose sympathies are with such
speculations it may seem that I have opened an
unprofitable enquiry, into the possibihties of a
system already condemned and now fortunately
beyond revival. To me it seems certain, on the
other hand, that the possibilities of representative
government, so far from being exhausted, have
hardly been tapped. Education is hardly yet fully
within the reach of the ordinary voter, and adult
suffrage is not yet realized. It does not of course
follow that a different system, like Mr. Cole's
" functional democracy," will not be tried or is not
worth trying. But the power of human invention
in these matters is very limited, not merely because
of the limits of imagination, but still more because
of the necessity of finding for the new creation a
solid basis in custom and belief. In any case
theory has to start from a criticism of existing
institutions ; and to such criticism this essay is
a modest contribution. No attempt is made to

Preface 9

prove that democracy is the best form or principle
of government. The question is not even raised
whether a better system of government could not
be devised than the parhamentary s^^stem with
which we are familiar. All that is asked is how,
given those institutions or something very like
them, the ideal of democracy might be brought
somewhere near reahzation.

J L- S.


The Idea of Democracy.

ABSOLUTE liberty, just and true liberty, equal
and impartial liberty, is the thing that we stand
in need of.

John Locke. [Printed in capital letters at the
end of his Preface to the English translation of
the first letter on Toleration — i68g].
Ce qui importe avant tout, c'est la continuite de
Taction, c'est le perpetuel 6vei\ de la pens^e et de la
conscience ouvri^res. Lh est la vraie sauvegarde. L^
est la garantie de I'avenir. (What matters above all,
is the continuity of action, the unbroken wakefulness
of thought and conscience of the workers. That is the
true safeguard. That is the guarantee of the future.)
Jean Jaures. [His last written words ; the
conclusion of an article pubhshed in L' Humanile
over his initials on the day of his death, July 31st,
There may have been a time, long ago, when a
king felt that his kingdom, with everything in it,
land and houses and trees, men and all living
things, was absolutely his own, to employ as he
liked on whatever purpose might suit him. A
large private landowner, even to-day, seems to
have some such sense of absolute ownership. But
through the largest estate run the king's high-
ways, and its owner knows by many tokens that
he is subject to the law of the land. The king's

12 The Voice of the People

ownership, therefore, of his realm may well have
' seemed to the king even more absolute. There
was no outside check or hmiting authority.
Internal difficulties, setting limits to practicability,
he must alwaj^'s have had ; but his rights within
his own realm — what was there to set a bound to
them ? If such a king pi-omised this or that to his
brother of France or Spain, it would be understood
that he pledged himself to use whatever of his own
resources should prove necessary for the fulfilment
of the pledge. His realm and its citizens were
his to employ as he thought fit, and his brother of
France would count on them without question.
If the Enghsh Rothschild promises to the French
Rothschild help in a financial transaction, it is
understood that the hundreds or thousands of
clerks, agents, and assistants employed by the
Enghsh firm will be used to whatever extent may
prove necessary that the promise may be made
good. It is Rothschild's office, and these men
accept his pay and execute his orders. So this
King of England, mythical or historical, would
have reasoned if any question had been asked as
to his resources. He was king, owner of a royal
estate, and in promising he pledged the resources
of a kingdom.

The loyal subject of such a king would know
that he was the king's servant, and that only by
giving up his birthright could he transfer into
another's service. All that he held or owned he
must hold ultimately from the king, who allowed

The Idea of Democracy 13

in certain cases sale or bequest to others, in other
cases not. If he thought he was wronged, he
would appeal to the king. The highest position
to which a subject could aspire would be that he
should be called to advise the king in the conduct
of affairs or be entrusted with the execution of
the king's orders or intentions in some portion of
his realm or in some department of his household.
A king's estate is large, and the owner cannot
direct and supervise everything himself. Never-
theless there could be nothing done or suffered
within the king's dominions for which the king
could refuse responsibiUty. Crime, violence, love,
friendship, marriage, childbirth — all happened by
the King's " grace " or permission.

There may be a time, long after we are all dead,
when a nation succeeds in ruling itself. Such a
state of things is much more difficult to grasp in
imagination than that of absolute kingship. But
the main point is plain. Such a nation would be
capable of a national act. If England and France
were under absolute kings, as imagined above, the
statement " England went to war with France "
would only mean that England's King had
quarrelled with the King of France and that the
two kings were leading such of their retainers as
they had been able to collect to do battle with one
another. In the second case the war would be on
each side a national act. Discontented minorities
of each nation, greater or smaller, are still con-
ceivable and even probable (just as a man will go

14 The Voice of the People

into a fight with some scruple at the back of his
mind that he should have kept out of it) : never-
theless the determination to fight would be that
of the nations, the decision would be incontestibly
theirs, and the conflict would be ended by a
decision to discontinue fighting no less incontestibly
national. Now there are persons and organiza-
tions authorized or accustomed to speak on behalf
cff nations. Von Biilow or Beaconsfield signs, and
England or Germany has pledged her word.
There are thus actions which purport to be the
actions of nations. It the condition above
imagined is realized, what will be achieved will be
this — that which is in name a national act will be
such in fact. This ideal is called democracy ;
and it must be understood that democracy is an
ideal, not yet within reach of complete reahzation.
It is a principle of government, and the chief test
of its progress in any country is the degree to
which an affirmative answer can be given to the
question, " is this, which purports to be the
national act, really the act of the nation ? "

It is directly contrary to the idea of democracy
that any man, or group of men, should have inde-
pendent power and authority over the community,
what we call the nation, since all power and
authorit}', all place, position, and possessions, are
conferred by, or by permission of, the nation.
Hence a king as defined above is an impossibility;
but how much further one can go is doubtful.
Authorities and powers within the nation there

The Idea of Democracy 15

must be for the execution of the national will and
for the coercion, when necessary, of unruly
elements. The nature and limits of such
authorities is a matter for subsequent enquiry :
only one thing is immediately plain, namely, that
all will be derivative and secondary. Hence, if
in such a democracy there is a king, i.e., a here-
ditary, not elective president, his power, position,
and authority will be known and limited. He will
be a first citizen and will belong to the nation, not
the nation to him. His function will be to express in
his sphere, as any other citizen should in his, the
national will.

The loyalty of the private citizen in a demo-
cratic state will be shown in the punctiUous per-
formance of all pubUc duties, in which certainly
all mature persons of both sexes will have a share.
Decisions inevitably will go by majorities in some
form or other, and the citizen's loyalty is most
severely tested when he finds himself in the
minority on a fundamental question. While
kings with their courts produce a vertical gradua-
tion in society, so that the nearer a subject is to
the king's person, as adviser, secretary-of-state,
or court official, the higher is his social position,
democracy gives no ready gauge of higher and
lower. To some citizens a position of great
poUtical responsibility might be the highest
ambition ; to others other careers might seem to
offer greater marks of distinction. In whatever
sphere, however, the citizen worked, he could not

i6 The Voice of the People

fail to be conscious that he was a citizen, working
for the nation, and himself responsible in his degree
for everything done or suffered within its terri-
tories. A national act would be in some degree
his act. By mere opposition he could not rid
himself of his responsibility for it ; but only in the
last resort by renouncing his citizenship and
migrating to another country.

The phrase " national act," used more than once
above, requires explanation. To some it may
appear a misty and metaphysical notion, devoid of
meaning or value except to the professional
philosopher, and doubtfully to him. But, though
not free from difficulty, it is a simple notion when
approached in the right way. Countries, in-
dubitabl3% make treaties with one another, which
when analysed are found to be undertakings or
promises to act towards one another in certain
specified ways : they make war and peace with
one another ; again, actions and promises to act.
Who are the agents in all this ? Not, certainly,
simply the individuals who discuss, sign, or fight.
Nor, perhaps, actually, in existing circumstances,
fully at least, the nations concerned. Yet, ideally,
without doubt, the nations. It is England that
negociates, promises, acts. The quaUfication,
" ideally," means this. It is England that is meant
and intended ; it is England that is actually in-
volved ; but if England's " heart " is in it, that,
as things now stand, is, for assignable reasons, in
some degree an accident, whereas if the idea of

The Idea of Democracy 17

democracy were realized it would be a necessary
element in the fact.

Countries, then, act in some measure ; and
where they act they will : for will has no other
expression but action, and action is the embodi-
ment of nothing but will.

Only the decision of a capital issue can be con-
ceived as being a national act in the full sense.
In considering the record of a personal ruler,
possessed of absolute power, we should have to
distinguish among the acts for which he was
responsible at least three main classes, each in-
volving a different fashion and degree of responsi-
bihty, things done by himself, things done
according to his orders or instructions, and things
which he suffered men to do. The same wide
distinctions are quite as necessary in considering
the activities of the nation ; but they are there
more difficult to apply ; for who can say when
the nation, a vast and impalpable creature, is itself
acting ; when others are acting according to its
orders and instructions ; when they are merely
doing what is tacitly allowed ? The chief difficulty
probably lies for most people in determining the
first class of cases : if that were clear, the other
two would not present so much difficulty. Some
immediate help, therefore, may usefully be here given
towards the answer to the question, "by what signs
shall one know that the nation is itself acting ? "

It is tempting to answer that one may know
from the fact that practically all the citizens will be

1 8 The Voice of the People

doing something, relative to a national situation,
which promises to have some influence upon the
transformation of that situation, e.g., casting a
vote for a representative, or, in a referendum, for
or against a particular proposal. But such an
answer woula limit the number of national
acts ver}^ narrowly. It is difficult to imagine a
constitution which would not exclude all declara-
tions of war and conclusions of peace, as well as
most treaties between nations, from the category
of national acts, if the answer is allowed to stand.
A safer and more constructive answer can be given
on the following lines. There is one, and only one,
condition, which can certainly be laid down as
necessary. Practically all citizens must be taking
note of the situation in which the country finds
itself, and must have within reach full, timely,
and accurate information as to any action taken,
or proposed to be taken, in the country's name.
This condition satisfied, and given a workable
constitution, there is no reason why any decision
taken on behalf of the nation by its properly
accredited representatives should not be truly
describable as a national act and truly eanbody
the national will. If this condition is not satisfied,
then the action, however accurately it may embody
the wishes of the great majority or even the whole
number of the citizens, cannot embody a national
will (because no such will at the time it was per-
formed can have existed) and cannot be truly
described as a national act. It can only be the

The Idea of Democracy 19

action of an individual or individuals, which the
country may, or may not, afterwards adopt as its

It might be objected to the view above advanced
that in making the achievement of a national act
depend, not on the power of the individual citizen
to influence the decision of a matter in which
national interests are involved, but on his attention
to the situation in which his country finds itself,
we have laid our foundation too wide. The con-
dition, it might be said, is capable of reahzation
as easil}^ b}^ a despotism or a bureaucracy as by
what is ordinarily called a democratic government.
The answer is that in practice men will not be
persuaded to attend to affairs for which they are
in no way responsible. It is only by making the
ordinary citizen in some degree responsible for
national affairs that you will induce him to attend
to them. The country' which most often calls on
its citizens for a decisive vote is not necessarily
the most democratic, or, what comes to the same
thing, the most prohfic in national acts ; but the
country which never calls on its citizens for such
decisions is shown by this test, as by any other, to
lack the democratic principle altogether.

The condition laid down is clearly, in the most
favourable circumstances, very difficult of realiza-
tion. Only in a highly-educated community, very
responsive to political influences and with a con-
stitution exactly suited to it, is it capable of
realization at all : and, even there, only on rare

20 The Voice of the People

occasions will it be reahzed. But then, it is only
rarely that a national act of the first degree will be
required. Most changes, especially legislative acts
of Parliament, will be national acts in the second
degree, the execution of a policy previously
approved in general outline, with the detail of
which only a small minority will be familiar.

Democracy is a principle of government at
present only partially reahzed, and struggling
everywhere for fuller realization. Its aim and
effort is to make acts which are national in name
national in reality. It attempts to secure this
end by arranging for the widest possible co-
operation of citizens in national affairs, thus
demanding and encouraging their attention to
pubHc policy. In the final analysis it will probably
be found that the democratic is the only real
alternative to the kingly principle as outlined at
the beginning of this chapter : certainly, it is its
sworn enemy. In the one system ruler and subject
is a natural division, embedded in the structure of
society ; in the other the functions of the ruler
are so spread over the body politic that no citizen
can disclaim either name. The one idea throws
on a single head a responsibility to which no man
is equal ; while the other may seem to divide his
power into parcels so small that any man will
despise them. Does it not seem plain that these
are two extremes, each as absurd and disastrous
as the other, and that salvation is to be found, if
anywhere, in some middle course ?

The Idea of Democracy 21

But the signs of the times point inexorably to
democracy, complete and unadulterated, as the
future to which all civiUzed communities are
moving. Not without opposition, it is true.
Democracy has had to fight every yard of the way
and is still openly assailed and flouted by those
who are in a position to voice their dislike or
distrust. The advocate of a " nation in arms "
detests the idea of a nation in action. A nation of
soldiers is all very well, but a nation of pohticians
is a hideous nightmare. Others foresee with
disgust the inevitably levelling effect on society
which a thoroughgoing pohtical democracy is
bound in the end to exert. Again, ground can
easily be discovered in experience for the assertions
that democratic methods of government are
expensive, dilatory, inexpert, that democracies
cannot conduct wars or maintain a steady external
policy. Well, the faults observed in the half-
democracies of the past and present may be
variously explained. Want of education in the
citizens and in their chosen advisers, want of
balance or elasticity in the constitution, will
account for much and enable us to shift some of
the blame from the principle to its practice. And
it can probably be shown that some of the most
characteristic weaknesses imputed to existing
democratic practice spring from the very fact that
the principle is not completely reahzed. They are
maladies of infancy, which, given a normal develop-
ment, may be expected to disappear with maturity.

22 The Voice of the People

But when all is said and done, something will
remain to the account of the principle itself. It
has, no doubt, its own characteristic disorders.
When the worst, however, has been admitted, the
account against democracy will be a small and
insignificant affair beside those of its more romantic
and magnificent predecessors in power. It can
never hope to compete with them in the fury of its
frenzies or the malevolence of its malpractices.

It must be admitted that there is no guarantee
that the democratic principle, if given full rein,
will necessarily bring increased efficiency in govern-
ment, or, in any obvious sense of the word, in-
creased profit to a nation. A more natural life, an
improved national health, friendher deahngs with
fellow nations, these things perhaps we might
promise ; but even as it stands the promise is
vague and the grounds of confidence are hard to
define. Yet, after all, which is the greater or
more feasible task ? As a trusted leader to under-
take the execution of a nation's will, or, as a
benevolent despot, to labour to forestall its wishes ?
To be a king's loyal servant is accounted a fine
thing. The words have a romantic appeal not
easily associated with work on a borough council
or the expression of preferences on a voting paper.
But romance of word does not easily cling to what
is new and actual : it decorates the lost causes,
the dying and the dead. It is not the romance of
words but the romance of things that counts in
our day. And that may spread even to the

The Idea of Democracy 23

borough council arid the ballot box in a nation
which finds the strength to cast off the last chains
which bind it and stand forth free to go its own
way. The will of a nation, could it but exist,
would surely be something more stable, more
calculable, and infinitely more powerful than the
preferences of kings, the nervous coups of passing
politicians, even than the secret and imperious
behests of the magnates of trade, commerce, and
international finance.

" Fine words ! " it will be said, " but can you
make them good ? " The substance of these
promises must be sought in what follows. It is
only by developing carefully and in some detail the
imphcations of the democratic idea that we can
hope to gain any degree of clearness as to its power
or value. Those who use the word, whether in
praise or blame, too often show that they have no
clear vision of the thing.


The Election of Representatives.

There is no difficulty in showing that the ideally best
form of government is that in which sovereignty, or
the supreme controlling power in the last resort, is
vested in the entire aggregate of the community ;
every citizen not only having a voice in the exercise of
that ultimate sovereignty, but being, at least occa-
sionally, called on to take an actual part in the
government, by the personal discharge of some public
function, local or general.

Mill : Representative Government. Ch. III.

Property inevitably confers power on its possessors,
and far from adding to that national power bj' political
privileges, it should be the object of all men who love
liberty to balance it by raising the poorer classes to
political importance ; the influence and insolence of
riches ought to be tamed and subdued instead of
being inflated and excited by political institutions.

Napier : History of the Peninsular War. Bk.
XXIII., Ch. IV. [About 1835].

The pure idea of democracy, according to its defini-
tion, is the government of the whole people by the
whole people, equally represented. Democracy as
commonly conceived and hitherto practised is the
government of the whole people by a mere majority of
the people, exclusively represented. The former is

The Election of Representatives 25

synonymous with the equality of all citizens ; the latter,

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Online LibraryJ. L. (John Leofric) StocksThe voice of the people; an essay on representative democracy → online text (page 1 of 11)