the gift of the Greeks
The three E’s of the 3E Senate stand for elected, equal and effective. Elected and equal are to give legitimacy and form to the new institution. Effective, in this context, means able to block parliament.
Now, Canada is a democracy in the modern sense of the word. People who live in democracies are generally moderate to strident supporters of democracy. They claim democracies transcend all other kinds of societies in vague yet positive ways. People living in democracies will go to war with people in (weaker) non-democratic societies, in part on the grounds that those other societies are not democratic. Those few critics of democracy who make public their views are invited by democracy’s defenders to be silent or leave for some other society where the penalty for societal criticism is much worse than just ostracism and exile.
So what happened in Canada? How did things go so wrong with Canadian democracy that the single most important initiative of the Alberta government and of the Reform Party of Canada (that would become the heart of the present day governing Conservative Party), throughout the 80’s and 90’s was to create an institution that blocks the actions of the democratic Canadian parliament?
The short answer is that what we call democracy is a surprising institution, often comprising apparent paradoxes; that one of those paradoxes is that, while we practice what we call democracy, Canadians (and we aren’t alone in this trait) take democracy for granted without really understanding it; that if we had really understood democracy better during the 80’s and 90’s the 3E Senate proposal would have been widely recognized as manifestly useless, would have been laughed off the table, and better ideas would have been proposed that might have been accepted in a referendum.
Okay,that is the short answer. Pretty much the rest of this website is the long version of the answer.
Democracy is a Greek word that literally means “rule by the people”. The originators of the term “democracy” were some people living in Athens about 450 BC. These people had a problem. They were a community of several tribes living in a geographically confined mixed rural and urban environment. Times were good and the population was growing. Things were changing, generally for the better, but that caused the trouble. Financial, cultural and tribal loyalties were in almost constant conflict. Nobody was truly in charge, but many contenders thought they should be. And so, these differences of opinion were sorted out by civil wars and insurrections. It got so bad that certain visionaries in the city were able to persuade the rest that deciding all these matters by force of arms was counter productive and that everyone would be better off if, somehow, decisions could be made without all the bloodletting. They assigned Solon, a local wise man, to come up with a way for the Athenian community to work.
Solon initiated a series of reforms. He made some important revisions to how taxes were spent and collected. He stopped the wide spread practice of debt slavery. He made the holding of high public office available only to the wealthy. This was actually a progressive step, because, before it was only members of certain families were allowed to hold high public offices, and newly wealthy people, people with significant influence and drive, were being excluded. Solon also formalized a regular meeting of all the men of Athens to discuss community issues. The men at the meeting could make non-binding recommendations on some matters to the city’s governors. Solon created another new institution, a people’s court, that could bring to trial any high official charged with corruption or abuse of public office.
Solon spent a good deal of his time conning one group or another into going along with his reforms, and talking them out of going to war with their rivals. When his reforms were at least loosely in place, he publicly announced he’d done enough, was going traveling and would come back to Athens in ten years to see how they were doing. This he did. His reforms held for that decade and long after his return. People argued and complained but there were no civil wars or armed rebellions for many years.
Then, a clever and charismatic indigent named Peisistratos seized power and became the new dictator of Athens, and threw away Solon’s reforms. Solon, now an old man, publicly railed against the dictator – and against the people of Athens who had given away their freedom, but Peisistratos never persecuted him in return. In fact, the dictator often consulted privately with Solon and took his advice on many matters, though not, of course, on stepping down from power.
And so Athens was a dictatorship for a generation. The dictator’s two sons inherited their father’s position, but not his cunning. They were overthrown by some rich aristocrats, who set up a council of wealthy men, known as the Oligarchy, to run Athens. Quarreling amongst themselves and struggling to maintain mastery over a restive underclass that recalled, nostalgically, Solon’s constitution, the oligarchs made occasional moves to reinstitute one or another of his reforms again, on an ad hoc basis. Then, Cliesthenes, one of the rich councilors, in a bid for power over his rivals, or through a genuine belief in democratic ideals, or a bit of both, instituted some major, radical and (it turned out) long-lasting reforms. The other oligarchs balked at Cliesthenes’s proposals and refused to ratify them. There was a short-lived widespread popular revolt throughout Athens, and that was the end of the oligarchy. It was the beginning of the practice of democracy.
Cliesthenes’ reforms re-established Solon’s constitutional reforms and went much further. Every free male, irrespective of income or family connections, participated in the general meetings, called ekklesia, or assemblies. They met on a hill called Pnyx, on the west edge of Athens. The assembly made all the community’s decisions. When the assembly decided the community was to take some action, the men gathered, voted on the authority to be granted the man supervising the project (creating a job description) and they voted on the wage the assembly would pay him for his work. The man was then selected by lot, not by election. If he did not want the job, he had the right to appeal the decision, but if the appeal was not successful, he was expected to carry out his assigned duties and if he did not, or if he abused the authority he was given, the assembly judged him and could punish him. The process of selection by lot was used to assign all jobs except for the job of General of the armed forces in times of war. Athenian Generals were elected by the assembly. However, generals only had their authority during times of war, and war was both declared and ended by the assembly’s vote.
The population of ancient Athens would have included several tens of thousands of free men. It was impractical for that number to meet and make decisions; it would have taken too long to make decisions with such a crowd, and none of the work the men needed to do on a day-to-day basis would get done. The Athenians got around this problem by grouping all the men into tribes of roughly the same number of people. Some men from each tribe were selected by lot to attend the assembly meetings, which were held roughly one day a week. When a man had done his turn for the year, he was not up for reselection till the following year. In this way, there were between 1000 and 6000 voting assembly members (and any non-voters interested in the proceedings could turn up and watch and even make a speech to the assembly if invited to do so). The group size was manageable but still large enough that decisions made by the assembly were (probably) the same decisions to which the entire free male community of Athens would have come had the vote been put to that whole community.
As participants of a democracy the people of Athens built a dynamic economic empire. They won some wars against weaker and smaller adversaries. Rather unwisely, they picked a fight with a tough dictatorship, Sparta, and lost after a long and bloody war. Sparta’s terms included the end of the democracy, and the Spartans appointed an oligarchy of locals to rule Athens. It lasted a year, and then the Athenians revolted and re-instituted their democracy. They kept paying tribute to Sparta, and the Spartans, for their part, recognized the inevitable and allowed the democratic coup to stand. Athenians went on to rebuild their lost economic prosperity and were soon picking wars with their neighbours as before, all the while practicing democracy.
And so Athens remained, till defeated during the conquest of Greece by Phillip of Macedon and his soon-to-be-famous son Alexander. Democratic Athenian colonies and copies existed around the Mediterranean until conquered and brought into the Persian and Macedonian and later Roman Empire over the centuries. Athenians lost the ability to have a foreign policy, but they practiced democracy in local affairs for 200 more years till the Romans put an end to it forcibly.
three models of reality
There are a few points I’d like to explore related to this ancient history. First Athenian democracy was born of need. The instability, the near anarchy, drove people to this new process. I would suggest democracy was molded by what had preceded, that democracy formalized and harnessed the natural state of violence in which Athenians lived.
The violence was, as one might expect, conducted mostly by men. Athens had no professional army; all the males carried on a trade, owned a sword and a shield or a bow with arrows, or at least a pike, and they trained in the use of weapons whenever they were not practicing their trades or engaged in actual fighting. Counting the votes cast by armed men gave a plausible prediction of which side would win if armed struggle were to decide the issue. The advantage was that the vote losers did not suffer physical defeat, and the vote winners did not have to expend the effort to dish out that physical defeat. It was a win-win situation for both winners and losers; the battle without the destruction. Counting the votes was “virtual war”.
Democracy is not dictatorship of the majority. Voting is a way to reach community consensus. This is an interesting feature we often overlook. Consider; vote losers accept the proposal the vote winners put forth. After the vote, everyone agrees. There may be grumbling, but that doesn’t count. No one forces the losers to go along; they follow of their own volition. Genuine disagreement means the vote losers begin an insurrection. If there is no insurrection, then the losers accept the vote outcome. Consensus is reached.
The question must be asked; how does a well-armed, testosterone–laden vote loser get to that docile state of acceptance? There may be several reasons. First, as mentioned above, there is not a lot of bloodletting. If your adversaries have not recently killed your friends and relatives, tolerance for your adversary’s position becomes much more attainable. Beyond that, there is an established democratic process in place. Today’s losers can be tomorrow’s winners; it’s still worth playing the game. And the vote winners’ demands upon the vote losers are modest. Vote winners don’t want to demand so much from the losers that the losers decide it’s worth fighting despite the odds. Vote winners want the process to succeed. Also, the vote losers and vote winners may still in the future ally together against some common domestic or foreign enemy.
By voting, a democracy defines a community; a group whose members are willing, when they lose a vote, to accept the results. Democracy defines a group willing to play pretend war together over and over and live with the consequences. The group is exclusive. As I mentioned earlier, the Athenians engaged in (mostly) successful real wars with their weaker neighbors, meting out extermination and slavery and divvying up the plunder. The democratic Athenians had no interest in allowing the people they targeted to practice democracy with them.
Athenians could buy allies, field big armies, build a navy and, as a consequence, could defeat and feed off their weaker neighbors because the Athenians were economically successful. Just after they began the practice of democracy, the Athenians found a great silver strike just outside their city. Athens suddenly had a lot of money available. Some historians have suggested that, had the strike not been discovered when it was, Athenian democracy would have been a flash in the pan; it would have failed in a few years and only historians would have known about that odd political experiment. Then again, wealthy democratic Athens grew to be a terror for those who lived in its shadow. A less rich democracy would face tough challenges, but would also be less arrogant and repressive. There were several other Greek democratic cities, inspired by or founded by Athens. Democracy may very well have survived without that silver strike. We will never know for certain, but democracy is a pragmatic and robust way to organize a society.
Democracies have advantages over dictatorships. One advantage is that democracy can instill, in the average citizen, a consistent pride of ownership, and consequently a willingness to commit to the established order. A rival dictatorship would not inspire its citizens that way. But this advantage would be intermittent. In those times, most of Athens’ rivals were smaller towns in which nearly everyone was related by family. Also, Athens’ rivals fought for their lives, which can unify a community marvelously. Then again, remarkable dictatorships (Sparta, for example) could inspire in the hearts of their native subjects fanatical devotion to the state through the paradigm of master race.
A more important advantage of democracy is the feedback between decisions taken and consequences experienced. In domestic matters, if people aren’t willing to tackle a task, it doesn’t get tackled. If a task needs doing because it helps a neighborhood, it gets done. If an aqueduct is needed, a tyrant isn’t going to know that, because he doesn’t go thirsty. If a road must be widened, how would he know, since everyone gets out of his way?
Community needs may be reported to a dictator; a wise dictator insists on it. But each issue is academic, and the needed solution, which of course, requires the tyrant’s approval, may not be taken until the tyrant is ready to deal with it. That’s not to impugn the motives of tyrants. Quite simply, issues important to the people who create the wealth of the community are dealt with much more directly in a democracy. There’s a feedback between need and action that does not require intermediaries (the dictator, for example). And because domestic mundane problems were getting solved, Athenians were less willing to take up arms against one another, and were more willing to play the democracy game.
But to get proper feedback, the whole community should be involved. That wasn’t practical, so the next best thing was to make a working model of the whole community, and that was the assembly. The point was that the result of a vote in the assembly could reasonably be assumed to have the same result as a vote taken by the whole community.
And now one last observation about Athenian democracy: once force of arms was, by agreement, not the means by which to arrive at decisions, Athenians in the assembly tried force of persuasion. They debated. They sold and spun, shamed and cajoled. They demonized and extolled. They feigned indignation, and waxed rhapsodic. They argued earnestly, about whether to build the aqueduct or widen the road, about raising or lowering taxes, about going to war or not. They even invented a new goddess, Pietho, to whom they prayed for the gift of persuasion. More practically, perhaps, they came to observe that what goes on in the assembly is often entertaining, but it is only sometimes constructive. They began to categorize the types of arguments they heard and took part in, and began to study the art of verbal persuasion, the art of rhetoric.
Athenians became famous for arguing, for their sophistry, for the Socratic method and other schools of thought about how to argue convincingly. The point, about feedback and the usefulness of the decisions made in the assembly, is that those decisions are decisions that help the community prosper. An argument can be wildly entertaining, but if it focuses on being entertaining, if it requires someone lose face while someone else get to strut, then it satisfies the crowd in the short term, but it might not lead to the optimal decision. Should the road be widened and the aqueduct remain un-built because we all enjoyed the hilarious put-downs the road wideners dished out to the all-too-earnest aqueduct builders? No, it’s not a good reason, even though the debate was delightful to hear. It might or might not be the right decision, but the entertaining nature of the argument distracted the audience from the real question.
A constructive argument is a rigorous testing of a model of the real world, a model that is made of words. If during testing, the model is revealed to not predict relevant real world events, then the model should be revised or discarded. If the model is tested and not found wanting, then it has persuaded its testers. It doesn’t mean the model of reality will predict real events, because the tester may not have asked the right questions. So, the more thorough and thoughtful the testers’ questions, the more likely the model reflects reality, and becomes useful to the community.
And so Athenians had their assembly, a model of the whole community, engaged in devising and testing word models of real world problems and then engaging in ritualized virtual combat (voting) to reach consensus. I suggest that democracy was successful to the degree these three models accurately portrayed their respective realities. By these criteria, our modern democratic practices fall short and this explains, in part, our dissatisfaction with our political institutions in Canada.
kings and things
The most apparent difference between modern and ancient democracies is that in ancient democracies voters determined a community’s actions. In modern democracies, voters choose people to participate in the assemblies that determine a community’s actions. This is a fundamental difference so profound as to call our modern use of the word “democracy” into question. We recognize that there is a difference, and call what the ancients practiced “direct democracy”, while assigning to our own practice the term “representative democracy”. Yet it is hard to rigorously justify this term. We are perhaps fortunate that ancient Athenians aren’t around to point out that what they practiced was “democracy”, unadorned with qualifying prefix, and what we practice should not piggy-back on their good word.
Modern representative democracy evolved very differently than democracy in Athens. With the extinction of the democratic city-states under the Macedonian empire, and then the Roman empire, communities throughout the Mediterranean world came to be ruled by emperors and their appointed local representatives. The Roman Empire expanded into territories that would eventually become Turkey, the Balkans, France, Spain and England. Roman rule lasted for generations. For those people in its domain, and those who lived on its edges, it became the standard way human society was supposed to be organized; well-managed dictatorship became the norm. When, with the passage of time, the Roman Empire collapsed, what followed in its wake was a cluster of crude, miniature copies, an era of poorly managed dictatorships.
The situation in the dark ages of Europe in some ways resembled the conditions of pre-democratic Athens. As long before, in Athens, there was growing wealth; developments in plough technology and harnesses for horses were allowing for more food and less famine, developments in mining and smithing gave the average medieval peasant more household objects made of iron than would have been available in a wealthy Roman’s home. As far as we know, there was only one windmill ever built in the whole Roman empire, but hundreds of medieval communities used windmills to harness wind energy for milling and pumping. As in ancient Athens, there was political anarchy. Many local dictatorships were vying to be Rome’s successor, though none were up to the task. There was no law but violence. People (again, generally men) who could do violence well became extremely valuable. And, indeed, versions of democracy did arise.
But this idea did not really catch on in formerly Roman Europe. There, cores of political stability evolved painfully and slowly. A local warlord could unite, through bribery and intimidation and family ties, a cluster of even-more-local warlords, and lead them to battle for loot and prestige. A dominant warlord was called a king. His agents, the still-local warlords, had important roles to play. In battle, they could show up on side with the king, and the more war materiel they showed up with, the more valuable they were to the king and the more favours they might win. And, should the king prove fallible and fail in one battle too many, or fail to reward his supporters enough, or reward one too much, then an ambitious local warlord was available to pick up the mantle and try his own hand as king.
It was important for a king to talk regularly with his local warlords. It gave them all a chance to approach and get to know each other. It gave the warlords input into decisions because they could talk directly to the king, who, as a dictator, needed to know what was going on in his domain. Without regular personal contact between the local warlords and the king, military stability deteriorated, anarchy prevailed and all fell victim to more stable predatory kingdoms nearby. But in Britain (from whence came our Canadian parliamentary tradition) politics took an odd turn, because of events in Scandinavia and France.
From the mountains and islands of Scandinavia, where geography made the warlords very local, and where the influence of Rome was not as strong, came the institution of the Thing. A few speakers from every village in each realm would travel to a special, sacred place and there common folk would meet with the local warlord. The ceremony at the Thing involved the commoners publicly swearing allegiance to the warlord. It also involved the warlord telling the people what his plans were for conquests and what he expected of them in terms of the work and taxes. But also, the villagers and farmers would tell the warlord what was troubling them, and what he could do to make their lives better. These exchanges were often quite frank. The warlord sometimes had to revise his plans. The sacred nature of the meeting place meant that at the Thing, anyone could speak his or her mind without retribution. This was a significant departure from the Roman model, where Caesar was a God. The Thing could be considered a kind of democracy; the most and least violent members of society met and together argued their way to consensus without recourse to violence.
It came to pass that a Scandinavian warlord named Rollo sailed with his forces to the north of what is today called France, and captured and occupied a pleasant stretch of coast. The Vikings killed the local elite and enslaved the remaining populace and set themselves up in a new duchy of Normandy (Land of the Norse Men). Like the Athenians with their democracy, the Viking masters of Normandy did not consider their Thing an institution to be enjoyed by their recently acquired underclass. The original peasants, merchants, and artisans were allowed to live and work on their farms and in their shops and factories as long as they provided a share of their goods to the local warlords. In turn, the local warlords promised their services, as warriors, to less local warlords, who in turn made that promise to the Duke of Normandy. The feudal system was very centralized and very disciplined. The earlier political institutions adapted or disappeared, although the Norman rulers did, of necessity, come to speak the local Frankish language.
Generations passed. The Normans settled into their new land and began to cast their eyes about for other potential conquests. Across the water from Normandy was a sprawling territory, the largest of what we today call the British Isles. The land was too large to be ruled autocratically by one medieval king. The English king depended heavily on the good will of the English warlords from different corners of his realm. Practically speaking, he ruled by their consent.
In 1066, Duke William of Normandy (great great great grandson of Rollo) defeated King Harold of England in battle and made himself the new king of England on Christmas of that year. He did not speak the language used in his vast new territories and did not know and was not much interested in following the customs of the local elite. The English warlords had the choice of fighting or accepting the new situation. Many fought for several years, but eventually they came and offered their fealty.
The kingdom of England was some five times the size of the Duchy of Normandy. The disciplined Normans were the strongest military force in England, but there were not nearly enough Normans to assimilate the English. This cultural difference set up a tension, between the “English” king and his warlords, which shaped the course of events there over the long term. The feudal system exported to England was not what the English warlords were used to. There was a long protracted struggle between successive Norman kings, seeking the obedience they expected of their feudal vassals, and the English warlords seeking the freedom they expected as supporters of the English king.
On a few occasions, the warlords, when they had the upper hand, tried forcing the king into signing documents saying that he had obligations beyond those of feudal master. The kings would sign the papers and then, as soon as it was convenient to do so, renege on those written obligations, on the grounds that such documents are not binding upon a feudal king appointed by God, and, moreover, that no document is binding when signed under duress.
In frustration, the warlords called upon the general public to show up at the signings. The warlords hoped that the king, forced to sign in front of witnesses, would be too proud to break his vow. The most famous of these witnessing ceremonies was on the field of Runnymede in 1215, when King John of England was forced by his warlords to sign the Charter of Liberties (later called the Magna Carter). In this instance, the warlords’ plan was a bust. King John signed and shortly thereafter reneged completely. As one appointed by God, he was not concerned to maintain the good opinions of mortal witnesses. The civil war reconvened and almost immediately King John lost his fortune in a river and then died in battle. The suddenness of John’s demise caught everyone by surprise, and may have been seen by many as a sign that this time God sided with the warlords. The Magna Charta became a defining document. However it was not the first or the last document of its kind, only the most famous. Each time, commoners from around the kingdom were called in as witnesses, and these gatherings came to be called parliaments, from old French, meaning to talk together.
Sometimes these events included standardizing legal customs that had a daily impact on commons life, dealing with issues of divorce, women’s ownership of property, hunting rights and the like. These laws were handed down to the assembled commoners, who then were expected to spread the word about the new guidelines when they got home. A rough uniformity of customs was established and a precedent of using commoners as witnesses to the important decisions of their betters was established.
Then in 1265, for the first time, commoners were called together by the dominant warlord to participate in the actual decision making process. Simon de Montfort was a tough warlord who rebelled against the incompetent King Henry III and, for a time, actually succeeded in capturing both Henry and his son, Edward. De Montfort was in a strong position but not unassailable. Many warlords still preferred Henry because he was, after all, appointed by God. They also preferred Henry because Simon was too principled. De Montfort demanded that the warlords who followed him work towards a genuinely more effective system of governance, and they, being warlords, were not comfortable with that idea. To reinforce his position, de Montfort took the gamble of Cliesthenes. He organized, in the name of his prisoner, the King, an assembly of commoners, two people elected from every borough and two people elected from every county in the land. This was the first time elections had been used to pick people for a parliament. The elected parliamentarians would make laws and pass judgment on warlords who did not follow the law. De Montfort’s constitution included for himself a place of security and importance as one of three chief councilors who would act on behalf of King Henry, who would be a figurehead. It was a brave bid for power, and might have proved to be genuinely democratic, but it came to naught. The warlords, already nervous about de Montfort, were deeply alarmed by his proposal. Not long after his assembly of commoners had its first meeting, Henry and Edward were allowed to escape and de Montfort died in battle against them within a year. The victorious Henry had de Montfort’s body cut up and sent to the various corners of his re-won realm to show the traitorous madman was truly dead and gone.
De Montfort is recognized today as the founder of representative democracy. There are statues of him and a British university named after him, and there is a relief of his face in the Chamber of the United States House of Representatives. But I think the honour is unjustified. Some have said his constitution was self-serving expedience, but I would not begrudge him his reputation for that reason, and in his heart he may have genuinely believed in democracy. Rather it is because of how unimportant his contributions turned out to be, given what followed.
De Montfort’s only assembly did not sway the masses to his side as he had hoped. The participants knew nothing of ancient Athens. They had no idea what their role was to be, and after a stressful and unproductive session, simply disbanded, hoping to avoid punishment when King Henry was free. Henry never bothered to call a parliament for the remainder of his reign. Even more telling, Edward, when he became king, called many parliaments, and commanded that the participants be locally elected as had been the case in de Montfort’s parliament. One of the reasons he chose to do this was to give himself more exposure to the commoners of his realm. He did not forget that many of the warlords had turned on his father, even if they had later betrayed de Montfort. Edward was a wise king, and he recognized that parliament gave him an access to the commoners of his realm, an access, quite contrary to the feudal line of command, access that circumvented the warlords. He would use the threat of parliament to keep the warlords honest. This policy seems to have worked; his crown was secure throughout England throughout his reign, and that was a rarity in those days. There was another strong reason, though, for calling parliaments on a regular basis. Edward was an absolute despot who needed money for his wars, and the parliaments were the prefect resource. He called the assemblies of commoners and told them about his plans for conquest and how much he was going to tax them. These parliaments were cost cutting measures, a way to outsource the expense of sending his heralds all over with news of the taxes. But it was even better than that; although at that time the voting process was not rigorously standardized, each parliamentarian had won some kind of community election to get to the assembly. For Edward, this was ideal; who better to send to the villages and counties of his realm with news of new taxes than the winners of neighbourhood popularity contests? Parliaments had anti-insurrection built right in! And because he was a wise dictator, he allowed the assembled commoners to talk and he was able to keep tabs on their concerns. Parliament served his needs perfectly. Edward organized and institutionalized the basic framework of the parliaments of England that is in use today. It was not de Montfort, the desperate idealist, who laid the foundation for modern parliament; it was Edward, the pragmatic dictator.
the taming of the warlords
A slow power dance went on for some 400 years. During this time the king supplied the cause for the war, the warlords provided armies, and the parliament supplied the money, by getting the larger community to contribute. Parliament was such a good way for the king to get money that the tradition grew that parliament should be the only way the king collect taxes. Most of the time the parliamentarians could not really say no to the king’s requests, but when weaker kings got into money troubles, the parliamentarians could demand better financial management of the monarchy, to put limits on the crown’s spending behaviour. But in the mid-1600’s there was a sea change. A commoner, Oliver Cromwell, developed an army, the New Model Army, loyal to parliament. These soldiers were disparagingly called “roundheads” because of the distinct round helmets that were standard issue (a new idea). Conflict arose between then King Charles I and the parliament of the day, because the king, in financial difficulties, wanted to raise revenues through taxes not approved by parliament, and parliament demanded that tradition be followed, that only through parliament could the king raise taxes. When the king and the parliament could not reach agreement, they called out their respective armies. Some of the warlords liked what they saw in parliament’s New Model Army and joined up as generals. Most of the warlords, shocked by the audacity of the commoners, sided with the king. The New Model Army convincingly defeated the king’s army and caught the king. His sons fled to mainland Europe, one famously disguised as a woman. In 1649 Charles I was beheaded and England became a republic (called a Commonwealth) with parliament ruling supreme.
The particular parliament had been in session since defying the king back in 1640, and was called the Long Parliament. First, the royalists, the Cavaliers, had left, and tried to set up a rival parliament loyal to the king in Oxford. Then, after Charles I was captured, those parliamentarians who tended to vote against the majority were thrown out of parliament. The assembly that was left was called the Rump Parliament. Within English society there were loosely organized factions outside parliament, inspired by the exciting times, that urged further democracy, like votes for all men (not just property holders) and even votes for women, and ridings with equal numbers of residents. Some parties even advocated for religious tolerance, demanding that even Catholic and Jewish people, if they made their lives in England, should have a right to vote. By the authority of parliament, the radical leaders of these various factions were arrested and jailed or killed. Under the Rump Parliament’s direction, the New Model Army set up a police state throughout England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Then, in 1653, when the party of the New Model Army lost a vote in the Rump Parliament, the army dismissed the Rump Parliament and Cromwell was declared Lord Protector, and he remained the undisputed chief warlord of all of Britain till his death of natural causes six years later. His son took over but was neither a good general nor a good administrator. The New Model Army tossed him out. But now the New Model Army had a problem. It began to break into factions. With all their former successes, the various faction leaders, these new warlords, were quite used to having everything their own way. They believed (perhaps because of their successes) that they were appointed by God, and so they did not have the skills or the inclination to find compromise with their various rivals. And no one warlord could (literally) scare up support for his cause among the common people, because no one outside the inner circle of the New Model Army dared to do anything. Factions within the New Model Army marched about, positioning themselves for battle. The specter of a civil war, with all against all, loomed. But careful assessments were made and each warlord realized that none of them could be sure of winning. The only compromise they could all agree on, that they all agreed was better than a civil war, was to recall parliament, and see what developed. A new election was held, many Cavaliers were elected, and negotiations with Charles II were successful. Britain was again a kingdom.
An observation we can make about this time is that when parliament alone was in charge, it could not act democratically. For all the negotiations that went on, all the major decisions were decided by real fighting or the threat of real fighting, not by the virtual war of voting. The various participants could not trust each other to engage in the Athenian game. The ones with the military might did not feel comfortable giving audience to dissenting voices, even on the occasion when the dissenting voices were the majority in parliament. As a democratic institution, first time out, parliament was a failure. But when the dictatorship that had discarded it started to break up, parliament proved its worth, by avoiding another bout of civil war.
From the time of Cromwell, the old warlords of England were out of a job. They were either part of parliament’s army or they were just not warlords. By tradition, they were still called together for consultations, an assembly called the House of Lords. But, in a stroke, they were no longer kingmakers, no longer able to influence events overtly through their special talent for violence. The new king, Charles II, was charming, intelligent, cunning, and resourceful. He worked with parliament, observing the conditions of his reinstatement and keeping parliament from exceeding its authority, and was, because of the misery that had preceded him, very popular with many people. He was even, in the last four years of his reign, able to rule without a sitting parliament. The balance of power had gone from a three-way contest to a two-way contest. But from here on, the writing was on the wall. Not all the kings and queens of England who came after Charles had his talent or fortunate timing. With control of the money and the army, the power of parliament waxed and the power of monarchy waned. Parliament, with backing from the Dutch, actually staged a coup in 1688, importing a foreign king and starting a new royal dynasty in Britain. All the kings and queens that followed, to the present, were and are beholden to parliament for their crowns. British politics has evolved so that today the Prime minister and the House of Commons dominate both the House of Lords and the Monarchy. The God-appointed sovereign, the ideological descendant of the most successful warlords of the Middle Ages, the Queen of England, God save her, now only says to her subjects the words her Prime minister instructs her to speak. Parliament, the institution intended by the warlords to shame the king, the assembly used originally by monarchs to wring taxes from commoners, came to render the monarchy and the warlords impotent. Parliament was made to provide the chief warlord with access to his subject’s wallets. The sovereign has become parliament’s puppet, but the basic relationship between British parliament and British subjects remains unchanged.
There were important refinements. Following the restoration of the monarchy, parliaments began revising how they were constituted. Some ridings were relatively large and some quite small, and the idea took hold that ridings should each be home to roughly an equal number of voters. The rules, about who could vote and who could not, became more standardized throughout the realm. These standardizations came about because parliamentarians were jealous of one another. Why should you and I both get one vote in parliament when you have only so many voters in your riding and I have so many more in mine? Why one vote each when you get elected by a process that skews the results in your favour, while I must win in (what I see as) a fair contest? The standardizations of process and riding size had the effect, perhaps unintentionally at first, of legitimizing parliament in the eyes of the voters, making it even more insurrection-proof.
But parliament can never be a good model of the wider community. Leave aside the identity politics associated with who is and who is not allowed to vote in an election. To run in, and to win, a riding election, then to go to parliament for several months in a year for several years, that takes a special kind of person. It takes an eloquent speaker, good with crowds, someone with charisma, ambition, stamina, organizational talent, and a flare for creating drama. It takes a measure of personal wealth. It requires one’s personal and financial affairs be in good order. An abundance of these qualities and good fortune distinguish parliamentarians from the rest of us. But even more important, they are called to that line of work. They dedicate their time and resources to do what they believe can be done as parliamentarians, rather than being farmers or merchants or scientists or artisans. It’s a special vocation, deliberately chosen. In their own minds, and in the view of the rest of society, they are distinct. And, because parliamentarians are distinct, their concerns and their perspectives are different. This was not the case in Athens 2000 years earlier, when members of the assembly were selected by lot.
Even more fatally for the model, a parliamentarian is an individual. Voters in a representative democracy have the right to hope their representatives represent them, but elected parliamentarians obviously cannot be forced to do so. To win election, every parliamentarian must convince a substantial number of people in their community that he (or, today, she) can make good judgements on the various issues that will arise. A public change of mind is an admission that an earlier judgement was wrong, and can jeopardize a parliamentarian’s career. Therefore, parliamentarians, for their own job security (as well as being human and endowed with merely human egos) will, rather than appear uncertain, strive to persuade the voters that all their decisions are correct, that they (and not their adversaries) know and act in accordance with the voters’ desires, that they embody the will of the people. Parliamentarians use their public positions (their unsuccessful adversaries do not have a similar soapbox) and their proven persuasive talents, to try to bring the will of the people into alignment with their voting record. Even if they truly wanted to, parliamentarians have no rigorous way to know, between elections, if they are representing their voters’ will or not. That is why it is reasonable to expect that the result of a vote on an issue in parliament will often be different from the result had the same matter been put to a vote in the wider community, an issue taken up more thoroughly in the next chapter.
Something else was happening in the British parliaments of the late 1600’s. Parliamentarians who were like-minded on a wide range of issues started working together to help each other get elected. Cavaliers and Roundheads of the previous generation’s battlefields became Tories and Whigs in the new parliaments. Members of each group would pool financial resources and share organizational ideas. They would visit their allies’ ridings during elections to show support. Once they were elected, being like-minded, they tended to vote the same way in parliament on many issues. Parliamentarians who came together this way had a better chance to win their riding elections than those who tried to win relying only upon their local social network. Social structures grew from this, and having the right friends became another important and distinguishing quality for a parliamentarian. So began political parties, through which, a century and a half later, people in Canada would make their own unique contribution to representative democracy.