May 08, 2015

Horse 1891 - The Consent of the Governed? (Also the UK Election)

I wrote this in the aftermath of the 2015 United Kingdom General Election which has more than ever proven that the moniker United Kingdom is tenuous at best. In Scotland, the SNP has all but wiped out every other political colour from the board; in Wales, Plaid Cymru has again proceeded to look as irrelevant as a man trying to hold back an invading army with a cucumber; in Northern Ireland, the Irish have continued to answer the Irish Question with the answer "We hate the English"; and in England, the Tories appear to have gained ground by removing the Liberal-Democrats, whilst Labour went about on its path of self destruction.
It's possible that the Conservative Party could be returned to government in its own right but it's more likely that it will need to secure supply on the floor of the House of Commons by making deals with a rainbow riff-raff whole sort of general mish-mash of parties. If in the event that Labour, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the rabbly horde form a coalition government, it will be one of the most unstable coalitions ever to take government.

Yet apart from the actual mechanics of who gets which seats and who needs to negotiate with who in order to form government, is the question of whether democracy itself is legitimate. Prize buffoon Russell Brand came out before the election and encouraged people not to vote, arguing that engaging with the system by other means was better at achieving goals and Pub Landlord Al Murray challenged the system by actively engaging with it and running against UKIP candidate Nigel Farage in the seat of South Thanet; on the basis that if democracy was a joke, then it needed a joke candidate. This idea has been attempted before; perhaps most famously by perennial Official Monster Raving Looney candidate, Screaming Lord Sutch, who in more than forty elections, was never voted into office.

This brings me to the concept of consent. Unlike Australia, the UK stupidly doesn't have either compulsory voting or an alternative voting system. This means that it is entirely possible and frequently occurring, that the candidate who wins office does not have the support of the majority of voters. Even under a proportional system, a winner has the support of a corresponding proportion of the population. In the cases of Scotland, the Labour party might have had as much as 25% of the votes and yet won precisely diddly-squat of the seats.
How is it possible to have the consent of the people to rule, when the system itself doesn't provide of that?

Even the whole idea of governments ruling based upon the consent of the people is problematic. The idea in print goes back to at least the 15th century and might have been touched upon which the deftest of glances as long ago as ancient Greece. I like John Locke's summation of the idea:

Governments, Locke says "can have no right except as this is derived from the individual right of each man to protect himself and his property. The legislative and executive power used by government to protect property is nothing except the natural power of each man resigned into the hands of the community and it is justified merely because it is a better way of protecting natural right than the self-help to which each man is naturally entitled."
- An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke (1689)

Locke appears to be talking about the idea of governments holding power because of the pragmatic utility of the idea. Utility might not be a solid enough foundation upon which to draw the power of governance though. The United States which went through a bloody birth, which was mainly caused by a taxation dispute, again returned to the concept of consent with regards to governance:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."
- United States Declaration of Independence, 4th July 1776

I think that even this is problematic. If we consider those few clauses "Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed" this kind of implies that people are active in instituting those governments; this is patently untrue. Most people in the world are born into a kosmos, a world system. Even if they absolutely disagree with every single aspect of the law and every single aspect of the governance they find themselves under, they are still subject to that governance and to the law. I was born by historical accident into an English speaking nation with a Westminster Parliament but I gave no consent to any of it before I entered the kosmos. If I had been born a slave in Bithynia, or an idle Lady of luxury in pre-revolutionary France, or the son of a technocrat in 24th century Bavaria, I'd have no more say or ability to give my consent t the governance and laws that I might find myself under than any other possible point in history.
In all honesty, the idea of the "divine right of kings" as stated by the English monarchy, where kings derive their right to rule from God, actually makes more logical sense to me because at least they don't assume that some sort of ethereal consent exists. The consent of the governed as a thing, or at least as used as a justification as the basis of democracy as far as I can tell, is a vision that's only an illusion, and unlike a rainbow democracy has something to hide.
Having said that, I'd still very much prefer to operate under the outside pretense that democracy is the instrument through which the consent of the governed is delivered because at least that way, lies the hope that you can remove those who govern you without consent.

What then of democracy? Should it be removed if it doesn't do what it says in the tin? Again, demonstrably no. One of the things that I like about the idea that democracy pretends to have, is that you can persuade those who wield power to act for you. Government as a blunt instrument, at very least wields the force of law to enact policy and governance. Those who would wish that government gets out of peoples' are in many degrees, surrendering governance to other forces; usually those people who control money. I like the idea that governments own things like utilities (electric, gas, roads, the police, schools, hospitals etc.) because although they might be less efficient at running these things, they are better at ensuring equal access to them, regardless of economic status of the individuals that use them. I'd rather people have a say in that, than not.

It seems to me that if the idea of the consent of the governed is mostly untrue, then at least live at peaceably as you can with it. Since you have to live under the law and under the policies of governance, even if they might not necessarily come about through the actual consent of the governed, then the path of least resistance is to live with it.

At the time of posting this; after 643 of 650 seats have been declared:

326 - Conservatives (and have won government in their own right - David Cameron remains as PM)
230 - Labour (and with an impending announcement that Ed Miliband is to resign)
56 - SNP
8 - Liberal-Democrats (after Nick Clegg has resigned)
8 - Democratic Unionist Party
15 - Other (riff-raff in the zoo) 

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