Sunday, 27 January 2013

The Crisis of Democracy

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves (Rom 13:1,2).

In April, Jersey is hoping to have a Referendum of three options before it. These are three options whereby people elect the people who govern, and have the ability to dismiss them - in four year - without bloodshed. They are three forms of democracy, although there are some who criticise some of the options as not being "democratic" enough.

But for much of history, democracy has not been something that people have had. In Jersey, for example, until the post-war reforms, those consisting the States of Jersey were the Jurats (there for life), the Rectors, the Constables and the Deputies. Only the latter two positions were elected by the common people.

In much of world history, there has not been a system whereby the people vote for their own government. Rather it has been a case of one ruler, a king or emperor, who is ruling, but who ideally rules justly, keeps the peace, and ensures the kingdom is in good order. What that is to you may depend on whether you are a lowly serf, or in Roman times a slave, or higher up on the rungs of society.

But the Roman Empire, for example, did keep the peace, it had armies part of whose purpose was not just to subdue the population, but also to ensure under Rome, good order continued. The roads to be kept free of thieves, the seas to be kept free of pirates. Piracy in the Mediterranean was a major scourge of the times.

So the early Christians were not very worried about how people came to power. They were very concerned about how people in power conducted themselves, and about holding people in power to account. The quotation from St Paul above can be seen as legitimisation of power by tearing it from context, but context is everything.

NT Wright's talk on "God and Government" delves into this, and highlights the problems that we find ourselves in with "democratic governments" that seem to ignore the people. He comments that:

Ever since the massive majorities of Margaret Thatcher, for most of the last generation we have had governments that could, and did, effectively ignore parliamentary process, with a very small number of people, sometimes only one, taking key decisions which nobody dared to
oppose and which were rammed through Parliament with scant regard for proper debate. A generation ago Lord Hailsham spoke of the need 'to challenge and frustrate the tyranny of the elected dictatorship'. (1)

Part of the problem here is the legacy of the enlightenment, in thinking that improved voting, universal suffrage, better voter parity etc will deliver Utopia, and the government will deliver the will of the people, and usher in Utopia. The other current in thinking about democracy, as seen in the works of Karl Popper, and mentioned by C.S. Lewis, is that people are not inherently good, they are corruptible, not least by power and the privileges of power, and democracy is the best of a bad job; better than an absolutist monarchy or tyranny, because it has mechanisms by which those in power can, to some degree, be held to account.

That's a more realistic view, but it is not one you are so likely to hear. I've always been struck by how newbies standing for the States in Jersey for the first time have a manifesto in which they promise they will do this, that and the other, almost ignoring the fact that they will have to persuade all the other States members to vote on those measures, and a majority to agree with them. Sometimes, they have clearly gauged how the States works, and make modest promises, but more often that not, they are promising Utopia. And Utopia is not what democracy delivers, to return to N.T. Wright:

We have all realised that voting every few years doesn't deliver Utopia, as some really did believe in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Here, with some caution, I stand partly at least beside Prince Charles: the French Enlightenment proposed that liberté, egalité and fraternité would follow universal adult suffrage, and were prepared to kill quite a lot of people to make the point. Almost nobody now believes this, at least in Europe (though in America the illusion is still widely, if precariously, maintained). Our politicians have to go on promising us Utopia, because if they didn't the press would pillory them; but this essentially modernist dream, of socially engineered progress leading to Paradise, sits increasingly uncomfortably with our postmodern electorate, trained now in the high arts of cynicism, of 'Yeah, yeah' and 'Whatever'.(1)

We have therefore a crisis of legitimacy, a government that may be democratically elected, with election boundaries redrawn periodically to make better voter parity, but what we end with is a kind of dictatorship, which can claim to have a legitimate mandate from the electorate. N.T. Wright argues that part of the problem for Christians is the way in which politics and religion have been torn asunder.

When Alistair Campbell said that 'Downing Street doesn't do God', he was merely putting into words what had been taken for granted for the previous two decades. Margaret Thatcher didn't even believe in society, after all - as the battered remnants of 'society' in some parts of our country ruefully attest. If she did believe in a God, that God was firmly locked up in the attic, while the individuals downstairs made money, made war, and made empires. (1)

Holding up a mirror to power is a primary ecclesial task, and reminding the authorities that they are not God is a major task. Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's press officer, said, "Downing Street doesn't do God." What happens when you do that is God gets kicked upstairs. He's pushed out of the system, which allows the present occupants of the office to occupy at least part of the space. So almost at once what we had was Tony Blair and others talking about, "We are going to go and solve the problem of evil."

That sort of messianic temptation is not diminished -- because it's actually enhanced -- by getting God out of the equation. It is the church's job to figure out how to put God back in the equation without going anywhere near something that could be seen as theocracy in the wrong sense. (2)

That leads us back to the purpose of government, and the saying of Paul. In its context, Paul is saying that a disordered society is one in which the bullies come to the front, vigilante justice takes hold, and even if you don't agree with the rulers, you need a government there; that's not to say it should not be called to account, but it is part of a fabric of links which ensure that society works. This is what N.T. Wright calls " the ambiguity of human authority."

God wants order in his world. If you don't have appropriate authorities in the world, the bullies and the bad guys always win. Oh, it's a thorough nuisance when the police stop us for speeding when we're driving down the highway, but if somebody steals your car or even something out of it, you want the police to be on the case and to sort it out. We do not actually want to live in a world of anarchy and chaos. We know that the bullies and the bad guys will always win. And I believe that we ought to be saying that globally right now as well. But those to whom authority is entrusted are always tempted to abuse it. Which is why in early Christianity and in the long Jewish tradition of critique of civic authorities, people aren't nearly so much worried about how people get to be in authority - how did they get there, by democratic means, by overthrowing a previous government, whatever - they don't seem to worry about that; they care very much indeed about what people do once they're in power. (3)

Many of the Old Testament narratives are about Royal and Priestly concerns; these were the rulers of ancient Israelite. And while David was elected King by popular consent, it was a hereditary monarchy. But monarchy can become corrupted; priests can become venal. The proper ordering of society to provide law and order can be perverted to use the law as a mechanism for injustice. The people themselves can accede to this corruption, when it is to their advantage to do so. Against this come the prophetic narratives, the prophets, whose concern is to speak up and remind kings, priests and people what they are supposed to be about. That is what prophecy is, not as has been misunderstood, about some kind of predictive ability, but about seeing the signs of the times, and sounding a warning of what will come to pass if matters do not improve.

We can sell worthless wheat at a high price. We'll find someone poor who can't pay his debts, not even the price of a pair of sandals, and we'll buy him as a slave." The LORD, the God of Israel, has sworn, "I will never forget their evil deeds. (Amos 8:6-7)

You are doomed! You make unjust laws that oppress my people. That is how you keep the poor from having their rights and from getting justice. That is how you take the property that belongs to widows and orphans. What will you do when God punishes you? What will you do when he brings disaster on you from a distant country? Where will you run to find help? Where will you hide your wealth? (Isaiah 10:1-3)

And against the corruptions of the ruler, they hold up a mirror of how things should be:

The spirit of the LORD will give him wisdom and the knowledge and skill to rule his people. He will know the LORD's will and honour him, and find pleasure in obeying him. He will not judge by appearance or hearsay; he will judge the poor fairly and defend the rights of the helpless. At his command the people will be punished, and evil persons will die. He will rule his people with justice and integrity. (Isaiah 11:2-5)

This kind of model of Kingship is also something we find in the "Magician's Nephew", C.S. Lewis story about the birth of Narnia, where the first King and Queen of Narnia are told their duties:

"You shall rule and name all these creatures, and do justice among them, and protect them from their enemies when enemies arise. And enemies will arise, for there is an evil Witch in this world."
"Can you rule these creatures kindly and fairly, remembering that they are not slaves like the dumb beasts of the world you were born in, but Talking Beasts and free subjects?"
"I see that, sir," replied the Cabby. "I'd try to do the square thing by them all."
"And would you bring up your children and grandchildren to do the same?"
"It'd be up to me to try, sir. I'd do my best: wouldn't we, Nellie?"
"And you wouldn't have favourites either among your own children or among the other creatures or let any hold another under or use it hardly?"
"I never could abide such goings on, sir, and that's the truth. I'd give 'em what for if I caught 'em at it," said the Cabby. (All through this conversation his voice was growing slower and richer. More like the country voice he must have had as a boy and less like the sharp, quick voice of a cockney.) (4)

And this is where Paul is coming from. He is supporting of what government does right, but when the people in charge forget how they are supposed to conduct themselves, he calls them to account, it is not to do with how governments come to power (over which he has no control) but what they do when they are in power:

And again and again Paul, no doubt most annoyingly, presumes the right to tell the authorities their business. Beaten and imprisoned without trial in Philippi, when the local rulers tell him to leave town he points out that, as a Roman citizen, he has been wrongly treated; he demands a public apology, and he gets it. Slapped in the face by the High Priest's henchman, he reminds him of the rule he's just broken, while taking care, when it's pointed out, to acknowledge the High Priest's office even while leaving clear the implication that the present holder of it is unworthy. (5)

It's fine to point out the wickedness of earthly rulers, but when someone steals my car I want justice. It's all very well to say that people in power are self-seeking, but if nobody is in power the bullies and the burglars have it all their own way, and the weak and helpless suffer most. God doesn't want that. God has therefore instituted rulers and authorities (even at the obvious risk that most of them don't acknowledge him and only have a shaky idea of what justice actually is), in order to bring to his world such order as is possible until the day when the rule of Jesus himself is complete on earth as in heaven. This is the Christian version of the political viewpoint we find in Daniel, Wisdom and other Jewish texts. Romans 13 is not, then, a carte blanche for rulers to do what they like. Paul is not setting rulers on a high pedestal, above criticism. Instead, he is reminding them that they have been instituted by God and remain responsible to him for the authority they bear. (6)

This is very much a tradition we find in England, where Orwell describes how people consider the law:

It is not that anyone imagines the law to be just. Everyone knows that there is one law for the rich and another for the poor. But no one accepts the implications of this, everyone takes it for granted that the law, such as it is, will be respected, and feels a sense of outrage when it is not. Remarks like 'They can't run me in; I haven't done anything wrong', or 'They can't do that; it's against the law', are part of the atmosphere of England. The professed enemies of society have this feeling as strongly as anyone else. One sees it in prison-books like Wilfred Macartney's Walls Have Mouths or Jim Phelan's Jail Journey, in the solemn idiocies that take place at the trials of conscientious objectors, in letters to the papers from eminent Marxist professors, pointing out that this or that is a 'miscarriage of British justice'. Everyone believes in his heart that the law can be, ought to be, and, on the whole, will be impartially administered. The totalitarian idea that there is no such thing as law, there is only power, has never taken root. Even the intelligentsia have only accepted it in theory.(7)

Whether Islanders vote for A, B or C in a Referendum in April, it is only part of the story, and without the rest of that story, all we will be doing is substituting on mechanism for removing leaders for another; it is what happens between elections which is more important by far. That's when decisions are made which can effect all of us, and which need to be called to account.

The danger of seeing one Option, for instance "Option A" as democratic and the others as "undemocratic" is that we may lose sight of the bigger picture, which is that no voting system can give complete legitimacy to a government to do as they like. Yes, there is the ballot box awaiting them - but the existence of "safe seats" in the UK shows how shallow this can be. Voting systems are like plumbing, you need them there, but they are only one small part of government for the common good.

In Jersey, I think we are better placed without a strong tradition of party politics, because one thing which also seems to be the case is that the left  / right split legitimises a party to follow a mandate which may have many elements that people themselves do not want. All they want is a better, fairer world. There's a strong tradition of Jersey independent politicians who cut across the UK style divide between left and right; at times reformist, at times conservative, and providing a much more nuanced approach; it would be a shame if that was lost:

You know how it goes, that somebody votes one way on one issue and so it's assumed that there's a package of all sorts of other issues that go together, and if you tick one box on the left you're going to tick them all and if you tick one box on the right you'll tick them all. I need to tell you your left-right spectrum in America does not correspond to our left-right spectrum in Britain - it does a bit but it's quite confusing, actually, it's quite different. And we need to uncouple those issues and name them one by one, and sometimes as a Christian you'll find yourself voting with the left and other times you'll find yourself voting with the right. And if that means that ultimately we need to vote for better systems with better ways of discovering what we really deeply believe, maybe we ought to be doing that too. And we are not to be scared, we are not to be scared, by the rhetoric of the new right, nor are we to be conned by the rhetoric of the new left - if you have ears then hear - rather we are to work and pray for exodus, for liberty, not for free trade but for fair trade, in economic and military and ecological matters. (6)

(4) The Magician's Nephew, C.S. Lewis


Anonymous said...

Only the latter two positions were elected by the common people.

No, be honest and make that

In most of the island, only the Deputies (who could never command a majority) were elected by the common people.

TonyTheProf said...

No, there were elections for Constable on the same basis as those for Deputy. Sorry it doesn't fit what you would like, but history is that way.

L'Office du Jèrriais said...

On a point of historical accuracy, the Jurats were elected on an Islandwide vote until the 1948 reforms. See for example this 1949 article by George d'La Forge on the change from Jurats to Senators in the States and the replacement of the Islandwide vote by Electoral College for Jurats:

To what extent George d'La Forge and Edward Le Brocq were reflecting levels of conservative rural dissatisfaction with the Electoral College system or exaggerating for literary effect is an interesting subject. Since the subject of the constitutional reform continued to surface in their writings for years afterwards, one might assume that this reflected a certain feeling that lingered among the conservative minority and that this feeling was treated with sympathy in published writings that must have been read by this minority. It's one of the side-effects of having such an extensive literature on elections in Jersey that researches are in effect possible despite the lack of opinion polls and the regrettable lack of archiving of ephemeral election materials.

TonyTheProf said...

I believe though that they were elected for life.

"Once elected they could not resign without special permission from the King in Council."