The Worst Form of Government?

Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

Sir Winston Churchill, Speech to the House of Commons, 11th November 1947

I think there is something paradoxical in the idea that people should elect their leaders. An election is a kind of collective decision. The decision will select some person or people who will govern. By government, we mean making decisions. The voter is hence trying to decide who will make the best decisions. If that is the case, should we expect the decisions made by a democratic government to be any better than we would make ourselves, if we magically awoke to find ourselves in government? Or those made by our neighbours? Or made by those pig-ignorant people who voted the opposite way to ourselves at the last election? Or made by those pig-ignorant people who did not bother to vote? What if I happen to be pig-ignorant, but I just do not realize it?

Think of it this way. The very best decisions are going to be unpopular or hard to understand. You may want to read that last sentence again. I am not saying that unpopular decisions are likely to be the best decisions. There is a difference, though perhaps the average politician and the average voter might not see the difference. For any decision, there will be a number of alternatives. In fact, there will be a very great number of alternatives, if we include silly ones. Some alternatives will be popular, others unpopular. Some will be easy to understand, others hard to understand. Many will be silly, but usually politicians do not propose the silly options. Usually. Cicciolina, the porn star who was elected to the Italian Parliament for five years in the 1980’s, offered to have sex with Osama Bin Laden if he would stop being a terrorist. Pretty silly. She also offered to have sex with Saddam Hussein if he would just co-operate with the UN. Pretty silly too, though an offer like that has a better chance coming from her than it would if it came from Hans Blix. To be fair, at least Cicciolina’s proposals were pretty easy to understand. The logic seems to be that sex is nice, Saddam may be a bit sexually frustrated, and maybe if he got laid he would relax a little. Compare Cicciolina’s thought process to this example of esoteric reasoning:

The coalition did not act in Iraq because we had discovered dramatic new evidence of Iraq’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. We acted because we saw the evidence in a dramatic new light – through the prism of our experience on 9/11.

Donald Rumsfeld, Report to US Senate Armed Services Committee, July 2003

Compared to Rumsfeld’s logic, parachuting porn stars into Baghdad is a masterpiece of clear thinking. To any political question there will be innumerable silly answers, a number of answers that are not silly, but only one which is best. If the best conclusion to any decision is easy to understand and popular, that is fine by me. However, we do not pick politicians to address only the problems where solutions are easy to understand and popular. We would not need governments if that was all there was to it. No, we need people to impose decisions when others find those decisions hard to make. As Shelley poetically put it:

Government is an evil; it is only the thoughtlessness and vices of men that make it a necessary evil. When all men are good and wise, government will of itself decay.

The best decisions are going to be unpopular or hard to understand. Not only are they right, but they are difficult to make. Only with the benefit of hindsight, and a bit of luck, will we be able to identify which truly were the best decisions. But if we only understand with hindsight, how are we, as people, supposed to pick our leaders?

Of course, it is not enough that we agree on how to do things. We also need to reach some kind of agreement on what we want to achieve. Cicciolina, Blix and Rumsfled, for example, were all in agreement that verifying the extent of Iraq’s arsenal of Weapons of Mass Destruction would be a good idea. They only differed on how to do it. Blix thought he should just look for them. Cicciolina thought she should shag a horny dictator, then ask the dictator to let Blix have a good look for them. Rumsfeld thought the US military should carpet bomb Iraq’s military, incur a little collateral damage (also known as killing innocent bystanders), remove the dictator, take control of the country, then ask somebody other than Blix to look for them. Rumsfeld got his way in the end. The conclusion was that Iraq had some strong bleach in the cupboard under the kitchen sink, and the capability to project it as far as ten yards if deployed using imported super soaker technology. Intelligence is still divided on whether it would have been possible to ready the super soaker for use within 45 minutes and whether Syria was involved in the transportation of super soakers into Iraq. With hindsight, then, starting a war may have seemed disproportionate to the goal of checking for WMD. Luckily, with hindsight, it turned out that nobody running the war was wanting to check for WMD anyhow. It turned out their real goal was regime change. Phew, good job they kept their real intention secret, or you would have to conclude they made a terrible mistake. When everyone else wanted to leave Saddam Hussein be, but double-check if he had the ability to kill every man, woman and child on the planet, it turns out that the war leaders wanted rid of him, and were not that concerned about WMD after all. It turns out they wanted to replace Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship with a democratically-elected government, because he was a bad man and because democracy is a good thing. Pretty straightforward, huh? No doubt the US taxpayer considers US$500bn and some Iraqi lives, and some American lives, a small price to pay to see democratic elections in Baghdad.

Ah yes, Tony Blair… he loves democracy. Though modest compared to the US contribution, he loved democracy so much that he decided the British taxpayer should pay something more than UK£5bn to confirm that Saddam Hussein had the capability to scare crows using fireworks that make a loud bang…. I mean, to manage a transition to peace and prosperity for the Iraqi people… I mean, well, to achieve whatever it is the Brits are supposed to be achieving in Iraq these days. What a shame there was not a little bit more money to protect the lives of British troops with things like body armour. However, I digress. Here is a short list of other places that the Brits governed during the 20th century:

  • Pakistan
  • Zimbabwe, formerly known as Rhodesia
  • Burma, otherwise known as Myanmar

Noticed any of these in the news recently? Yes, they all seem to have a spot of bother when it comes to running democratic elections, amongst other things. Now, of course these things are complicated and I am not going to suggest that the Brits did a much worse job of running those parts of the world than any other people would have. But the history of these countries does suggest that well-intentioned attempts by powers like the UK to foster democracy in other nations is by no means certain to succeed.

Churchill had good reason to be philosophical about democracy. As a politician he had a torrid career. At the age of 35, he had reached a position where he was Home Secretary, in his 50’s he was an isolated figure and out of power, at 66 he was the great war leader for WWII, 5 years later he was out of power after losing the post-war national election, and another 6 years later he was back as PM and leader of the country. During all that time he was quoted and misquoted many times. Sometimes he said things that deserved condemnation, other times he was falsely accused. He did not preach a universal gospel of democracy. He praised the Italian Fascist dictator Mussolini, and said of India’s independence leader, Gandhi:

It is alarming and also nauseating to see Mr Gandhi, a seditious Middle-Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well-known in the East, striding half-naked up the steps of the Vice-regal palace… to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor.

Nor was Churchill averse to putting his own political interests first and foremost. He changed political parties twice, swapping from Conservatives to Liberals and back to Conservatives. Of the second swap, he said:

Anyone can rat, but it takes a certain ingenuity to re-rat

With a career like that, one can imagine what he might think about having been voted the Greatest Briton in a very large poll a few years ago.

If Churchill was a great leader, it is because he was willing to risk being unpopular, and to make decisions that people did not like. One of his finest speeches, and one which is often quoted, is ill-appreciated today, as people forget the historical context. Here is the best-known excerpt from Churchill’s speech of June 4, 1940, to the House of Commons:

Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

Stirring stuff. Now remember the context. Churchill spoke at a time when defeat looked almost certain. The speech was made shortly after the collapse of the Belgian army, with the defeat of France appearing highly likely, and an under-strength British army lucky to have made a desperate retreat across the Channel and forced to leave much of their equipment behind. The German war machine was strong and capable. Many Brits had advocated, and would continue to advocate, seeking a deal with Hitler’s Germany. In the midst of that, Churchill states his decision clearly: to fight, to the end, to never surrender, even if Britain was invaded. It is the decision of a leader: a clear signal to all not to waste time and energy wondering about what-ifs and alternatives. A signal to buckle down and concentrate all energies on winning the war.

Herein lies the paradox of democracy. There is a natural scepticism to politicians, that they are obsessed with soundbites and opinion polls. Put that another way, and the criticism is that they are not so much leaders, as people who wait to see where the crowd is going and then rush to quickly place themselves at the front. However, what do we expect? Politicians who march in their own direction, and so risk not having popular support, seem to be equally chided by the electorate, or at least by the media who stand as the electorate’s proxy. A constant obsession with supposed gaffs has created politicians who are careful not to say anything. A constant obsession with supposed controversy has created politicians unable to take a stand. What we have instead is the obsession with the unknown politician, or better still, the so-called non-politician or outsider. Take somebody who has no track record, but who looks good and speaks well, and carefully present them as a moderate that anyone can sympathize with. All they need to do is to make less mistakes, and keep saying things that are both popular and easy to understand. Whether it is David Cameron, leader of the British Conservative Party, or Barack Obama of the US Democrats, there is a clear advantage in not having a track record. As Obama will have noted of late, that advantage will dissipate if people start raking through your history looking for the muck. Nevertheless, there seems to be an inherent gullibility when voters look for outsiders who they believe have share the same moral compass as the ordinary person (whoever that is) by sitting outside the norms of political expediency. When they do so, they seem to ignore that most of these outsiders are merely individuals who have never taken much of a stance on anything.

Despite my own cynicism, voters in democracies prove my cynicism wrong as often as they prove it right. I have no idea if Boris Johnson will be a good mayor of London, but I am glad he got elected. He defeated the incumbent, Ken Livingstone, by succeeding where others had failed – by getting a large number of the electorate to take notice and take the trouble to vote. The major criticisms during his campaign were that he is a buffoon, is prone to gaffs, comes from a posh background and has no administration experience of any note. I have never heard a more pathetic series of reasons not to elect someone. If by a buffoon who is prone to gaffs, people mean Boris Johnson has a big personality, and he says a lot of things, some frivolous, some ill-judged and some things that people will dislike, then I consider that to be an advantage. Better that than someone who says nothing and spends their time crafting soundbites to suit opinion polls. His opponent, Ken Livingstone, was just as prone to outrageous outbursts, which included likening the job of a Jewish reporter for a right-wing newspaper to a guard at a Nazi extermination camp. If Johnson is playing to the gallery, at least he is trying to be witty as well as populist. Johnson is posh? Yup, like so many other British politicians. His schoolmaster at Eton was house master of Tony Blair at Fettes. It is inverse snobbery to complain that somebody with an extremely privileged education must be less well qualified to make decisions as a consequence. He has no experience? What of it… Before being a politician, Gordon Brown was an academic and journalist. Ken Livingstone was a cancer research technician. Most of them are lawyers; I struggle to imagine a profession less inclined to ground someone in what we might call the real world. If politicians needed to prove themselves before getting elected to power, then most politicians should never have been elected. A much-quoted buffoon and wit, with a privileged education who made money from journalism before entering politics? I could be writing about Winston Churchill….

In the end, democracies do not work well when voters do not vote well. If voters pick scoundrels and fools, they find their government robs them and ruins them. Voters that stay at home and do nothing have no right to complain if someone else picks a scoundrel or fool. If only scoundrels or fools stand as candidates, voters should remind themselves that any one of them could have stood for election. And if scoundrels and fools do sometimes get elected, then voters need to be sure they at least pick people that they will be able to remove at the next election. That is why democracy is the worst form of government, apart from all the others. However bad the decision of the voters, they get the chance to change their minds. Or not, as shown in the case of Bush and Blair. Voters have no right to be disenchanted about politics in a democracy. They might as well be disenchanted with themselves. There is no need to complain when their preferred candidate loses – that is tantamount to saying other people should not be allowed to vote. And moaning about how bad the winner will be, is, or was, is senseless. There will be another election soon enough. For democracy to work, all people need to do is participate. The more they do, the better it works. Participation is the bedrock of democracy, and in democracies we get the governments we deserve.

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