Keith Sutherland is a respected British publisher of such works as History of Political Thought and Polis: The Journal of Greek Political Thought, as well as the executive editor of the Journal of Consciousness Studies. He has also edited such important collections of essays as The Rape of the Constitution? (2000)—of which compendium Margaret Thatcher asked, “I only wonder if you need that question mark in the title.” Imprint Academic (of which he is proprietor) has published many other books on subjects as diverse as education, the nature of liberalism, the prime ministership, legal reforms, and cultural history. Most recently, he was assailed by the far-left Independent as the publisher of an “Islamophobic rant” for having the temerity to issue former immigration caseworker Steve Moxon’s The Great Immigration Scandal, which told the story of Moxon’s dismissal by the Home Office for telling the sorry truth about Labour’s soi-disant “firm but fair” immigration policy. To aggravate this diabolical sin against present pieties, Sutherland is also an occasional contributor to Right Now!; indeed, his book has its “remote origins” in an article that appeared in our pages in 2001.
Chronicles readers will by now have gathered that Sutherland is a person of considerable erudition, who has made—and is continuing to make—a major contribution to political and philosophical discourse in the United Kingdom; decidedly, he is not the “provincial scribbler” he dubs himself. So The Party’s Over clearly merits attention from all who are concerned by the decay of democracy and social capital—not just in Britain but in all Western countries.
Echoing one of Socrates’ arguments with Gorgias, Keith Sutherland is worried that we now have “a system of government that a) is not based on knowledge and competence and b) puts power in the hands of rhetoricians.” He believes that this state of affairs has been largely caused, and is certainly exacerbated, by Britain’s political-party system, which is, he realizes, “incapable of reflecting the fragmented and pluralistic reality of modern life.” In the course of a dazzling constitutional Cook’s Tour, Sutherland proceeds to describe Britain’s political parties as “the bastard grandson of one of the darkest and most bloody periods of British history,” “an anachronism,” “a danger to democracy,” and “an affront to the constitutional dignity of this country.” The whole idea of “representative democracy” à la Burke is hopelessly outdated, he argues, in our age of large, transient, and diverse populations. Sutherland thinks also that advanced communications technology has rendered obsolescent the Victorian paraphernalia of geographical constituencies and ballot boxes.
He wishes to revitalize political life to limit politicians’ powers of patronage and self-serving, to discourage cheap sloganeering and the kind of childish factionalism that prevents opposition parties supporting even sensible governmental policies, and to let ordinary people have a greater and more informed stake in decisionmaking. He wants to make politics more local, more practical, and “less interesting” and is inspired by the example of Michael Oakeshott and other empiricists (although here his thinking seems somewhat at odds with his earlier approving citation of one of the contributors to The Rape of the Constitution?, who had declared that “the forces of radicalism on the right and the left must be deployed against the incremental totalitarianism of the extremists of the authoritarian centre”).
Although he is sketchy on detail, Sutherland proposes the replacement of the political party with a system whereby MPs are picked at random from the population, and also a stricter interpretation of the constitution that would allow the Crown once again to contribute to policymaking. The term “minister of the Crown” should, he believes, be more than just a polite fiction (although, paradoxically, under his proposals, the monarch would still have no real power). Meanwhile, government departments and the offices of members of Parliament should be drastically slimmed down and more power should be given back to local councils.
Sutherland argues that the major political parties have become so alike that they are effectively redundant. New Labourism has been met by Diet Toryism. A liberal market consensus prevails, from which politicians deviate at peril of contumely and ostracism. Instead of ideologically discrete parties, electors are increasingly presented with Tweedledum and Tweedledee candidates and vote on the basis of which party offers the largest bribes or simultaneously pulls the most heartstrings. (Sutherland compares the present system unfavorably with that existing before the 1832 Reform Act when, at least, “politicians bought elections with their own money.” Better a few rotten boroughs, one might argue, than a rotten country.)
Today, whichever Buggins gets in, the results are the same, although each may differ in degree—the indulgence of evil, the erosion of both liberty and tradition, the penalization of the provident. It is small wonder that voter turnouts are dwindling, as people begin dimly to realize that their votes make little or no difference to their quality of life. And yet politicians like to claim “popular mandates” to pursue what often prove to be stupid or even disastrous policies. Sutherland dissects the myth of “popular mandates” witheringly, showing that almost never in recent history has any political party really possessed the trust of a majority of the population. Insofar as politicians are concerned about declining numbers of voters, they never consider the possibility that this phenomenon might be their fault. Instead of looking at the worm within and seeking to make their various parties more intelligent and responsive, some politicians decry populism and propose, instead, to make voting compulsory. Meanwhile, within the parties, the respective hierarchies are continually thinking of new ways to minimize the autonomy and influence of rank-and-file members. (In November, for example, Conservative Central Office announced plans to exclude grassroots Tories from having any say in the future over who is to be party leader.) The shortfall in private donations to political parties that affects all parties should be compensated for, an increasing number of politicians think, with taxpayers’ money—a proposal clearly likely to make the parties even more similar than they are already.
Sutherland does not believe that proportional representation, which leads inevitably to instability and lack of direction, is the answer to the big-party malaise. Here, he fails to consider that, even if such changes may on occasion stymie political activity, the result may actually be beneficial: Surely, the possibility that the very inconsistency and occasional nonviability of proportional representation is a better reflection of human nature in all its complexity and perversity should not be rejected out of hand. There have been instances where the presence of small parties reinvigorates politics by forcing real issues onto the political radar—as today in Britain, with the advent of both the United Kingdom Independence Party and the British National Party. As for instability, would politics really be made easier if there were thousands of individual, revolving agendas, instead of six or seven party ones? (When dealing with large numbers of people, some simplification and debasement of messages and ideologies is sadly necessary.)
Nor does Sutherland favor direct democracy, in the form of referenda and citizens’ initiatives. Such schemes, he feels, can only work within very close-knit communities, where there is a sense of homonoia or “same-mindedness,” while referendum questions and answers can easily be manipulated by politicians. Yet, while Sutherland is rightly wary of such devices, surely they could have an important role to play in limiting party machinations.
Sutherland is fonder of judicial activism, which he regards as “a pluralistic defence against the elective dictatorship at the heart of our political system.” Yet such is the state of British culture and education that such activism is at least as likely to have evil effects as the party variety. Today, judges are scarcely more likely to be motivated by common sense than are politicians.
Sutherland salts his text throughout with barbed remarks and amusing anecdotes, such as the story about Lloyd George, who got lost while on a motoring holiday and had to ask a passer-by where he was. Upon being told by the wag that he was “in a car,” Lloyd George is supposed to have remarked that this was the perfect answer to a parliamentary question because “it was true, it was brief and it told him nothing he did not already know.” Many government ministers since the Welsh Wizard seem to have drunk deeply from that particular fountain.
All in all, The Party’s Over is an audacious and ingenious book, one that provides a splendid overview of British constitutional history. Yet the political party is not going to disappear any time soon. While it is true, as Sutherland points out, that political parties were only recognized in U.K. law as recently as 2000, the fact is irrelevant. Parties are now part of the British political and cultural scenery, and even those who really wish to challenge the status quo feel constrained to express themselves using the form and idiom of the political party. That is why there are still good-hearted people—even legislators—to be found within the British Conservative Party (as within the GOP, for that matter), despite the decades of disappointments under salesmen masquerading as statesmen. And even if all Sutherland’s arguments were miraculously to become widely accepted, there is the force of inertia to reckon with: The major political parties themselves are not going to vote for their own abolition. (Even Sutherland admits that his hopes are probably “more wishful than thinking.”)
The major parties will gradually mutate into something more satisfactory and viable, or they will eventually be replaced by new parties; either way, the political party qua political party is almost certainly here to stay. Recent rhetoric and policy proposals from the Conservatives hint that Michael Howard may be realizing the depths of public disillusionment with politicians. Thus, his party is quietly adopting vote-winning policies on crime and political correctness and advocating immigration restriction, while couching their policies in populist rhetoric about “timetables for action” and the like. It remains to be seen, however, whether these proposals will be lived up to—presuming, of course, that the Tories get back into office at all. Perhaps on this score, as on so much else, the Conservative Party will be outmaneuvered by Tony Blair, whose tactical shrewdness unfortunately makes up for his philosophical shallowness. Meanwhile, notions of casting ballots and of political life being organized around geographical constituencies are also likely to be around for some time to come, in the absence of any clear alternatives.
Sutherland’s idea of allowing the Crown to resume some degree of input into legislation is likewise a pleasing but unrealistic one. Our emasculated monarchy is never likely to be able again to take a role in policymaking, despite the Prince of Wales’ occasional (and welcome) irruptions into the headlines. The present incumbent of the throne seems perfectly content to read out whatever meaningless (and poorly written) political message she is told to read out by the government. The House of Windsor has lost the habit of ruling, as many Britons have lost the habit of deference toward, and are starting to lose even respect for, the monarchy. The audience for the Queen’s traditional Christmas Day broadcast in 2004 was the lowest ever, while the egregiously politically correct content of that broadcast is unlikely to encourage royalist, patriotic-minded Britons to watch again in 2005. And, of course, even the most independent-minded and best-intentioned future rulers, being heavily dependent on fallible advisors, would be almost as vulnerable to political, social, and cultural pressures as any harried government minister.
The problems of our present politics are very deep and have many causes. Our institutions have been badly corrupted, and public faith in them is greatly corroded. These problems could never be resolved by simply swapping one imperfect system for another but only by combining technical improvements with a gradual cultural renaissance aimed at making people better educated, more honest, more open-minded, and more respectful of their civilization and traditions than they are today. Without such gradual uplift, all tinkering with the machinery of state is likely to prove more or less bootless. Nevertheless, Keith Sutherland has done us all a signal service through this impeccable analysis of an incontrovertible conundrum.
[The Party’s Over: Blueprint for a Very English Revolution, by Keith Sutherland (Exeter: Imprint Academic) 196 pp., $39.90]