In his recent Magna Carta lecture (Sovereignty, Democracy, Justice: elements of a good society?, June 15th Royal Holloway, University of London) Archbishop Rowan Williams addressed the question of House of Lords reform. Dr Williams argued against the idea, put forward by the Labour Party, of a fully elected second chamber. His arguments were advanced within a wider discussion of the role of the State, the nature of civil society, and the most effective forms of political representation. Williams’ preferred resolution of these difficult issues is a form of (oligarchic) democracy in which there are some political representatives elected by universal mandate and some appointed by a commission.
In making this case Williams seems to lack faith in the ability of ordinary people to make political decisions which transcend their own narrow self-interest. But he does seem to think that social and political grandees have the capacity to transcend their own self-interest. Williams also mistakes a narrow form of self-interest for a widespread recognition that those with wealth, influence and authority rarely, if ever, give up their power.
At the heart of Williams’ argument is the belief that elected majorities are not to be fully trusted. Williams acknowledges that the House of Commons should be the primary legislative body and that it reflects in some way the will of the people. But he spends most of his lecture examining the dangers posed by elected majorities. These are that, (i) they can oppress minorities; (ii) they put short-term electoral gain over long-term goods; and (iii) that they create hastily written bad laws.
What this means is that the House of Lords should not become a fully elected second chamber. The role of the second chamber is to correct these tendencies in the Commons. Williams does not explore in detail what he thinks should be in place of the current House of Lords, however he does spend some time praising the current system, with the proposed amendments of a revitalised appointments commission and perhaps a greater percentage of elected Lords. He wants opportunity for those who succeed in local civil society and in the professions to be appointed to a second chamber, partly to resist State encroachment into the life of society.
There are a number of points we can make about Williams’ arguments. First: it can easily be stated that the most effective way to ensure majorities do not oppress minorities is some form of written constitution. This is perhaps a separate discussion but Williams does not even mention the possibility.
Second: it is not obvious that democratically elected majorities do in fact either oppress or demonise minorities. On the whole minorities have achieved greater freedoms and recognition under universally elected democracies than under refined oligarchies. Two obvious recent British examples: the efforts made by Blair after 9/11 to distinguish between the Muslim majority in the UK and Al-Qaeda; current efforts by Cameron to promote same sex civil marriages – something which can be contrasted with the Church of England’s attitude to the status of women and people in the LGBT community.
Third: it is not clear that a distinction between ‘majorities’ and ‘minorities’ is actually that helpful. Most people are a mixture of both, sometimes part of a majority group, sometimes part of a minority. So people know it is in their best interests to ensure minorities are protected as sometimes that includes them.
Fourth: elected majorities are not themselves homogenous groups. Political parties are coalitions, as are elected majorities, which is why the business of government is so often a series of messy compromises and fudged deals, rather than one dominant group imposing its will on everyone else.
Fifth: the groups which do pose most threat to most people are the small number of rich and powerful who seek to manipulate society in their own best interests. These are a minority, however they are a minority which seeks to act as thought they were a majority. The most effective resistance to these groups is the widest possible franchise. It is when the majority band together that they can then resist powerful interests. One way in which the so-called ‘democratic deficit’ can be addressed is by ensuring ordinary people can use politics to make society fairer.
Williams second point, the question of whether popularly elected political parties will put short-term interests over the long-term is again more complex than Williams suggests. The example of the current government’s attempts to reduce the deficit are an interesting case-study. George Osbourne and David Cameron have frequently stated that they are not acting for short-term electoral gain. They are making difficult decisions and imposing unpopular measures because this is in the long-term interests of the country even though cutting welfare services will damage their electoral prospects. In other words they are acting for the long-term good of the country.
We do not of course have to take their rhetoric at face value. It might be that they hope such ‘responsible’ rhetoric will be appealing to the electorate. If they are right, then Williams is wrong and we do have people capable of making wise decisions in popular elections. However, it might instead be the case that the calculation is that welfare services can be cut because it is a popular measure with their core support and only affects adversely people who were not going to vote for them anyway, or whose votes are not needed to win the next election. Then the rhetoric of necessary hardship appeals to those not affected by the cuts because it seems responsible whilst protecting their social and economic interests. If this is the case then it is up to the Opposition to expose the deception and ensure it can appeal to a majority with a more ‘truthful’ rhetoric. In other words, Milliband has to demonstrate that the government is saying one thing and doing another, which if he can do convincingly, will win him the next election.
The third of Williams’ concerns is that elected majorities produce hastily written laws so that they can be seen to be acting in the face of immediate problems. Williams is right that there have been badly written laws which have been produced as a response to popular pressure, but this has happened under the present system which he is mainly supporting. Would it be considerably worse if both chambers were fully elected? It is difficult to say but as far as I can tell there is little evidence from countries with fully elected legislatures that their laws are noticeably poorer.
At the end of the lecture Williams states that religion can support the law, and so democracy, because it has a ‘robust and irreducible commitment to the personal dignity of all’. He is correct in suggesting that one of the great political contributions of a religion like Christianity is its commitment to the worth of human beings, in all their diversity, and hence people’s right to control and direct their own governance. But he should also recognise that such a commitment equally involves a faith that people, who are sinful, can also sometimes be trusted to act in the interests of society as a whole. This is, after all, in their own self-interest.
(c) Graeme Smith is Senior Lecturer in Practical Theology at the University of Chichester. He has worked previously at St Michael’s College, Llandaff and Cardiff University, and Oxford Brookes University. An Ekklesia associate, his research interests are in contemporary social and political theology. He is editor of the international journal Political Theology (http://www.politicaltheology.com/PT/) and author of the books A Short History of Secularism and Oxford 1937: The Universal Christian Council for Life and Work Conference, as well as academic articles on Thatcherism, Blair, Richard Rorty and Pragmatism, and Red Toryism.