The Evolution of Governance

Whether autocratic monarchy or dictatorship, constitutional or democratic, government was not and is not instituted by idealists to protect the general liberty, but rather to protect and enhance its own interests, and those of its class supporters.

The historical evolution of governance in Britain can be seen as a three-way battle: first between Power and People, then between Left and Right, Poor and Rich.

In medieval times there was little or no awareness of social class among the general populace. The rich were up, the poor were down. Thus it was ordained.

There was however, a continuing movement among the more powerful elements of society, the barons and clergy, to limit and to share the powers of the monarchy. The monarchy was tolerated, indeed actively supported and openly respected, for its continuance ensured stability as opposed to civil war. But the monarch must be disciplined in his or her conduct, respectful of tradition, upholder of the common laws and customs, modest in conduct and expenditure, and must share power with the powerful men of the land.

England's Great Charter of 1215, generally recognized as the world's first groundbreaking constitution, set major limits on the English monarchy and strengthened the concept of power-sharing in decision making. Further reforms were added during the years and centuries which followed, culminating in the 1689 Bill of Rights which transferred all effective political power to Parliament. Power had moved to the People. But Parliament at that time represented only a small proportion of the population. These were the big landowning families, and later the new industrial barons who were, of course, quite happy to keep things that way. The reformers however, both in and out of government, would now press for continuing expansion of the voting franchise and consequently wider power-sharing.

Following the tradition that the King's advisers sat on his right, the Conservatives supporting the status quo now sat on the Speaker's right, while the Radicals and Reformists sat on the left. So Britain's Parliament assumed the confrontational shape still maintained today, of Right and Left, Conservatism and Reform, Rich and Poor facing one another across an aisle, and the terms Right and Left assumed the significance now familiar throughout the world.

By the end of the 1800s following numerous gradual reforms, the right to vote had spread across class interests. However, while the working classes were now enfranchised, they needed a “real” Left-Wing Party in Parliament which would represent their own interests and views, a Party which would fight against the intolerably long working hours, poor pay, overcrowded housing conditions, and all the other perceived manifestations of injustice and exploitation.

Socialism had its origins in the writings of Karl Marx and Engels, and the last few years of the 1800s saw the gradual formalization of the Socialist programme featuring a shorter working day, improved housing, higher wages, social security, and a minimum standard of education for all. The new “Labour Party” would now become the Party of the Left, with Socialism as the "alternative" political doctrine.

Left and Right

Thus far in political history there had really been only one political dogma, known as Capitalism, Laisser-faire, Free Enterprise. Whatever it may be called, it is based on the principle of minimal Government intervention. And that made sense, at least to the ruling classes. They were doing very nicely in industry, commerce and social organization, and they had naturally instituted a form of government which would leave them quite free to get on with it – which is literally what laisser-faire means.

Traditionally Governments had always served the interests of the powerful people who controlled them, simply by doing as little as possible, thus allowing those with power to exploit those without it. Taking the side of the previously impoverished majority, Socialism would adopt the opposite approach. Instead of doing nothing, or the very minimum, a Socialist Government would throw itself wholeheartedly into the fray on the side of the working people.

With the benefit of hindsight we can see the idealism which motivated the principles of Socialism in its formative years. But we can also see that the Socialist Reformers in their attempts to eliminate enslavement overshot the mark. In the Communist countries for fifty years following the Second World War, governments became heavy-handed and oppressive. Central control of economic activity eliminated enterprise and with it meaningful economic growth, resulting in the relative economic decline which would be their downfall.

In a milder approach to Socialism, governments in the “capitalist” West came to be seen as providers of welfare, healthcare and education, promising ever more goodies to win elections and taking their countries ever deeper into debt in the process. Governance is no longer about law-making. Rather it has become a process of taking taxes, multiplying them with added debt, then handing out favours to their campaign supporters and as crowd-pleasers to the loudest shouters at election times.

Government in Decline

Democracy gives power to the people, the word being derived from the Greek words power (kratos), and demos meaning people. It is a process whereby the People can peaceably present and review options, then select the policy of their choice. But this remains an ideal. We cannot have power to the people unless all of the people are of one mind. And in practice, they never are. We still perceive ourselves as “Right” or “Left”, Rich or Poor, though in the West class differences have in practice been considerably eroded, leaving a large “floating vote” to be won over by political personalities and increasingly by campaign budgets and the financial support needed to provide them.

With class issues no longer in the forefront, and any vestiges of idealism gone, Western governments have become increasingly opportunist and self-serving, vainly promising miraculous solutions for the problems and issues of the moment while attempting to secure their own comforts and their own future.

Popular confidence in government as an institution and lawmakers as individuals has reached near rock bottom; indeed it would almost seem that in the relationship between Power and People we have returned to the year 1215. At that time, constitutional action was required to bring to heel a monarchy perceived as self-serving, expensive, and largely ineffective, a situation very similar to the government-people relationship today.

If we are to move forward in politics we need a new idealism as a guide and a basis for law, reinforced by strong constitutional disciplines on the conduct of government and lawmakers.

The need for, and the purpose of government can be defined by the adverse effects of its absence. Society needs government, law and order to provide protection from robbery, violence, and the excesses of individual power, and from dishonesty and deception in commerce and industry.

Society needs government to resolve conflicting demands on the natural resources, and to prevent pollution and destruction of the shared environment.In short, and in the clear concise language of Thomas Jefferson, "the purpose of government is to prevent men from injuring one another". But that power must never be open-ended.

No people should give government power over them,
without first setting conditions on the use of that power.

The Search for Right Law