Several months ago, back in January, I wrote about how we ~ pretty much everyone in the West, but America and Canada, especially, seem to have lost trust in government. I ascribed this to us asking government to do things which are impossible and then we, again, being disappointed when governments fail at the hopeless task we gave them.
I think back, some 240 years, to one of the great documents of the enlightenment: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.“
And there we have it, relatively simply, the essential roles of government:
- “To secure these [funadamental] rights;
- Deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed;
- Laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their [the people’s] Safety and Happiness.“
That’s about all we really need government to do.
We need to reaffirm what our fundamental rights really are. I have asserted that there are four of them ~ life, liberty and property as defined in 17th century England by John Locke and privacy ~ the right to be left alone by all collectives, including churches and the state, itself ~ defined by Brandeis and Warren in 19th century America. Some will disagree and they will want to include e.g. freedom of speech or freedom of assembly in a list of quite fundamental rights, but I would argue that they are heavily regulated “rights,” so hemmed in by rules and regulations as to be far less than fundamental.
The key to our system of liberal democracy is government with “the consent of the governed.” It has been this way since, at leat, Simon de Montfort’s Great Parliament of 750 years ago. It took a while for the English to get used to the idea that the people, in their communities ~ hence the “Chambre des Communes” which is French for “House of Commons” ~ have the ultimate political authority. It finally settled in, in my judgement, in about the 1560s when, even though his sovereign Queen Elizabeth I, still believed, very firmly, in her own divine right to rule, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, had concluded that the Government of England needed to be grounded, “to derive its just powers” from the people, in their parliament. Now, Burghley was a ruthless man, calculating and full of political (and worse) tricks but he was, also, history suggests, deeply convinced that there was something special about the “established order of things,” the conventions of the English common law and the English parliamentary system that made it critical that the sovereign work within it, as part of it, despite her own instincts. Cecil/Burghley was, I think, the first real prime minister of the first responsible (answerable to parliament) government. We usually accord the title of “first prime minister” to Sir Robert Walpole, 1676-1745, who did, indeed, marry the declining powers of the crown to the ever expanding power of the Commons. But the terms “prime minister” and “first minister” were in use in the time of Henry VIII, having been used by both Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell, and it was, probably, for that reason, amongst others, that Cecil, apparently, refused to allow those titles to ever be used within his earshot. He preferred his titles of Secretary of State and Lord Treasurer, and, indeed, it was his mastery of the treasury that became one of the hallmarks of all later prime ministers ~ and British Prime Ministers are, with only rare exceptions, still styled as the “First Lord of the Treasury.” (The Chancellor of the Exchequer in the UK,, the finance minister, is, generally, the Second Lord of the Treasury and in Canada, as in Britain, the government’s seats in the House of Commons are often referred to as the “treasury benches.” The plaque on Theresa May’s front door at 10 Downing Street in London says “First Lord of the Treasury.)
It was, and still is, through its control of the public purse that parliament, speaking on behalf of the people, controls and contains and constrains the sovereign … the executive … the prime minister and his or her cabinet. It is a simple thing, this consent to be governed, and, concomitantly, our “consent” to be taxed to pay for the government to do what we want and need. But it is also an immensely powerful thing. We don’t need libraries full of complex laws and written constitutions, we just need the simple convention that parliament, the people, control the public purse and that means that we “own” our government … that we govern it every bit as much as it governs us.
So we have the fundamental duty of government: to protect our individual rights from the depredations of all collectives, including governments themselves; and we have a fundamental convention for consenting to be governed and for controlling the governments we elect. How we “organize its powers” to provide for our safety and happiness are what matter, too.
First, a digression, when the authors of the US Declaration of Independence used the term happiness it didn’t imply a day at the amusement park. The 18th century notion of “happiness” was that each person could use his or her talents to achieve the best results for them. It was perhaps best expressed, in the late 20th century, by a US Army advertizing campaign:
That was one of the ideals of the enlightenment: to allow every person to achieve whatever their knowledge, skills, ambitions and enterprise might allow … conversely to not hold anyone back because of accident of birth or race or anything else. It was the logical corollary of “We hold these truths t be self evident, that all men are created equal …”
Our British, mostly English, ancestors elected, through trial and error mostly, to organize government in a “responsible” manner ~ that is to say to make the executive, the prime minister and cabinet (although that is, formally, the Queen in Council) responsible to the House of Commons, and, therefore, directly to the people on a continuous, almost day-by-day and vote-by-vote basis. The government of the day must be able to show, always, that it has the “confidence” of the House, that, measure by measure, the people approve of its courses of action. There are, of course, other ways to organize governments, but our system works well enough and, I daresay, better than most.
But there are problems. The first two are of about equal importance and I list them in no articular order:
- We have an unelected legislative chamber ~ that is quite unacceptable in the 21st century; and
- We are far, Far, FAR from anything like equal representation in our House of Commons. The fact is that Charlottetown, PEI, with a population of 34,562 has the same representation (one MP) as Brantford-Brant, ON, with 132,443 people in it. In fact there are dozens and dozens of electoral districts in several provinces that have three or four times as many residents as doe any of PEI’s four ridings. That, too, is, or ought to be unacceptable.
There are other problems, including a perception amongst something like half of Canadians that “their vote doesn’t count.” That’s not true and it is a problem created by a lack of education about democratic government in our primary and secondary schools.
The solutions to the first two problems vary. The Supreme Courts of Canada has foreclosed on some popular options. But both problems should be on top of any democratic reform agenda, far ahead of quite unnecessary and unjustified vote system “reform.” In my opinion the most important aspect of Senate reform is to make it accountable ~ elected. Everything else will be easier after that is accomplished. Fiddling with the appointments processes, as Prime Minister Trudeau is doing, is just political posturing.
Assuming, as I do, that no province is willing to see it’s representation reduced then I think we will need to keep “growing’ the House of Commons until it has 400+ MPs and representation is about (±15%) equal for all the ridings except those in PEI and the three territories which will remain grossly overrepresented.
We are blessed, by history, to have one of the better democratic system in the whole world. It has flaws and they need to be addressed, but, mainly, we need to understand what democracy is and how it evolved and why some liberal democratic systems are better than others.