The Collapse of Democracy
BY SIR CHARLES PETRIE
[This article will be answered next week by Sir Ernest Bonn, and there will be a further article by Mr. A. A. Baumann (" A. A. B." ) in a subsequent issuo.—Eu. Spectator.] IDDERHAPS the most remarkable political change which has taken place during the last twenty years has been the disappearance of that outward con- stitutional uniformity which was so prominent a feature of the first decade of the present century. Immediately before the late War no nation deemed itself civilized unless it had a King or President, with a Legislature, and through these the country was governed, more or less according to those democratic principles which it was believed had finally triumphed in the French Revolution. Even China and Turkey paid lip-service to this ideal, and Russia had a Duma, which from time to time did actually meet. To-day all this has changed, and State after State has turned its back upon democracy, with the result that the older forms of government, which men deemed had been completely superseded, are once more coming into favour.
There can be little doubt but that the War was to a very large extent responsible for the abandonment of the democratic theory. It was won by the Allies because they were more true to the principle of monarchy, in the etymological sense of the word, than were their opponents, and this war-time lesson was not forgotten when the difficulties of the post-War period began to make themselves felt. Even in Great Britain and France, the protagonists of the Parliamentary System, this tendency has been at work : both Mr. Lloyd George and Mr. Baldwin were in a far stronger position than any previous Prime Minister had been, while before the War no French Chamber would have trusted a Minister with the power that M. Poincare wielded after his return to office in 1926.
Then, again, democracy, as it issued from the French Revolution, was political in its nature, and the Repre- sentative System, to which it gave birth, bore the same imprint, and was designed to solve political problems. No long as the great questions of the day were primarily concerned with politics it worked fairly well, but as soon as they became economic it showed itself powerless to deal with them. The reason for this is not far to seek, for the politician is an expert in politics but an amateur in economics, and as soon as the latter came to dominate public life his incompetence was revealed. The same is true of finance, and in every country where- democracy has fallen into disrepute it has been through its mismanagement of the national finances. Indeed, it is difficult to resist the conclusion that democracy is a luxury which only a rich nation can afford, for economic and financial problems demand instant action, and in the main do not, like those of politics, admit of pro- longed deliberation and discussion ; so it is not surprising that the Parliamentary System, of which debate is the life-blood, should prove unable to deal with them.
It is rarely, however, now contended by the advocates of democracy that it is more efficient than dictatorship, for such contrasts as those between the Italy of to-day and of the ,pre-Fascist era, and the Dublin of the com- missioner and of the old corporation, are too pronounced to admit of such an argument being used ; but it is maintained that personal freedom is greater where democratic principles prevail. Nevertheless, even this is open to serious doubt.
There is more social liberty in Italy and Spain, to quote but two examples, than there is in Great Britain and the United States. The greatest blow struck at the freedom of the individual in modern times was not the triumph of Fascism, but the enactment of Pro- hibition, and if in this country we have not gone so far as that, there are a hundred petty restrictions to which we are subject every day of our lives, which the Italian and Spaniard would never tolerate. As for economic liberty, it certainly exists in theory, at any rate for men, but when the State has signally failed to provide enough work it is useless for it to tell the ordinary citizen that he can work when and where he chooses. In spite of the fact that a Labour Government is in power at Westminster the interests of the working-class are better protected in Fascist Italy than in modern Britain.
It is true that in the Anglo-Saxon countries a man may abuse the administration of the day in print or upon the platform in a way that would not be possible where dictatorship prevails, but this is hardly political liberty in itself ; nor for that matter is the privilege of casting a vote in common with twenty-eight million other people every few years. Even the so-called freedom of speech is only possible within very narrow limits, and it would be no easier to get an article advocat- ing a republic accepted by the Times than by the Corriere della Sera. There may be no open censorship in England upon the free expression of opinion, but there is an effective unofficial one. This is not perhaps undesirable, but it savours of hypocrisy to maintain that democracy is a synonym for the liberty of the individual.
The truth is that in these latter days democracy has ceased to be the religion it was to our fathers, and has become a mere sect, with the result that its devotees have waxed more intolerant with the diminution of their numbers. Yet there is no real reason for their rage, which in some instances is becoming a menace to the peace of the world. Forms of government, like means of transport and communication, are relative to the needs of humanity, and the man who makes a fetish of , democracy is on a par with him who ridicules wireless telegraphy as a new-fangled invention. The Repre- sentative, System has failed to meet the needs of this post-War age, and so, like the horse-draivn vehicle, it is falling into disuse, while mankind tries to find s3mething to take its place,