The Democratic Method
The Essentials of Parliamentary Democracy. By R. Bassett. (Macmillan. is. 6d.) RARELY, indeed, does one meet a book on pblitics which commands such immediate intellectual assent as Mr. Bassett's Essentials of Parliamentary Democracy. The assent is largely a tribute to its restricted aim: Mr. Bassett puts polities in its. tight- place. For him, demociacy is neither a religion ppr,. even a policy ; like .ali-other--constitutional expedients, it is simply a Method. It is the method of working out policy by discussion and general consent ; in other words, by com- promise. The method has certain corollaries. A parliamentary
democracy must leave its parliamentary representatives the freedom to hammer out compromise ; they must be limited
in that freedom neither by a popular mandat imperatif nor by
the commands, of a party. caucus. While the process of com- promise is working itself out—that is, at all times—parlia-
mentary democracy must ensure for itself a strong executive, independent enough of the political flux to maintain a Con- sistent and emphatic administration,- and yet sufficiently in touch with that flux to be ready, at the appropriate moment, to translate emerging compromise into effective legislation. Behind the whole process there must be; both in electors and representatives, a real will to "agreement, a real belief in the virtues of " gradualness." But, granted these essentials, the democratic method will serve any aim of policy, however extreme, however " revolutionary," prOvided only that the aim does not imply the abolition of the method.' DemOcracy
is incompatible only with doctrines such as Communism and Fascism, which depend upon the extinction of free discussion, or with " finalist " policies, such as those adumbrated by Sir Stafford Cripps and his friends, which aim at so scrambling the eggs of society in a short period of intensive cookery that they can never thereafter be unscrambled.
This is a very inadequate paraphrase of a very interesting argument, but it may indicate what is, to the present reviewer at any rate, the most important implication of the book. It will be observed that this modest definition of democracy carries with it a moral appeal quite as compelling as any transcendental flights of Mazzinian eloquence. Mr. Bassett goes out of his way to dissociate democracy from the emotional appeal; often made in its name. He refuses, for instance, to identify it with the idea of social or economic equality. Even liberty, which he defines as the basis of democracy, is its basis only in the sense that the citizen must be free to work the democratic method. Yet the moral appeal lies in the method itself, for it is the method of " chirity "—the only method which can allow men to exercise the coercion of government over their fellow-men and yet, in some measure at least, to earn the blessing pronounced upon the peace-makers.
Compare this moral appeal with the more, ambitious claims for democracy made by Professor Delisle Burns in his essay on Democracy in the Home University Library series. In much the two writers are agreed, but Professor Burns is not content with democracy merely as a method. For him it has 'three essential aims : the elimination of poverty, oppression and war. As soon, however, as he begins to elaborate this theme he gets into difficulties of which he hardly seems conscious. Poverty, he thinks, can only be eliminated if the -property-owner receives the same education as- the employed worker and is thus taught the sin of attempting to control the labour of his
fellow-citizens. But how can the privately-managed bOarding school be abolished except by restricting the citizen's right
to teach, and how can such restriction be reconciled with the interpretation which ProfesSor Burns hiniself puts upon democracy ? Here the desire to justify democracy by its works, at least by its intended works, does nothing to clarify the moral issue, but merely serves to blur it. Insistence on the ends of policy, as Mr. .Bassett hints, generally implies indifference to the means ; but man's responsibility lies mainly in his choice of means. It is those who claim ambitiously
that they " serve an ideal " who often do least service to their living fellow-men.
And this brings us to the one disappointment in Mr. Bassett's book. Like Professor Burns, he concludes that the preserva- tion of the essentials of democracy depends chiefly on educa- . tion ; and his educational prescription consists of a compound of history, civics and economics. But surely this is the wrong conclusion to his argument. He misses his own point. He invites precisely that kind of teaching which we have just criticized in Professor Burns, whose essay might well become a sixth-form textbook. In fact, the curse of recent propaganda in this country in favour of " education for citizenship is its tendency towards insecure philosophizing of this kind. To one enthusiast democracy is the Kingdom of God ; to another it . entails popular control over factory operations ; to a third it is realizable only if the voter attains an impossibly high standard of knowledge and judgement. Professor Burns asserts
that modern biology and= psychology have modified the old individualist assumptions about democracy ; the new demo- cracy, presuinably the new liberty, is to be a more collectivist ' affair'than the old. Thu.§ we get a sort of Hegelianizing of democracy which is precisely the process by which Fascist philosophy has been evolved ; and hiStory, civics and eco- nomics can be made to serve ,this, process only too well, as Europe has found to her cost. No, the real conclusion of Mr. Bassett's argument is. that the democratic method can only be preserved by restoring to edtication those simplicities of moral teaching which have been overlaid by a century of political and social theorizing.. For Mr. Bassett's democracy is a way of life, not the gOal of lifea standard of personal duty, not the blue print- of -a new creation.
Curiously enough, when Professor Burns leaves theories about the organization of echication and comes to consider the content of education, it is he who provides, more nearly than Mr. Bassett, the right conclusion to Mr. Bassett's argument. He realizes, at least, t hat the schools of a democracy' must claim to be able to train the mind through manual work, and through the technique of mechanical production, at least as thoroughly as through academic and clerical studies. Deanti- eracy can, indeed, tolerate all inequalities except mental inferiority and superiority-complexes based on distinctions of occupation. It is these complexes which are, probably, mainly responsible for the worst danger of the democratic method : its tendency to overstate issues of policy and to magnify differences of opinion. This is a danger to which Mr. Bassett, perhaps, pays too little attention ; but his book stands as the most clear-sighted description yet given of parlia- mentary democracy stripped of all fashionable trappings— stripped for that new bout in its old struggle against tyranny which will make the history of the next twenty years.