In theory, Europeans find American elections vulgar and plutocratic. In practice, they find them utterly gripping. This is partly because the US is wealthy and powerful, but mainly because American campaigns, being more participatory than European ones, are more interesting.
All organisations grow according to the DNA encoded at the time of their conception. The US was founded in a revolt against a distant and autocratic regime. In consequence, its polity developed according to what we might call Jeffersonian principles: the idea that power should be diffused and that government officials, wherever possible, should be elected.
Most European constitutions, by contrast, were drawn up after the second world war. Their authors believed that democracy had led to fascism, and that the ballot box needed to be tempered by a class of sober functionaries who were invulnerable to public opinion.
The difference between the American and European approaches can be inferred from their foundational charters. The US Constitution, including all 27 amendments, is 7,600 words long, and is mainly preoccupied with the rights of the individual. The Lisbon Treaty contains 76,000 words and is chiefly concerned with the powers of the state. The American Constitution begins, ‘We, the people…’; the Treaty of Rome begins, ‘His Majesty the King of the Belgians…’
Americans pride themselves on having got away from titles and deference. Their rugged egalitarianism, they believe, is what makes New World politics more optimistic and less cynical than Old World politics. And they have a point. American political culture produced The West Wing, predicated on the idea that even the politicians you disagree with are patriots. Britain’s produced Yes, Minister and The Thick of It, predicated on the idea that all MPs are petty, jobbing crooks.
But a political culture is not some numinous entity that exists outside a nation’s institutions; rather, it emanates from those institutions. Congressmen would be every bit as stuck up as MEPs if they were protected by party lists. It’s just that party lists are unthinkable in a system where everyone from the sanitation officer to the DA is elected, where power is localised, and where politicians are selected through open primaries.
Imagine how open primaries would change the culture of Westminster. At present, perhaps 70 per cent of MPs are in safe seats. Provided their party doesn’t disown them, they are entirely secure. When their constituents want one thing and their whips another, the rational thing is to vote with their whips. Thus, for example, 641 out of 646 MPs had promised in their manifestoes to support a referendum on the European Constitution; but 311 voted against that commitment when told to. As long as every backbencher wants to be a frontbencher — and our current system offers no alternative career path — the legislature is no kind of check on the executive.
We were brought up to believe that our freedoms were guaranteed by parliament. Bagehot, Dicey and Erskine May agreed that, while foreigners might depend on written constitutions and supreme courts, we relied on ourselves: that is, we elected MPs to a sovereign body and trusted it to defend our birthright. The trouble is that that model has long since ceased to apply. Parliament has parcelled out its jurisdiction to quangos, human rights judges and Eurocrats. Elected representatives have less influence than have Nice, the Health and Safety Executive, the Local Education Authority or the Child Support Agency.
In The Plan: Twelve Months To Renew Britain, we set out a programme to restore purpose to the ballot, dignity to the legislature and liberty to the individual. Our proposals include local and national referendums; self-financing local councils; an end to the state monopolies in education and healthcare; the devolution of welfare to counties and cities; a transfer of the powers enjoyed by the Prime Minister under crown prerogative to parliament; open hearings to appoint heads of executive agencies, ambassadors and senior judges; withdrawal from the European Convention; and placing the police under locally elected sheriffs, who could also set sentencing guidelines. We show how this programme could be implemented in just one legislative session, through 30 legal acts.
In a sense, though, our specific policies matter less than the creed that infuses them, namely that decisions should be made at the lowest practicable level — by the individual if possible but, where this is unfeasible, by municipal rather than national authorities. We want a wholesale transfer of power from appointed officials to elected representatives: from Brussels to Westminster, from Whitehall to councils, from the state to the citizen.
Does this amount to an Americanisation of British politics? Yes and no. It’s true that many of the things we want exist across the Atlantic — referendums, elected sheriffs, a local sales tax, open primaries. But the American revolutionaries took their inspiration from English political thought. They have preserved a model of representative democracy that the mother country has lost, rather as certain varieties of grape survived in California while phylloxera wiped out the original strains in Europe.
The idea that lawmakers should be accountable to the rest of the country was perhaps Britain’s greatest gift to mankind. Our fathers seeded that idea on far continents, where it found fertile soil. But the ancestral vine is withering.
‘It makes no difference how I vote,’ people complain, ‘nothing ever changes.’ And they’ve got a point. With the best will in the world, there is less and less and less their politicians can change. More often than not, the role of an MP or councillor is simply to pass on his constituents’ complaints to the Highways Authority, the Environment Agency or the Learning and Skills Council. No wonder MPs are so unpopular: they have responsibility without power, being blamed for the failings of a quango state that has long since ceased to answer to them or to anyone else. Unable to effect meaningful change in their constituents’ lives, they are seen as parasitical. It is hardly surprising that turnout is plummeting: as things stand, abstention is, alas, a rational decision.
Brooding over our quango state is the mother quango, the unelected European Commission, which now generates an almost unbelievable 84 per cent of the legislation in the member nations. Britain cannot approach Jeffersonian democracy as long as it is subject to the will of an unaccountable apparat. We cannot decentralise power within the UK while centralising it in the EU. We cannot take decisions more closely to the people if they are being taken in Brussels.
The only European country to approximate our model is Switzerland, where localism and direct democracy serve to keep the government small, the country rich and the people free. It is no coincidence that the Swiss keep rejecting the EU: they know that membership is incompatible with dispersed democracy. So, yes, we’d have to leave the EU in order to pursue our domestic agenda. But rather than being a disincentive, we see national independence as a delightful bonus.
The Plan: Twelve Months To Renew Britain by Daniel Hannan MEP and Douglas Carswell MP is available at www.renew-britain.com.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated September 27, 2008