Do we elect a dictator?

Part 5 of a series looking at Britain’s democracy.


Our Own Worst Enemy


In our heads we are attracted to democracy, with its ideals of equality, the rule of law, and a feeling that government is merely a necessary evil, carried out by our representatives so that we can get on with our peaceful and productive lives in personal safety and free from tyranny.  But in our hearts we long for superman.  This fatal attraction to charismatic individuals runs quite counter to, and undermines, the democratic ideal.  We willingly yield power to our leader, and even demand the ‘leadership qualities’ of which Hitler was so good an example. Remember that Hitler rose to power via the democratic process. 

Democracy is no protection from power-struck individuals, as recent history, and many examples prior to the Iraq war, amply illustrate.  Power is so centralised in, for example, Britain today, that our leader has the supreme power of an elected dictator, as previous reports in this series have detailed.  The present point is that we expect, encourage, even demand that leaders act without the consultation that is supposed to be the great advantage of a democracy.  A point not often emphasised is that when a prime minister decides in secret that Britain should become a nuclear power, or that ‘Britain’ should invade Egypt to teach Nasser a lesson over his nationalisation of the Suez canal, or that we should stand ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with an American administration in an illegal invasion of a sovereign country, a large part of the blame when things go wrong is our own. We have allowed foreign policy to be decided behind closed doors.  When things go wrong, we blame the leaders, but not ourselves.  We have allowed our leaders enormous power to take decisions that are supposed, in a democracy, to have been taken in our name.

In the earliest, Athenian model, (free, male) citizens convened to decide policy.  An executive was elected to carry out the needed, administrative function, but in contrast to the all-powerful executive of today, the Athenian executive was not even allowed a vote.  The ‘commons’ was where the power to take all decisions resided.  The gradual drift of power to the top ever since seems to be in part due to our demand for a strong leader.  We are suckers for the cult of personality. Given our (probably built-in, biological) need for a Fuhrer, it is a wonder that democracy was ever invented.

Next month:  The Executive’s overweening power

            Harry Davis