The Role of Heredity in Politics
by J MW
Merlin Charles Sainthill Hanbury-Tracy, 7th Baron Sudeley, FSA (17 June 1939 – 5 September 2022) discusses the importance of heredity and its principles for the modern state.
The authority of the government rests on the consent of all the citizens in this country as individuals. All of us have an equal share of power in the body politic, since each of us has a vote. That principle which it has for so long now been fashionable to acclaim, springs ultimately from the Reformation. Whilst in mediaeval times our ancestors had sought their salvation through the Roman Catholic Church, during the sixteenth century, as the disciples of Luther or Calvin, they believed that it was within their reach as individuals. Salvation, they said, may come to us through the grace of our own hearts. Looking in on themselves, many heretics kept a diary as the record of their private religious experiences. The survival of these exercises in self-analysis is the reminder of a significance accorded to the individual in Stuart times that was much enhanced at the end of the eighteenth century by the birth of romantic literature.
Romantic writers ignore the rules and values that have been handed down to them by older generations and are accepted by us; they will never, with the use of that tradition, give us an impersonal view of things; possessed of a profound conviction of their own importance and originality, they believe that the vision which they projects should be merely of themselves. Accustomed by the Calvinistic discipline to the most tortured introspection, Jean-Jacques Rousseau established himself as the archetype of the romantic sensibility. Rousseau wrote the most celebrated and original autobiography of all times. In the Contrat Social he translated the egotism of Puritans and Romantics into the political terms that were proclaimed during the French Revolution and are accepted now in this country.
Before 1832 England was not a democracy. There were elections. But the electoral system was so corrupt that a government did not lose the election. The passing of the great Reform Bill introduced the first stages of Rousseau’s ideal of government. The Whig government which sponsored that legislation drew much of its support from the Puritans, who as the adherents of Calvin in Geneva had lent money and made profits. These Puritans were our manufacturers and tradesmen at the outbreak of the Industrial Revolution. Now I shall be bold and say that a principle feature of the democratic form of government in which the tradesmen believed is that it should intervene hardly at all in the economy.
Disraeli said that as the representative of tradition the Tory party should stand for the cottage, the altar and the throne. Traditionally, before the passing of the great Reform Bill, an unelected administration had regarded the welfare of the ordinary working citizen as a chief article of its interest. In that light, and as a Fabian too, the historian R.H. Tawney used to commend the government of the Middle Ages. He told us that in regulating the price of food a mediaeval administration attached the same importance to the welfare of the consumer as would have been given in the eighteenth century to the making of profits. Middlemen like our Socialist peer and grocer Lord Sainsbury were chastised. The pattern was not altered very substantially by the money making of the Tudors. The Poor Law may never have been so well administered as under the personal rule of Charles I, before the Parliamentarians came into power.
In the last century, however, after the passing of the great Reform Bill, things became otherwise. The common people were taken in by their enfranchisement to political power. The appearance of the body politic in this country was as it still is in the United States, a lie, for in the matter of improving their economic welfare no power was handed over to them. Nothing then restrained the Puritan manufacturers who had introduced democracy from the abuse of the workers that they employed for the sake of profits.
Now much of the power has shifted from such manufacturers to the employed. The growth of the speed in communications helped the workers to combine, and in combining under Trades Unions they have learnt their power. Still our democracy does not intervene in the economy. The issue of the increase in wages and its consequence, the rise in prices, has been the subject of nearly every election, not excepting the last. Whichever party achieves office, however, is too weak to fulfill the pledges in this matter which put it there at the time of its election. Even with its majority in Parliament any government which attempted in one way or another to restrict the power of the workers and halt their rise in wages knows that it would break its own neck. The late government attempted a mere voluntary restraint on wages which failed. For the present government Lord Donovan has held out little hope wherever the bill on industrial relations has tried to enforce the agreements of workers to their wages. No government would dare to create massive unemployment. For if unemployment is allowed to reach any very large proportion, it is that rather than wages and prices which becomes the key factor at elections.
I will not say any more; it has all been said too often. Few, nevertheless, are willing to accept the obvious conclusions; which it is much better, necessary even, that we should avoid. Owing to the extent it has prevented us from building up reserves, our inflation has put us in a wounding dependence on speculators overseas. At the end of the war our dependence on American credit did much to break the Empire; in the past few years Harold Wilson could not introduce any widespread measure of social amelioration since he had to answer to a banking interest in Zürich. And that may not be the full measure of our curse. Once it has begun, the inflation may as in Germany, race out of control. at a rate quite out of proportion to the extent created in the first instance by an excessive demand for wages. That can happen very easily to an inflating currency like our own because the amount of money is a question, not merely of the quantity of specie issued from the Mint, but quite as much as that of credit, the amount of which depends on nothing more tangible than a degree of confidence that in a moment of real crisis must evaporate.
The conventional solution in this century has been a dictatorship, such as that upon which Salazar insisted to re-establish the finances of Portugal. Monetary problems may indeed be resolved by a dictator in his own lifetime. The question is who shall succeed him. Since power rests in his hands, it is most likely that he will appoint one of his own children. I know that the inheritance of political power is out of fashion just now. But the instinct to do best for our own family is foremost in all of us. It was for that reason that the holders of power in the past created a hereditary principle in politics--so that since the fall of the Roman Empire a hereditary principle has been more pervasive and lasted longer than any system based on elections.
Maurras and his disciple, who is the literary editor of this magazine, recommend that the inheritance of political power should be vested in the monarchy; I think that under such a regime too much would rest on the character of the king. Edward II was too weak; Richard II was overcome by paranoia like a figure in Jacobean tragedy; Henry VI was an imbecile. The monarchy ought to share its inheritance of power with the peers in the House of Lords. To be excluded from such an upper house would be the present element of life peers--the species the Spaniards would call hidalgos de la gutiera, the nobility of the gutter, because they did not inherit their titles.
So much is needed to make sure our house shall stand. There rests a subsidiary question, how much control under such a regime citizens should have over their own destiny. Men who believe democracy to be its harbinger would claim that freedom is quelled. So as to deny the charge it is necessary to state what is meant by freedom. Those who have paid the most powerful lip service to it do not know. According to the philosophers of the Enlightenment it should serve to overturn governments on account of its beauty as an abstraction. But that is not enough. We should think of it in particular terms in order to assess whether so-and-so is free. Tested in that way, freedom means what the Enlightenment would regard as it converse, a power or privilege of some kind. The most complete measure of liberty is the exercise of absolute authority. All such powers and privileges, apart from those vested in the head of state, are shared by classes of men with interests in common. Freedom, therefore, has to be conceived in terms of the various interests in the land, and how these may be reconciled and protected. The role of arbitrating, like an umpire, between one class and the next for their mutual protection should fall to the House of Lords and the monarchy.
For in a democracy such as our own we tend always to dissolve the practice and enjoyment of freedom as I have defined it. Because our democracy has no power in the economic sphere, the principal interests of the land have not been reconciled. Nothing matters so much in politics as industrial relations. Nowadays the directors of companies are the men who have risen to that position under the free workings of the economy. As they did not inherit their authority as gentlemen, such figures have no idea how to give an order. So those who sit on each side of the fence in the ground floor of industry regards one another with perfect hatred. Wherever there is a rivalry of interests under our democracy one party, and in terms of numbers it is the weaker, will go unprotected. The owners of capital in this country are put into as much danger as the negroes of the United States. A democracy must reduce all the differences which rest between us on account of our separate interests. Living in identical villas with central heating and unwanted carpets we shall be comfortable. But that is not a consolation if we may no longer taste the luxury of our present social differences. The removal of those differences will not create peace in our society. It will take away merely the symptoms of hatred, not the cause. In no society has there been prefect equality; the envy which arises out of our inequalities must always be with us; and Enoch Powell has so rightly remarked that it is the little difference between us rather than the others which provoke the strongest measure of our unrest. If we wish to diminish envy, it is necessary to widen the differences between one class of interest and the next. Many of us are deceived in politics wherever it is a game of words. As words the adjectives Fascist, Republican or whatever conjure in our imagination an excitement which an analysis of their meaning would never yield. Faced by whatever he may not like, therefore, a critic of politics can afford just to stock on his condemnatory label without giving reason for his prejudice. Because I am not a democrat, the rearrangement of power that I commend resembles that of some undemocratic regimes in this century. Merely by the use of a derogatory label, every reader who remarks on that resemblance can convey the impression, even though it is false, that my ideas are the negation of freedom. My plea is that instead of regarding my rearrangement of power in that contemporary context, which is deceiving, we should think of it in terms of the past. For whoever rejects what I have to say has turned his back on our own national history.
The principles of government for which I plead have flourished in this country to an extent which grows the further back we reach in time. By virtue of his heredity, the King was head of the government until the passing of the Reform Bill in 1832. William IV claimed that he could veto the decisions of the Cabinet. George IV offered posts in the Cabinet. It is true that he had to choose as his chief minister whoever happened, independently of himself, to command a majority in the House of Commons. Before Walpole became Head of the Treasury, however, the king exercised the power of patronage, and so enjoyed a large measure of control over the Commons. It was on that account that attempts were made to prevent the placemen of the Crown from making up a majority there. Going back yet further, to the years before the Reformation, we see that, under the central authority of the king, all Englishmen were reconciled in theory by their allegiance to a body which has been anathema to democracy, the Roman Catholic Church. For more than a century the Roman Catholic Church set its face against the civil fissures of democracy. Before Mussolini came to power, no more than forty percent of the Italian electorate went to the polls, because the Pope excommunicated all who took part in the government of the Risorgimento. Pius XI stated in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno: “The demand and supply of labour [under a democracy] divides men on the labour market into two classes, as into two groups, and the bargaining between them transforms this labour market into an arena where the two armies are engaged in combat.” In his encyclical Rerum Novarum Leo XIII declared that it was the duty of men in political authority to intervene. At the time that all Christendom was Roman Catholic, our society did not subsist on any principle that a mass of individuals, who believed that of themselves they were answerable to God, should engage in economic combat so that the more successful of their number might make profits. Undeniably that was not altogether so in practice: there was much private greed. Our nature is so corrupt that laws are necessary to impose the code of conduct which rests a little above ourselves; the higher demands which Christianity made on our ancestors were too harsh, and secured no more than their partial acceptance. To correspond to our nature which, as Christian doctrine itself informs us, is corrupt, the enjoyment of freedom took the form I have advocated of rights and powers between the rival claims of which it was the function of the king to adjudicate. There was no House of Commons elected to represent the general will on a geographical basis. By virtue of an accident the clergy, with whom much power rested, did not sit in the Commons at all; they used to vote their taxes in convocation. A lower house, without clergy, represented two other specific interests in the land, those of the knights and burgesses.
Such was the organization of society in the Middle Ages; these two interests might have been represented in separate chambers. Yet other chambers might have been constituted to represent further interests in the land. Finland and Sweden had four chambers of Parliament. In this country there are signs that Edward I intended a House of lawyers. If they had been constituted, the separate chambers of clergy, knights, burgesses and lawyers might all have disagreed. An evolution from the mediaeval pattern of power which I have praised into the absolute rule of Louis XIV and Frederick the Great is not necessary. Our own history shows one form in which, under a hereditary regime, we may avoid such absolutism. The attempts of the monarchy in the seventeenth century to gain complete power were thwarted by the reading which our judges gave to the law. We are accustomed now to the idea that it is the function of the judiciary merely to interpret a statute as it is; that is to say, as it has been enacted by the overwhelming authority of an elected Parliament. A hundred years ago the judges were not so tame. It was a part of their role then to supply the omissions of the legislature by making a statute say what it ought. During the period of celebrated constitutional crisis in the seventeenth century, they went further still. Coke held he might declare that an act of the legislature was void.