The Westminster System is Better Than Republicanism
That the Westminster parliamentary system of government is a superior form of government to any republicanism has been a lifelong conviction of mine. This will come as a surprise to none of my long-time readers, I am sure.
There are many reasons for this conviction. On one level it is simple patriotism. True patriotism - as opposed to nationalism, which is the ideological devotion to an ideal vision of one's nation - is love, affection and loyalty for one's country because it is one's own. It is by nature the same thing as the love one ordinarily feels for one's family and home, just on a larger scale. The Westminster parliamentary system of government is the traditional form of government of my country, the Dominion of Canada, which inherited it from the United Kingdom where it originally developed. We share this form of government with the UK and several other countries in the British Commonwealth, or, as I often call it, the British family of nations.
There is a theoretical foundation for the conviction, however. Two and a half millennia ago, Plato, of whom A. N. Whitehead wrote that all of Western philosophy is just a series of footnotes, wrote his most important dialogue, the Politeia. The title is usually translated "The Republic" from the Latin De Republica, which means "about the affairs of the public" but this is misleading because of the connotations the word "republic" now has. In the dialogue, Plato has Socrates debate the nature of justice , first with Thrasymachus, who maintains that injustice is superior to justice, and then with Glaucon (Plato's brother) who asks, in response to Socrates' answer to Thrasymachus, why justice itself is to be preferred over the mere appearance of justice. Socrates proposes that they found a hypothetical city-state and look at justice as it would be in that state on the theory that by seeing it viewed on a large scale there, they would be better able to understand the nature of justice in the individual.
The hypothetical ideal city-state is ruled by kings who are also philosophers, men who through higher thought have been able to catch a glimpse of goodness, truth, and beauty as they are in themselves, and not merely their worldly imitations. The constitution of this city-state is dubbed royal/aristocratic by Plato through Socrates, and is contrasted with actual constitutions of which four are identified. States, according to Plato, have the tendency to shift from one of these to the next as extremes beget their opposites and so states go from timocracy - the closest to the ideal, the rule of honour-seeking aristocrats, identified with the government of Sparta at the time, to oligarchy, the rule of the wealthy few, to democracy, which ultimately begets tyranny. This is a progression, in Plato's view, from best to worst.
Aristotle, Plato's student, modified his teacher's political theories by proposing that there were three simple constitutions - the rule of the one, the few, and the many which have good and bad forms depending upon whether the one, the few, or the many govern for themselves at the expense of the common good or for the sake of the common good. Like Plato, Aristotle saw states as going through these constitutions in cyclical fashion, but theorized that the cycle could be broken and a lasting, stable, constitution produced, by mixing monarchy, aristocracy and democracy, checking the worst tendencies of each and bringing out the best of all.
The Westminster parliamentary system is the living embodiment of this mixed constitution. The Americans also had Aristotle's ideal in mind when they drew up their republican constitution, but the Westminster system, forged over centuries of history, has the greater weight of prescriptive tradition behind it.
The Founding Fathers of the United States, in devising their republic, saw the importance of separating the executive, legislative, and judicial powers of government. They were heavily influenced by the theories of Montesquieu who in turn looked to the Westminster system as the already-existing model of this separation. In the Westminster system these powers are both united and separated at the same time, with no contradiction, because the uniting factor is the Sovereign Crown. In Canada we speak of the distinction between "the Queen-in-council" (the executive branch, consisting of the Queen, usually represented by the Governor General, and privy council, the day-to-day business of which is carried out by the Prime Minister and Cabinet), "the Queen-in-Parliament" (the legislative branch, consisting of the House of Commons, Senate and again the Queen, usually through vice regal representation), and "the Queen-on-the-bench"(the judicial branch, the courts). The Westminster system makes this harmonious separation-in-unity of the powers possible, by distinguishing between the ownership of the powers of government, which belongs in each case to the Monarch, and the exercise of the powers which are carried out in her name by different groups of people. There is a slight overlap, in that the Prime Minister and Cabinet ministers are also members of Parliament, but this is supposed to make the Cabinet, responsible for the everyday decisions of the executive branch of government, dually accountable, both to the Sovereign above in whose name they act and to the Parliament below.
There are many reasons for preferring this to the republican system. As I have discussed in many previous essays, history shows us that when government is thought of as the property of "the people" and leaders see themselves as the champions of "the people", traditional limitations on the use of government power break down. A government that acts in the name of the people can justify whatever it does to the people. Hitler saw himself as one of the common people, the first among equal brothers, empowered to act as the voice of the people in carrying out his tyrannical murderous evil deeds. The same was true of Stalin and every other totalitarian despot. By contrast, when the ownership of government power belongs to a Royal Sovereign, who stands in a paternal or maternal relationship to the people, the people who exercise the powers of government are in the position of being servants - which is what the word minister means - to their Royal master. This is a humbling position, and if the exercise of government power is to be carried out by politicians - people who by definition are power-seekers and therefore the most likely to be corrupted by actual power - it is all the more important that they be placed in a position of humility rather than one that promotes arrogance.
When a king or queen reigns over your country it adds a touch of class that is simply not present in a republic.
Had the election gone the other way, the same sentiment would have been expressed by the other side. Whether it would have gotten this violent or not is difficult to say. The liberal media certainly feared it would, but that means very little as their powers of prediction have not been particularly great as of late. There was certainly potential for a violent uprising, however. The men and women who turned out in droves to vote for Trump included many white, middle and working class Americans who have been scapegoated by the American political, cultural, economic, and academic establishment for decades, seeing their jobs being exported and their replacements imported and their objections to all of this answered with vile accusations of bigotry, prejudice, ignorance and hatred. To these, the forgotten Americans whom the president-elect vowed in his victory speech would never be forgotten again, and whom Hillary Clinton had dismissed as "a basketful of deplorables", Trump had offered a glimmer of hope for the first time in years and, as Pat Buchanan pointed out in September, this election was really their last chance.
This was the most polarizing election the American republic has seen since 1860. The election of Abraham Lincoln that year, incidentally, makes nonsense out of the claim that we heard from many pundits last month in feigned shock over Trump’s unwillingness to invite fraud by making a preliminary concession to Clinton, that the United States has experienced 227 years of uninterrupted peaceful transfer of power. That election split the country in two and brought about a four year internecine war that saw over 600, 000 casualties. Hardly what one could call a peaceful transition of power. At any rate, the election this year has revealed a division between Americans that rivals that of 1860 in its extent and intensity. It is a division that is unlikely to be healed any time soon, since the liberal left continues to reject the validity of the complaints of white, middle and working class Americans against their agenda and to accuse these Americans of being “hateful” and “bigoted” while scarcely bothering to conceal their own hatred of the same beneath the thin veneer of their positive-sounding but empty platitudes such as “love trumps hate.”
The weakness of the republican system revealed in all of this is that the president, who is head of state of the republic, is supposed to be the person who represents the country as a collective whole – as opposed to the members of the House of Representative, who represent their own districts, and the Senators who represent their own States. The president, however, is chosen by election, making it possible for those who voted against him to plausibly claim that he is “not my president.”
In the Westminster system, the head of state is the monarch, who is not elected. Since her position is hereditary, she is above the divisive and polarizing, political process, and is therefore a better symbol of the unity of the country than an elected president. Indeed, since she is the descendent of previous monarchs and ancestor of future monarchs, she is a symbol not just of the present unity of the country, but of the unity of the country across past, present, and future generations as well, and of our country's enduring link to other countries in the British family of nations. The party which wins a majority or a plurality in the House of Commons forms Her Majesty’s government and its leader becomes Prime Minister but the second largest party in the House has a role as well as Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. The Opposition’s role is to challenge the policies and practices of the government, to hold it accountable to Parliament, and to be the Parliamentary voice of those who did not win the last election. The unifying factor, to which government and Opposition alike are supposed to be loyal, is the Royal Sovereign. No matter which party wins the election, even if the Prime Minister is a mindless, smug, smarmy, contemptable, little waste of space who never sold his soul to the devil only because he never possessed one to sell in the first place, like the present Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, all Canadians can look to our head of state and say “God Save the Queen!”
That is something for which, in light of the riots and uproar our republican neighbours are experiencing, we can be truly thankful.
A Protestant Christian, patriotic Canadian, and a reactionary High Tory with a libertarian streak, at the same time a monarchist, indeed a royal absolutist, and a minarchist.
You can e-mail me at gerrytneal(at)hotmail(dot)ca