The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Tory and Democracy

As we have seen, Toryism, the classical conservatism that upholds traditional royal and ecclesiastical authority in their shared vocation of pursuing the common good, while largely synonymous with “the right” when right and left first took on political significance in the French Revolution, is more difficult to place on the twentieth century map that makes politics into a spectrum between individualism on the right and collectivism on the left. The Tory is both an individualist, albeit in a different sense than the classical liberal, and a collectivist, but in a different sense than the leftist. Tory individualism is about real individuals whose individuality makes them stand out from the crowd, rather than the abstract individual of liberal theory whose individuality is defined by what makes him like every other individual. Tory collectivism is about a plurality of collective institutions that is both horizontal – family, parish, neighborhood – and vertical – parish, diocese, ecclesiastical province – rather than the single collective, the people, represented by a single institution, the democratic state, of leftism. We have also seen that liberal individualism and leftist collectivism converge in the direction of modern mass society – an aggregation of individuals under the modern state.

Liberalism and leftism also converge in their belief that democracy is the best form of government. Liberalism and leftism are both progressive, accepting the view that history, especially that of the modern age, is moving forward in a linear line towards a better future in a universal state. Both would identify that universal state with democracy. The word democracy has different connotations to the liberal and to the leftist, however. Liberalism is a form of representative democracy, which means that the idea of filling public offices by popular election is an essential part of the meaning of democracy to the liberal. In the leftist ideal, democracy is the state in which the distinction between governed and government is eliminated, and the state is the voice of the will of the people. A one-party state, in which the party is seen as the true voice of the people, as in Nazi Germany (1) and every Communist country, while obviously not fitting the liberal meaning of democracy, is compatible with the leftist view of democracy.

Where does democracy fit in the Tory view of things?

The Tory, being a traditionalist and a royalist, does not share the liberal and leftist belief that democracy is the best form of government. That does not mean that the Tory rejects all forms of democracy. Democracy has a long pedigree, going back two and a half millennia, to ancient Athens. Democracy there was different from modern democracy. The assembly, which voted on all legislation, did not consist of elected representatives, but of the city’s adult, male, citizens, a form of direct democracy more practical in a city-state than in a larger polity. The greatest minds of democratic Athens did not consider it to be either ideal or the best possible form of government. Aristotle continued the discussion of constitutional forms that Plato had begun in The Republic and Laws in his The Constitution of Athens, Ethics, and Politics out of which discussion emerged the classic analysis of constitutions as falling into three basic forms – the rule of the one, the few, and the many – which can be either good or bad, depending upon whether those governing, rule for the common good of all, or merely for themselves. Neither Plato nor Aristotle though very highly of democracy, which, after all, was the system of government that had put Socrates to death and both used its name for the bad form of the rule of many. They saw these forms as unstable, creating a cycle in which one form goes bad, then is replaced by the next which goes bad in turn. Aristotle suggested, however, that a superior, stable, constitution might be possible by mixing all three in a single constitution.

Our parliamentary constitution of the United Kingdom and many Commonwealth countries such as Canada is an example of this kind of mixed constitution. Queen Elizabeth, presides over a parliament that consists of the House of Lords – or, here in Canada, the Senate – and the House of Commons, consisting of members elected by constituencies as their representatives. The Tory does not object to the democratic element of this mixture, the House of Commons. He insists, however, that the only true authority the House of Commons possesses, is to be regarded as being rooted in tradition and prescription, like that of the other two institutions, and not as being due to it being inherently more rational than the others, or deriving some greater legitimacy due to its being filled by popular election. (2)

This is because the Tory knows that authority is not something that flows upward from below. The only thing a politician gains by convincing the masses to support him, is power. Authority is the right to command, power is the ability to coerce, and in a civilized order authority must always take precedence over power, relying upon power to back it up only when necessary. The modern theory of democracy, however, sees authority as a fiction and power as the only reality of politics. While the power represented by the majority vote in a plebiscite may be preferable to the power represented by the armed force commanded by a military junta, the Tory knows that unless it is made subordinate to the authority conveyed by tradition and prescription, that is to say, stability and order that transcends the present being ancient and established, power of any sort is a destabilizing threat to civilization.

Proponents of modern democracy might argue that in a state where the government truly embodies the will of the people, the possibility of the government ruling for their own sake rather than that of the common good is eliminated because people and government are one. The reality is, however, that the more the government sees itself as the voice of the people, the less it sees the need for restrictions on the use of its power. After all, how could we possibly need limitations on what the people do to themselves? History bears this out for over the last three centuries as government has become more and more democratic there have been less and less areas of peoples’ lives that it has not felt free to regulate. Modern democratic theory is the pathway to totalitarianism.

The liberal form of modern democracy is more palatable to the Tory than the leftist form because liberalism hinders democracy’s development into totalitarianism by placing limits on what even a democratic government can do by insisting upon the rights of the individual. Liberalism, however, has gradually been losing this ability over the course of the last century as it has become more closely aligned with the left. Today, some of the worst abuses of the power of democracy are committed in the name of liberalism. Therefore the Tory is surely right in saying that liberalism is an insufficient check upon the dark side of democracy, and that the necessary balance can only come from the other two elements of classical mixed government represented in our parliamentary tradition.

If, the advocate of modern democracy argues that it is a uniquely fair form of government, incorporating the principles of majority rule and an equal vote for all, the Tory responds that whatever fairness might be, this is not justice. The idea that majority rule is the most fair way to make group decisions assumes that good people outnumber bad, educated people outnumber ignorant, and the wise outnumber the foolish, or that collectively the masses possess more virtue, knowledge, and wisdom than they do as individuals. These assumptions, especially the last, seem incredibly naive, yet if they are not true letting the majority decide is a recipe for disaster. Nor is the idea of one person, one vote, particularly sensible. It translates into the idea that the criminal should have as much say as the law-abiding citizen, that the illiterate man’s opinion is worth as much as that of the learned man, and the village idiot’s vote is equal to that of the wisest man in town. Votes, the ancients wisely decreed, should be weighed, and not just counted. With this ancient wisdom, the Tory concurs.

Paradoxically, there is a sense in which the Tory will say that modern democracy does not extend the vote far enough or take in a large enough democracy. For he recognizes that the organic whole of society includes generations not present to cast their vote, those that have passed away and those that are yet to be born. It is through tradition that their voices can be heard and their votes counted and weighed against those of the present and living generation. G. K. Chesterton called this the "democracy of the dead" and it is only this kind of democracy to which the Tory can give his unqualified support.

(1) National Socialism (Nazism) was not a party of the “far right” as left-liberals maintain. It, and its Führer, were anti-monarchist, anti-aristocratic, anti-clerical, populists, who preached an ideology that blended, as its name suggests, nationalism and socialism, both of which were leftist movements from the nineteenth century.

(2) As Enoch Powell remarked “Our whole constitution rests, uniquely in the world, upon what Burke called ‘prescription.’”


  1. Nice piece! Informed me of some historical facts I hadn't previously been aware of. Strange how the modern Conservative Party in the UK are called 'tories'. I wonder how the real tories would view one of their MPs saying just last week that Christians who do not support SSM should be arrested as terrorists.

    1. Thank you Mr. Citadel. The Tory Party was reorganized and relabelled The Conservative Party in 1834. This is the reason the older name has become a nickname for the newer incarnation. When it became the Conservative Party it became more of a party in the way we understand parties today. The Tory party had been much less formally structured and organized. I just became aware of the story you refer to this morning. I am appalled, and I cannot imagine Jonathan Swift, Bolingbroke, Samuel Johnson, or any of the other classical Tories being anything but disgusted.