Saturday, June 1, 2013

What has been the most important milestone in replacing tyrannical government?

This question was prompted by a visit to the new Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka (MADE) at Ballarat in Victoria. I was impressed by the material presented about the Eureka rebellion of 1854, the culmination of a protest by self-employed gold miners against an oppressive licence fee, levied irrespective of the amount of gold found. Taxation without representation was one of the miners’ grievances, but it is not clear how many miners saw an extension of voting rights to all adults as an objective of their protests. 

The material presented in the display includes the following statement by Peter Lalor, a leader of the rebellion, a couple of years later when he was a member of the Victorian parliament:
‘I would ask these gentlemen what they mean by the term “democracy”. Do they mean Chartism or Republicanism? If so, I never was, I am not now, nor do I ever intend to be a democrat. But if a democrat means opposition to a tyrannical press, a tyrannical people, or a tyrannical government, then I have been, I am still, and will ever remain a democrat'.

Lalor seems to have had in mind a definition of democracy similar to that later adopted by Karl Popper, which emphasizes the importance of being able to dismiss governments that have tyrannical tendencies. Unfortunately, the granting of voting rights to all adults does not always prevent the emergence of governments that act tyrannically with the support of the majority.

The aspect of MADE that I found most confronting was the attempt to put the Eureka rebellion into context in a timeline for the development of democracy. According to the timeline presented, the most significant event following the Magna Carta was the French Revolution. That seemed odd to me because the French Revolution replaced a form of tyranny with something worse – a reign of terror!

Other aspects of timeline presented tend to glorify revolution. For example, the display invites visitors to view Karl Marx as a hero of democracy.
MADE’s problem probably stems from the definition of democracy it adopts:
People + Power = Democracy.
Which people? What power? The definition fails to recognize that different people have different interests and that the success of some groups in obtaining favours from governments must be at the expense of other groups. It fails to distinguish the desirable features of a democratic regime from the tyranny of the mob. It also fails to recognize that tyrants often portray their efforts to exercise unlimited power as being in the interests of ‘the people’ - and often have substantial popular support.

My visit to MADE occurred while I was reading The Oxford History of Britain, edited by Kenneth Morgan. The chapters by John Morrill and Paul Langford, dealing with the Stuarts, the Civil Wars and the eighteenth Century, seem to be particularly relevant in considering the most important milestones in replacing tyrannical government. My reading has given me the impression that prior to the 17th Century, politics in England (and in many other countries) was essentially authoritarian. In England, politics was dominated by the hereditary rights of sovereigns and competition to impose particular religious doctrines in order to make people less sinful. During the 17th Century in England the idea that religion should be viewed as largely a private matter began to gain acceptance and the hereditary rights of sovereigns became less influential.

It seems to me that the Glorious Revolution of 1688 should be viewed as the most important milestone in replacing tyrannical government.  By legitimizing the replacement of James II with William and Mary, the propertied classes represented in parliament were rejecting the idea that ancestry should determine who has the right to exercise political power. The Glorious Revolution was followed by the Toleration Act of 1689 which gave formal recognition to religious pluralism, and was an important step toward giving equal rights to followers of all religions. 

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