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Jewish World Review
April 25, 2006
/ 27 Nissan, 5766
Was Washington right about political parties?
Do we need political parties? This question is rarely if ever asked, but it's worth discussion. Perhaps we should rephrase it: How badly do we need political parties? Because certainly the moral cost of having them is high and rising.
Running and promoting political parties in the 21st century is very expensive. Raising sufficient funds by appealing to the idealism of the party faithful is no longer possible, if it ever was. Baser motives have to be tapped, which means corruption in one form or another. And the evidence seems to suggest that in nearly all the Western democracies party fundraising is now the biggest single area of corruption.
In Britain the sale of peerages in return for large donations to party treasuries has long been a scandal. This is not merely the sale of a so-called "honor" that allows the recipient having paid, say, £1 million in cash to call himself (and be called) a Lord. It's also the sale of a seat in Parliament, for holders of life peerages are entitled to take their seats in the House of Lords, the British counterpart to the U.S. Senate. This gives them membership in what has been called "the best club on earth," which pays them a stipend, plus expenses. It also and this is the crucial point allows them to debate, amend and vote on legislation passing through Parliament.
True, the House of Lords' powers are less than those of the House of Commons. It cannot reject bills outright, but it can delay and alter them. Nobody knows exactly how many people have bought their seats in the House of Lords. It could be more than 100 (out of 725), and the number may grow. Until recently peerages were handed out only to those who paid cash down. Now it's been discovered that rich people have been given or promised peerages in return for granting loans with favorable terms.
The source of this new form of corruption is the new Labour Party, which has been seeking a replacement for the trade unions as its chief source of funds. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, however, have also been trying to raise money by promising favors. Once a party is big enough, it can elbow its way into the racket.
Selling peerages is a device peculiar to the British. However, the pattern of corruption has been repeated all over Europe, especially in Germany, Italy, France and Spain. Virtually all the major financial scandals involving politicians in these four countries over the past 20 years have their origins in party fundraising. Some of the highest-placed political figures have been accused of fundraising abuses, including President Jacques Chirac, when he was mayor of Paris, and Helmut Kohl, when he was chancellor of Germany. The defense is usually the same: "But I only did it for the party." Regardless, it is still corruption. And taking money for the party has a way of developing into a habit of taking money for individuals.
In Britain the latest honors scandal has left hard-boiled politicians unrepentant. "Cash has to be raised somehow," they say. "If you won't allow us to sell honors, then the parties will have to be funded by the taxpayers." Am I alone in finding this suggestion outrageous? It would mean, in effect, that the public would be obliged to subsidize a political monopoly exercised in perpetuity by professional politicians.
To what extent raising campaign funds both party and personal leads to corruption in the U.S. is a matter of opinion. Certainly jobs do get handed out to important contributors, including key ambassadorships. I've often thought this a serious weakness in the U.S. diplomatic effort to promulgate its policies to the world something that, now more than ever, is of vital importance.
Words of Wisdom
George Washington addressed the problem of political parties 200 years ago in his Farewell Address. He conceded, grudgingly, that it is "probably true" that, "within certain limits" political "parties in free countries are useful checks upon the administration of the government and serve to keep alive the spirit of liberty." But he added that party spirit was "not to be encouraged." He thought "there will always be enough of [it] for every salutary purpose." As there was "constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be by force of public opinion to mitigate and assuage it."
He compared the competition of parties to inflammation: "A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume."
What we in the West should be considering is to what extent we can get along without highly organized and all-powerful political parties or, at the least, how we can reduce their influence. Why shouldn't we encourage more independent individuals to run for election? What role do independents have to play in parliaments and congresses in the 21st century? For the last two centuries political parties have increasingly dominated our legislatures, formed our governments and shaped our societies. But if they are such successful and indispensable institutions, why are they so corrupt? Is it wise to seek to export this party tradition to the fledgling democracies we're trying to set up in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere? After all, in Israel which is a genuine democracy the overfragmented party system is an obstacle to good and stable government.
These and related questions ought to be taken up and debated in the media, think tanks and university political science departments. We should not take the defeatist line that we're stuck with the old party system for all eternity.
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Eminent British historian and author Paul Johnson's latest book is "American Presidents Eminent Lives Boxed Set: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ulysses S. Grant". Comment by clicking here.
04/12/06: Let's Have More Babies!
04/05/06: For the love of trains
03/29/06: Lincoln and the Compensation Culture
03/22/06: Bottle-beauties and the globalised blond beast
03/15/06: Europe's utopian hangover
03/08/06: Kindly write on only one side of the paper
02/28/06: Creators versus critics
02/21/06: The Rhino Principle
© 2006, Paul Johnson