Choosing a Government the Old-Fashioned Way

October 22, 2019 Updated: October 24, 2019

Canada’s disagreeable 2019 election is, at least, an interesting lesson in how to win a minority in a parliamentary system. In short, you can’t. And it matters, even if you live under a different system, because as with mechanical, so with governmental machinery: If you don’t know how it works, it’s hard to run and impossible to fix.

To govern, it has rightly been said, is to choose. And so when you’re “choosing a government” you need to end up giving someone the right to make decisions. And obviously there are a lot of ways it can be done, none entirely satisfactory and many disastrous.

About the worst is the Genghis Khan method, where the guy in charge is the one who kills everyone who looks at him sideways. Even he probably had to pay some attention to elite and even popular opinion. But having to kill a lot of people every time you want to change a policy that’s inept or cruel leads to too many crushed bodies and shattered bones. So people generally create, or wish they could create, less bloody systems.

It seems that the obvious way to have the people choose a government is to have them choose one. Have a vote and whoever gets the most votes is in charge until the next election. But it’s actually a very risky system and it’s certainly not how it was done traditionally.

Traditionally, every large-scale society had kings they did not elect, whether the formal title was king, chief, emperor, pharaoh, or what have you. And when self-government did appear, in ancient Greece, they didn’t have an elected king. They had an assembly that acted directly, producing chaos.

The Athenian assembly of adult citizens could and did make decisions, and in crises appointed dictators. But most of the time nobody was in charge in the sense of being responsible for a coherent governing program that worked over time. Basically, the alternatives were kings or mob rule. And both were inept and cruel. The Romans, too, never found a method of choosing a ruler who could not abuse power and, indeed, refuse to relinquish it on popular demand, bringing us back to the unsatisfactory crushed-body solution.

The British System

The first and really only time the problem of “choosing” a government was solved was in Britain. And yet the English have never chosen their ruler. They still have a hereditary monarch, like Canada. But they give the monarch the right to make decisions subject to strict limits on what decisions they can make.

The evolution of the British system was complex. But it began by placing clear limits on the ruler in Magna Carta, in 1215. And then the English began choosing people to ensure the ruler followed the rules instead of making them, from Simon de Montfort’s “Model Parliament” of 1265 on. Over time, it became more and more clear and firm that English, British, and now Canadian monarchs could not act without Parliament.

Under exceptional circumstances, a sufficiently awful monarch would be replaced, by quiet assassination or through civil war. But with another hereditary monarch; the only time the English tried an essentially elected chief executive, Oliver Cromwell after their 17th-century Civil War, the cure proved worse than the disease because an elected man on horseback has a disturbing tendency to throw off any restraints you try to place on him, just like an unelected one, which he rapidly becomes.

To avoid messy showdowns like the one with Charles I in the 1640s, without getting another Cromwell, the formal power of the monarch was increasingly placed under restraint. Ultimately the monarch was reduced to a figurehead whose functions are now exercised by proxy, by a “First” or “Prime” Minister and his or her colleagues. But this transformation does not mean the Constitution is a sham, like too many from Latin America to Moscow to Beijing, where the veneer of consent conceals predatory ruthlessness that would have embarrassed Genghis Khan. Rather, it’s much safer that if you don’t like the budget, you don’t have to depose the queen, just tell her to get a new prime minister. But who is “you”?

MPs Oversee the Ruler

In some sense it’s the people. But if they did it directly, via referendum or election, we’d be back to electing the person who governs, and hence to the man-on-horseback problem. Instead, we elect the people who control the person in charge. Which is why when Canadians vote, or Britons, we do not vote for a leader or a “government,” nor do we elect one.

We elect members of Parliament, one by one in separate constituencies, in Canada called “ridings.” And MPs control the ruler but, because they do not themselves rule, they are far less likely to usurp power.

Thus it is nonsense to speak, as too many media outlets have done, of incumbent Prime Minister Justin Trudeau winning a second term on Oct. 21, or a minority government, or anything of the sort. On election night Trudeau won the only thing he could win: the parliamentary seat in the riding of Papineau where he was the incumbent candidate.

Because a lot of other members of his Liberal Party also won their seats, more as it turned out than any other party, a lot of people think that if Trudeau did not win some collective thing, his party did. It might seem like I’m splitting hairs because, given how ruthlessly centralized Canadian parties now are, what the party wins, the leader wins. But I’m not.

There was a good deal of pointless bickering before the election about whether, if the Conservatives got a plurality of seats, they would have won “a minority” or the “right to govern” or some such. But again, in our system there is no such right. You may govern as her Majesty’s First Minister if, but only if, you command the support of a majority of MPs on key votes, primarily those concerning spending and taxation. And in our new Parliament, regardless of whether the Conservatives had won or the Liberals did win the most seats, the crucial question is who can line up enough MPs of various parties to win money votes.

It can be done other ways. In the United States, the chief executive is elected, the American revolutionaries having had a sufficiently bad experience with King George III to be done with monarchy. But they had no intention of replacing a hereditary with an elected monarch who might very well tamper with or even simply cancel the next election and make himself president-for-life with his son as his successor, as in the bitter post-colonial African jest about “One man, one vote, one time.”

The American Founding Fathers liked the British Constitution a lot more than one might suppose. Indeed, they thought they were saving it from the British king. So they made very sure their elected president was subjected to written rules in the Constitution, their version of Magna Carta, and was answerable to Congress, their version of Parliament. It’s only safe to let an American president win a “mandate” because he cannot govern even once elected. Congress makes the laws and oversees their implementation, and has the authority to impeach the president.

In Canada, we do it the old-fashioned way. We choose MPs who then choose and oversee her Majesty’s First Minister. It’s a venerable, elegant, and admirable system. And the better people understand it, the better they like it.

John Robson is a documentary filmmaker, National Post columnist, contributing editor to the Dorchester Review, commentator-at-large with News Talk Radio 580 CFRA in Ottawa, and executive director of the Climate Discussion Nexus. His most recent documentary is “The Environment: A True Story.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

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