Representatives of the People?: Parliamentarians and Constituents in Modern Democracies, ed. Vernon Bogdanor

Second paragraph of third chapter (“MPs and their Constituents in Britain: How Strong are the Links?”, by Ivor Crewe):

This argument has made an impact in recent years. According to a June 1983 Gallup poll, a 62 to 26 per cent majority support proportional representation in principle, but half the sympathisers would become less favourable if the change involved ‘merging several existing constituencies into a much larger constituency which would have more than one MP’.1 Reformers share these misgivings. In 1976 a Hansard Society Commission on the electoral system, chaired by Lord Blake, in deference to strong feeling for the single-member constituency, broke with a long tradition of electoral reform agitation and rejected STV in favour of an AM system.2 Conservative Action for Electoral Reform, a Conservative Party ginger group, takes the same line for the same reasons.3 Even the Liberal Party has been affected, as the emphasis and phrasing of the 1982 Report on Constitutional Reform by the Joint Liberal/SDP Alliance Commission revealed.4 In an attempt to reconcile the Liberal Party’s long established commitment to STV with its latter-day tradition of community politics, it proposed ‘Community Proportional Representation’, which retains STV but in multi-member constituencies whose size varies markedly in order to encompass `natural communities’ such as shire counties and major cities.
1 Gallup survey conducted on behalf of Sunday Telegraph and Channel 4’s A Week in Politics, 18-21 June 1983, Table 6.
2 Hansard Society, Report of Commission on Electoral Reform (chaired by Lord Blake), 1976.
3 See, for example, Anthony Wigram (Chairman of CAER), ‘Electoral Reform: Cure for economic ills and a cause for Conservatives’, The Times, 6 December 1974.
4 Electoral Reform: Fairer Voting in Natural Communities, First Report of the Joint Liberal/SDP Commission on Constitutional Reform (London, Poland Street Publications, 1982).

The last of the books about election systems that I got back in 2016, apart from several which I cannot now find. This list of authors is a who’s who of British political science of the early 1980s, 15 men and one woman, with 13 of the 15 men based in the UK (one in Ireland, one in Austria, and the woman contributor is Australian). The editor, Vernon Bogdanor, used to be generally respected as an authority on the British constitution, such as it is, but has gone very Brexity recently. That was all far in the future in 1985, of course.

The book starts with two chapters on the UK, and then goes in sequence through the USA, Australia, France, West Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Belgium, Austria, Scandinavia, Switzerland and Ireland, before finishing with a couple of chapters on the theory of representation. I must say I found it a bit frustrating. I would have put the two theoretical chapters up front, to contextualise the specific information about each country; I would have put Ireland, whose political culture is much closer to the UK’s than any of the others, much earlier than last in the sequence.

In general I found the authors far too ready to accept uncritically the British paradigm of MPs as constituency representatives, and inclined to rate other countries positively or negatively depending on how well they approached the ideal. The two exceptions here are the cheaper on Ireland, written by Brian Farrell and quoting the likes of John Bruton, Michael D. Higgins and John Whyte and drawing on deep analysis of theory and practice over sixty years of independence; and a completely bonkers and hilarious chapter on Switzerland by Christopher Hughes, who had already retired as Professor of Politics at Leicester but lived another twenty years.

As usual, Malta, which has had both proportional representation on a similar basis to Ireland since 1921 and a rigid two-party system since 1966, doesn’t exist as far as the writers of this book are concerned.

Several writers approvingly quote Burke’s Address to the Electors of Bristol:

Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole. You choose a member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not member of Bristol, but he is a member of parliament

It is worth pointing out (as only one of the authors quoting him does) that when Burke made this speech, he had just been safely elected, so it was not an argument that he actually put to floating voters; and when he defended his Bristol seat at the next election, he came dead last with only 18 votes.

I think that the question of relations between members and constituents is one which would be treated very differently today. The representation of women and minorities is barely addressed here; also in 1985 we had no idea of the intense democratisation that was about to hit central and Eastern Europe, or the devolution settlements of the late 1990s in the UK. And there had been only two elections to the European Parliament, which was still a curiosity rather than a feature. So it’s a book of its time, perhaps telling a surprising amount through its omissions as well as its content. You can still get it here.

This was the non-fiction book that had lingered longest unread on my shelves, and the shortest book (at 320 pages) that I had acquired in 2016 but not got around to. Next on the first pile is Autism Spectrum Disorders Through the Life Span, by Digby Bantam, and next on the second is the Ace Double of Collision Course, by Robert Silverberg / Nemesis from Terra, by Leigh Brackett, which I found after thinking I had lost it for good.