‘Tory Democracy’ Explained

by Elias Blum

For conservatives, money and power go together in a traditional hierarchy of power. It is assumed that the rich have a right to rule, because they alone have a long term vested interest in society; property holding is associated, in the conservative mind, with competence and responsibility. Only the propertied (those whose ownership of productive property, and rentier lifestyle, enabled them to live without labour) were deemed to have the culture, leisure and educations necessary to rule. Only by concentrating power in a class of ‘gentlemen’ could civilisation be protected from the great unwashed.

We see such views animating the Federalist party in the development of the US Constitution: ‘Conservative delegates among the framers – later the core of the Federalist Party – had feared that if ordinary people were given ready access to power they would bring about policies contrary to the views and interests of the more privileged classes, which, as the conservative delegates viewed their interests, were also the best interests of the country’ (Dahl, 2003: 24).

Subsequent generations of conservatives may have come to accept procedural democracy. Some did so reluctantly, as an expedient that could not be avoided. Others saw at least a basic level of procedural democracy as a powerful source of legitimacy for those in government. For conservatives, however, a trusteeship model of democracy prevails. The power to decide policy is still to be concentrated at the top and subject to as few constraints as possible. Opportunities for democratic action should be few, with long terms of office, less inclusive electoral systems, centralised decision-making, and a clear focus on the discretionary authority of the executive.

In so far as rights are protected, primacy is given to property rights, rather than civil and political rights that could be used to challenge those in power, or socio-economic rights that could result in a redistribution of resources away from the elite. The privileges of particular classes – aristocrats, landowners, priests, the military – may also be protected, partly in order to bind these natural leaders, moral guardians and praetorians closely to the centre of political power and partly to guarantee their corporate influence over a polity and society that might otherwise go, as they see it, dangerously astray. The art of conservative constitution-making, then, is to use a minimal procedural democracy as a way of legitimating the state, while protecting elites against the levelling desires of the people.