Constructive Democracy

A Summary by Michael Edwards

Working Copy: 1st edition pub. 1943 by Faber & Faber, London. 41 pp. 2 chapters (hard covers)


I The Liberal Tradition and Negative Democracy

II The Problem of Positive Government

This book originated as two lectures delivered at University College, London in December 1942. Thus we were about halfway through the Second World War, and these lectures were a contribution to the thought which was being put into the problems of what social, financial and political arrangements we would need to make once victory had been achieved. (Albeit that victory itself was a pretty cheeky presumption at that stage, given that the British Army had not won a significant battle (El Alamein) until barely two months earlier.)

Macmurray does not offer any solutions in this book. It is an exercise in analysis and location of problem areas which may need to be worked upon. He reflects upon the type of democracy which we in England and other parts of the United Kingdom have lived under for the past 400 years. He then considers which part of that type of democracy is essential to democracy, and which part is but a contingent product of the times in which it was forged. The latter part could, in principle, be changed if circumstances demanded. He then considers what problems and risks would be involved in making such a change if it were called for.

Macmurray traces the present shape of our English democracy back to the Parliamentary victory in the English Civil Wars. It is a negative democracy in which Parliament lays limits upon how far the executive government can interfere in the life of a citizen. It has two main aspects, namely, government cannot interfere in a citizen’s religion and it cannot interfere in trade, i.e. freedom of religion and freedom of trade. Parliament exercises control over government by holding the purse strings,i.e. it can refuse to vote supplies (reject the budget). Freedom of religion implies freedom of all cultural activities from state control. It implies freedom of conscience, freedom of thought, freedom of learning and of art and literature — all that is involved in freedom of mind. The implications of religious toleration run through all our democratic liberties — freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of the press, of cultural association, of public criticism, and propaganda. Freedom of trade implies that no group in the nation will have special privileges, so that the landed aristocrat competes in an open market with the middle-class manufacturer, merchant and moneylender.

Macmurray holds that the first of these, freedom of religion with all its implied freedoms, is the core value of democracy. Remove this and you no longer have democracy. By contrast the second feature, freedom of trade, is an accident of its period and could, in principle, be altered without abandoning democracy. And it might need to be altered if we wanted to pass from negative to positive government. Positive government is where the government has the power to use the economic resources of the community for the benefit of the community; and does not have to stand back and watch private groups trade in these resources for the sake of private profit, while piously hoping that enough of these resources will come the way of all citizens so that they can flourish as persons. Macmurray thinks that positive government will eventually be forced upon us by circumstances, not least by the erosion of even negative democracy by the increasingly oligarchic character of much trade and industry. He is not doctrinaire about the manner of this and even contemplates the possibility of what would, today, probably be called Public/Private Partnership. But he does hold that ‘only a positive government can give us constructive democracy’.

The fear is that in the transition from negative to positive government democracy will be lost. (Communist Russia and Nazi Germany were not encouraging!) This fear arises because in positive government the executive is already in practical possession of the nation’s resources and so Parliament loses its power to control government interference through refusal to vote supplies. Other sanctions will be required. Macmurray is fairly sanguine that they could be found and devotes some time to discussing this point.

This little book might easily be passed over by the contemporary student as being too much a tract for its time to be of any current interest; and one that backed the wrong horse, to boot. I think this would be a pity. Whereas it seems obvious that Macmurray was an enthusiastically interested observer of the social experiment (as he saw it) which was going on in Russia, and it is doubtful whether at that time (1942) he realised the extent of Stalin’s enormities, he was by no means an uncritical observer. In these papers, and in other writings, he from time to time perceptively puts his finger on something which leads him to doubt whether all is going as well for the people of Russia as its more slavish devotees would have had us believe.

The planned economy which he thought would be forced upon us by circumstances was in fact started by the British Labour (Attlee) governments of 1945-51 only to be destroyed or maimed in the Eighties by Mrs. Thatcher. Various coups de grace are being given to the twitching remains by Neo-Thatcherism under Mr. Blair (who, ironically enough, claims to be an admirer of John Macmurray). Macmurray’s criticisms of the increasingly monopolistic free-market capitalism of his time (pre-1914 to 1942) hardly come over as stale and irrelevant now. In fact, for humanitarians the saddest thing to come out of the collapse of the Russian Empire circa 1989 might not be the supposed demonstration that ‘communism has been proved wrong’ as the too-easy assumption that free-market capitalism has been shown to be ‘flawlessly correct’. The essential problems remain the same and this book deserves to be on the reformist’s preliminary reading list.