My dearest brothers and sisters,
You have dispatched me to London at an opportune time. The North Britons have but lately decided in a plebiscite not to withdraw themselves from their ancient yoking or ‘union’ with the South Britons – but only by a hair’s breadth. What contagion can possibly have taken hold of almost half their number, that they wished to turn their backs upon their fellow islanders?
But I should be answering to a different mission were I to attempt to answer that question. You sent me here to report on the parliament of all the Britons, and I should hasten to report the results of my researches. I was fortunate enough to gain access – after some difficulty, since my green skin and unfamiliar religion naturally aroused suspicion – and engaged some of the inhabitants or ‘Members’ in conversation. I attempted withal to prove the views of some of the common citizens on the streets, but to my dismay most of them seemed to know little and care less about their supreme legislative assembly. One furtive and dangerous-looking woman whispered to me, before she hurried away, that the people were in truth governed not by Parliament but by ‘plutocrat bankers’, ‘foreign oligarchs’ and ‘tax-avoiding multinationals’, but I had no time to discover the significance of these terms. I could only surmise that she was a malcontent, whose opinion could not be trusted.
You will remember that you sent me here because you believed that the parliament of all the Britons was reputed to be the closest to perfection of the many democratic assemblies on the Earth. After all, you told me, it is styled the mother of parliaments, and stood as a pattern for most of the nations that once belonged to the Britons’ benevolent Empire – an empire much missed by modern governments of the country, who are still given to waging regular foreign wars. You asked me to discover, you will recall, whether Parliament might be a suitable pattern for us democratic Martians to adopt, in place of our present ancestral constitution.
As you will know, Parliament is divided into two ‘houses’, Commons and Lords. This reflects some ancient distinction which no one now understands. The Lords are mostly elderly persons who seem to feel some superiority to their fellow citizens (unaccountably, many of the latter seem to agree with their assessment). They have been supplied with long ‘titles’ to impress their inferiors, and wear fur-fringed robes to keep themselves warm in their draughty halls. You will be astonished to learn, however, that these Lords are not elected at all. Some of them are there because their fathers were there before them; they belong to the noblest families of the kingdom. Others are hierarchs (Parliament is a far from secular body). Others again are the favourites of the chieftans of the main factions, called ‘parties’, in the House of Commons; many of these people owe their place to their long and devout allegiance to their leaders’ wishes.
I asked whether the Lords had ever considered the virtues of selection by sortition or lot, one of the most valuable democratic methods, as we know from our experience. But they had not. Lot is used by the Britons only in a few courts of law, to select ‘juries’, and in what they call the National Lottery, a device for transferring funds without complaint from the indigent to the rich.
You will find what I say next to impossible to believe, but I have confirmed its truth. There are at present 796 of these Lords! My informants tell me that the only assembly on the Earth with more members is the National People’s Congress of China. (They say that China is a wicked and communistical society, but they do concede that the people elect the members of the Congress.) There is no maximum number of Lords, and more and more of them are added each year. Most of them attend irregularly, or simply to be present at important votes, or not at all. Those who are assiduous in attending and performing their duties find it almost impossible to find a room to work in, or even a desk.
I was assured, however, that the powers of the Lords were in large measure circumscribed, so that any possible shortcomings in their constitution were of little consequence. It is the Commons, I was told, that represents the quintessence of the democratic principle among the Britons. Therefore I determined to visit the House of Commons and spend a day in what they call their ‘Chamber’.
I was directed to an extraordinary building beside the river. At first I thought I had come to the wrong place. It had the appearance of some ancient temple, of an extravagant size considering it it had need of only two medium-sized chambers and a few committee rooms. I recalled another remark by the seditious woman I had encountered in the street. She said that Parliament’s home had been built two centuries ago in a deliberately antique and embellished style expressly to astonish and cow the common people. But one would have to possess the mind of a Diogenes to credit such an outlandish proposition.
On the morning of my visit no more than fifteen of so Members – there are 650 in total – were present in the Chamber. They were busy with what I was told was a second reading of a new law. This suggested to me a sort of advanced book discussion club, but no one seemed to be reading at all, and indeed a few appeared to be asleep. I was reluctant to return, but was assured that the afternoon session would be lively and indeed dramatic. It was advertised as PMQs, an opportunity for ordinary Members to quiz the first minister. This time the Chamber was full. A well-fed man with full cheeks, an oily complexion and a confident air was speaking loudly in front of a table, which he struck with his fist from time to time. My neighbour and guide, who was not of his party, told me that as a young man he had ‘been in PR’, which accounted for his facility in making the worse case appear the better. But what was striking was the remarkable deportment of the other Members. Those opposite made sounds like asses at the tops of their voices, and shook pieces of paper on front of them. Those on the side of the ‘PM’ howled back and laughed loudly at what appeared to me cheap-jack quips and jests. I was unable to catch more than a few words. I regret to say that in our Martian society most of these people would have been subjected to a restraining order or a long period of compulsory community service.
Later in the day I essayed a different method. I chanced upon a small group of male Members in one of the numerous bars or taverns hidden inside the parliament building, where strong alcoholic liquors are prescribed to alleviate the many hours of waiting for the ‘division bell’ to signal a vote, at a time when most Martians, and indeed humans, are thinking of their beds. (I was perplexed to learn that drinking alcohol during working hours in other positions of employment in this country is regarded as a disciplinary offence.)
I asked why they shouted so. All they would say was that it was a fine and ancient tradition, and manifested the ‘rough and tumble’ of lusty debate. Did it discourage women, I wondered, from entering Parliament and suffering this over-masculine domain? I had noticed very few female Members on the green benches, and I discovered that less than a quarter of Members are presently women. My interlocutors looked astonished, as if I had come from a different planet, and one of them asked if I was one of those extremists who believed in ‘quotas’ for women.
I could not help noticing, moreover, that though the streets of the capital were thronged with men and women of every Earth race, in the Chamber there were very few black and brown faces to be seen, and, you will not be surprised to hear, no green faces at all – though plenty of red ones.
My next question was about how they had been chosen to be Members. It seems that a system called First Past the Post is in use, a primitive form of voting whose unfairness rendered it obsolete on our planet some thousands of years ago. The results of elections are decided in a handful of constituencies, minority votes in the rest being wasted. This was helpful, said one elderly, rosy-faced Member, since he never needed to expend much energy at election time, he simply waited for his votes to accumulate – ‘I am a rotten apple in a truly rotten borough’, he added with a chortle. In any case, he said, it hardly mattered, since the opposite faction, should it happen to win the election, would rule in almost exactly the same way as his party. I asked how many people, in that case, did vote. He replied that at the last general election, only 65% of those eligible to vote could bring themselves to do so. My impression was that he thought this a commendable thing, since it clearly suited his own cause.
I was bold enough to enquire of this same honest fellow how much remuneration he received for his burdensome labours. He snorted at my naïveté. So little was he paid that he was obliged to supplement his pauper’s wage by applying to the Boards of several large Companies (I did not dare to question whether this might impair his ability to help his constituents) and by making sure he claimed the ample expenses that were available to him.
At this mention of the word ‘expenses’ a neighbouring Member suddenly awoke from his slumber to issue a deep sigh, and the whole group fell into a long silence. I gathered later that several years earlier a mighty scandal had arisen, when many Members had been found to be at fault in claiming public recompense, among other things, for the cost of maintaining their houses and the moats that must surround them in order to keep them secure from attack. The common people and the courants, however, appeared to have forgiven them, or at least had long since ceased to issue complaint.
Finally, I enquired about the schooling and previous vocations of the Members, before they devoted themselves to the sacred calling of politics. Over a third of them were raised in poor homes and were obliged to attend the inferior, public schools, such as Eton and Harrow, where they suffered severe privations, including cruel bullying, inadequate victuals and showers cold as ice. Many of them then became what are termed ‘interns’, poor sizars compelled to learn their political trade in return for little or no emolument, or ‘researchers’ or ‘aides’, wretched prentices who were worked without mercy, and with little pay or thanks. Incidentally, the inhuman treatment of these unfortunates continues even after they become Members, since, I am led to believe, they are liable to vicious floggings for the slightest infraction at the hands of proctors known as ‘whips’. These brutes ensure that they do not display any independence of thought. A more draconian punishment still is to be ostracised to the House of Lords, which is a life sentence.
I now come to my conclusion, my dear brothers and sisters. I arrive at it with a reluctant heart, since I have been shown much courtesy and kindness in my travels in the land of the South Britons. But I am afraid to say that I cannot with honesty, on the evidence of my investigations, point to a single feature of the democracy practised by the Britons in this city that may be recommended to you to consider adopting. Indeed, we Martians would be hard placed to apply the epithet ‘democratic’ to the constitution they employ (which, by the way, they have not even taken the trouble to write down). I heard that the first minister of the Britons declared, a few years ago, that he firmly believed his own society was ‘broken’. To judge by the condition of its central ‘democratic’ institution it is hard to disagree with him. To make matters worse, I could detect not the slightest serious desire on the part of the guardians of these constitutional arrangements to change them for the better.
The truth is that these people believe less in democracy or in any accepted theology than in an extreme version of a religion they call capitalism. I heard a story that two old philosophers, Karl Marks and Herbert Spencer, were the originators of this curious cult. Another, more plausible theory has it that capitalism is named after the capital city. London is clearly the headquarters of the religion, drawing in adherents and their wealth into its maw and leaving most other parts of the country bare of resources. Whatever the explanation, there is no doubting the power of capital. When the North Britons seemed in danger of determining to secede from the ‘union’, the chief leaders of capital threatened the people with terrible warnings of the noxious, even fatal consequences that would befall them if they felt emboldened enough to vote in the incorrect way.
Speaking of North Britain, I should add, in case you should wish to send further envoys to this country, that its inhabitants are reported to have constructed a different kind of polity, one that is much more truly democratic. They possess their own, modern and rational parliament, a government that appears to cherish the interests of the common people, and a populace intent on demanding their own voice in public life. The West Britons too, it is rumoured, though impoverished mountain dwellers, possess their own assembly and in part govern their own affairs –sometimes using their own peculiar ancient language. By all means, therefore, send expeditions to Alba and Cymru. I do not, however, recommend a second visit to this place called London. I fear there is little of worth to be learned here.
Your obedient servant,