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The Achievements of Democracy November 6, 1942

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Robert Menzies reflects on the good fruits that democracy has yielded, notwithstanding its practical inefficiencies and corruptions.

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I have endeavoured briefly to look at the true nature of democracy, and to diagnose its modern illness. Let me tonight say something of its achievements, for the justification of democracy is not theoretical but is woven into the practical fabric of history.

It is easy to criticize the philosophic basis of democracy, to say that to decide wisdom by merely counting heads is absurd, to dilate upon the alleged inefficiency of democracy and to contrast it with the alleged efficiency of dictatorships. There is an old Latin tag which reminds us that there is a temptation to regard as magnificent everything which is unknown. We have been too close to democracy to appreciate it. But it is not easy to ignore its achievements. Let me speak to you of them tonight.

Democracy has proved itself a friend of peace. No fully self-governing country has provoked a war within a century's memory. Autocracy, Fascism, Nazism - these so naturally express themselves in terms of power that they have by nature become aggressive. This is inevitable, for the motive of power, once ingrained in a people, leads easily to a feeling that conquest is the law of life. No aggression by any democracy led to the present war. Designs upon Czechoslovakia, Poland, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Holland, were German, not British or French.

There is a good reason for this. Democracy, being founded upon the rights of the individual citizens, concerns itself first and foremost with the domestic well-being of its people. It occupies itself with political and social and industrial reform. The very reason why it begins war "behind scratch" is that it has preferred preparations and expenditure for peace to the provision of great armaments. In the grim struggle between guns and butter, it prefers butter. It feels in its bones that war is a destroyer, and that conqueror and conquered may be at the end "in one red burial blent".

When, in the Atlantic Charter, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and the President of the United States of America declared their common principles, it was fitting that the first principle should be that "These countries seek no aggrandisement, territorial or otherwise." The fundamental democratic principle is one of peace and international goodwill.

The concentration of democracy upon the welfare of the citizen has in the last century produced great and indeed astonishing results. In a famous chapter of his History of England, written a hundred years ago, Macaulay spoke of the "good old days".

He said:

"It is natural that, being dissatisfied with the present, we should form a too favourable estimate of the past.

In truth we are under a deception similar to that which misleads the traveller in the Arabian desert. Beneath the caravan all is dry and bare; but far in advance, and far in the rear, is the semblance of refreshing waters. The pilgrims hasten forward and find nothing but sand where, an hour before, they had seen a lake. They turn their eyes and see a lake where, an hour before, they were toiling through sand. A similar illusion seems to haunt nations through every stage of the long progress from poverty and barbarism to the highest degrees of opulence and civilisation. But, if we resolutely chase the mirage backward, we shall find it recede before us into the regions of fabulous antiquity. It is now the fashion to place the golden age of England in times when noblemen were destitute of comforts the want of which would be intolerable to a modern footman, when farmers and shopkeepers breakfasted on loaves the very sight of which would raise a riot in a modern workhouse, when to have a clean shirt once a week was a privilege reserved for the higher class of gentry, when men died faster in the purest country air than they now die in the most pestilential lanes of our towns, and when men died faster in the lanes of our towns than they now die on the coast of Guyana. We too shall, in our turn, be outstripped, and in our turn be envied. It may well be, in the twentieth century, that the peasant of Dorsetshire may think himself miserably paid with twenty shillings a week; that the carpenter at Greenwich may receive ten shillings a day; that labouring men may be as little used to dine without meat as they now are to eat rye bread; that sanitary police and medical discoveries may have added several more years to the average length of human life; that numerous comforts and luxuries which are now unknown, or confined to a few, may be within the reach of every diligent and thrifty working man. And yet it may then be the mode to assert that the increase of wealth and the progress of science have benefited the few at the expense of the many, and to talk of the reign of Queen Victoria as the time when England was truly merry England, when all classes were bound together by brotherly sympathy, when the rich did not grind the faces of the poor, and when the poor did not envy the splendour of the rich."

His prophecies have more than come true. The hundred years that have elapsed since he wrote this notable passage have been the golden age in the improvement of the condition of mankind. Ten or fifteen years have been added to the average life of man. Public health and hygiene have so improved that we take cleanliness and sanitation for granted. Adequate water supply, pure food, clean drains, a sewerage system which has practically destroyed typhoid fever, immeasurably better houses, domestic security backed by an honest and intelligent police, an educational ideal which has given to the average man a degree of knowledge undreamt of a century ago, the substitution for self-help - frequently red in tooth and claw - of a new ideal of responsibility for the weak and unfortunate and aged and unemployed, the cheapening of entertainment, the vast accretion of books and periodicals, the abolition of child labour, the carving out of a new province for law and order by the compulsory fixing of wages and industrial conditions on a civilized basis, the abolition of slavery, the opening of places of power and authority to the man or woman who is rich only in ability, the new conception of the status of women, free speech, religious tolerance - all these and a thousand other things have marked the progress of democracy. No system of tyranny, however benevolent, ever produced so much.

A great legal writer once said that the progress of man was from status to contract. That is a statement worth our reflection. In feudal days everything depended on status: you were a lord of the manor, a freeman, a serf. As was your status, so were your precarious rights. But we, thanks to democracy, live in an age of contract and an age of consent.

The Government orders us, by our consent. Our fights are enforceable, and are not a mere concession by power. Man has not only in the process of evolution stood up in a physical sense, but in the metaphorical sense he has learnt to stand on his own feet. He has become a thing of dignity, a ruler in his own right, a subject of his own will.

That we have all too frequently forgotten the duties which attach to free citizenship cannot be denied. That our system has had its illnesses and that we have been reluctant to probe them to their source is unfortunately true, as I have previously tried to show. But, as we go forward to our great future tasks, we may take courage and resolution from the fact that free self-government has a great history and that what it has done in the past it can, with proper thought and goodwill, do tenfold in the years to come.

It has a great task. I shall speak of it next week.

Courtesy of Menzies Foundation
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The Achievements of Democracy- November 6, 1942

- Robert Menzies
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