UK system is poor - but they're not ruled by bureaucrats and quangos like we are
Published 08/05/2015 | 02:30
Journalists from the major continental media flocked to Britain this week to cover the general election. They have not been impressed.
You might have supposed that they would dislike David Cameron's evident belief that more welfare cuts would settle the problems of the economy or the likelihood that a government run by Ed Miliband and Ed Balls would spend recklessly.
But in the event, some of them aimed their heaviest fire on the system itself.
The British electoral system - first past the post and the devil take the hindmost - is designed to produce strong, single-party governments. Whatever the strength or otherwise of these governments, it means that a party with 10pc of the vote can get 1pc of the House of Commons seats and a party with 40pc of the vote can get 100pc of the power.
So different from the home life of our own dear Dáil?
In Ireland, we have proportional representation based on the single transferable vote in multi-party constituencies. Quite a mouthful, that. What does it mean in practice?
It is designed to give all parties a level of representation in exact proportion to the election results. In theory, it should lead to coalitions composed of several parties and prevent any party from achieving too powerful a position.
But for the first part, roughly speaking, of our history as an independent state, the system had exactly the opposite effect. That was owing to Fianna Fáil's professionalism, Fine Gael's dilettantism and Labour's weakness.
Since nothing lasts for ever, over the decades Fianna Fáil became less professional, Fine Gael grew more so, and Labour made two massive leaps forward but in both cases failed to hold the ground it had gained.
We now accept that all future Irish governments will be coalitions. This opinion has been copperfastened by the recent rise of independents and minor parties.
But these changes, though massive in the light of history, have made hardly any difference to the way the country is governed.
Ireland is not governed by the Dáil, still less by the people. In the first place, we have no local government worth the name. At the national level, we are ruled mainly by bureaucrats and quangos. Almost the only elected representatives with real power are the four members of the inner cabinet, the Economic Management Council.
In all fairness, these holders of power have done a pretty good job in the last few terrible years.
We have come through the economic crisis poorer, but on more solid ground. The Fine Gael-Labour coalition has put in place a plan for the next few years which should bring guaranteed, if modest, increases in prosperity.
But we remain terribly vulnerable to internal and external shocks.
When we talk about the external ones, we almost always mean continental uncertainties. We do not concentrate on the perils closer to home, in the United Kingdom. Today, as the tentative moves begin to form a new British government, is a good time for us to do some concentrating.
Unlike Ireland, Britain is a tolerably well-governed country. Its administration has many defects besides those deplored by the European observers, but it has survived two world wars and the collapse of most of its traditional industries. It is the world's fifth-biggest economy.
But it now faces two deadly threats. Scotland could leave the United Kingdom, and England could leave the European Union.
Whether we need to worry about the second danger depends largely on the election result. If Cameron remains in office, he has promised a referendum on staying in the EU or leaving it.
If he loses, that will presumably - and deservedly - be the end of the referendum proposal.
Scotland is a different story.
Nicola Sturgeon has been the undoubted star of the election campaign, but her long-term ambitions are hard to discern. Will she choose, sooner or later, the path of complete independence? If that comes to pass, what will be the implications for Northern Ireland? And what will it mean for ourselves?
Not very long ago, we expended a lot of money and a lot of brainpower on the Northern Question. None of us, from the humblest citizens to the people at top of Government, want to go back to the horrors of the Troubles or the mind-numbing search for a settlement.
We do, however, need to be conscious of the dangers and assess their implications as best we can.
One of our many oddities is that, for most of our recent history, we have ignored the existence of our Scots cousins. Most of us know little or nothing about the country. How many of us know that until 1707 it was an independent country?
Now that something very like a revolution has occurred, the least we can do is to make better contacts and seek means of closer co-operation.
And we could usefully remind ourselves that the Scottish Question - and much more painful questions - might not have burst on us out of the blue if we had managed our own affairs with more care and forethought.
During the Celtic Tiger boom, we took no precautions against a downturn, to say nothing of a crash. A wise government constantly reviews, at a minimum, the imminent dangers on the doorstep and seeks ways of preventing them from exploding.
Of course all governments make mistakes. Of course all governments fail again and again to notice obvious dangers. And of course all governments tolerate, even promote, defects like the British electoral system which annoyed European journalists this week.
But these defects will not prevent the parties from forming a new government which, one way or another, will greatly resemble the old one.
And in the meantime we can ask ourselves how the journalists who rightly deplored the winner-takes-all system across the water might feel if they turned their attention to Ireland.