Vernon Bogdanor

Vernon Bogdanor a fellow of Brasenose College, Oxford, is the author of Devolution and of The People and the Party System.

Rational Switch

Vernon Bogdanor, 17 June 1982

It was R. B. McCallum who invented the word ‘psephology’ to describe the study of elections. Yet in 1955 he wrote of the act of voting as the last haven of free choice in an increasingly bureaucratised society, an ultimate redoubt to be defended at all costs against the assault of the social sciences. ‘The secrecy of the ballot, the pencilled cross in the secluded polling booth’, was, he said, ‘the great eleusinian mystery of the democratic state. It must be respected as an article of faith.’ Not surprisingly, political scientists have conspicuously ignored this warning. Indeed, as the introduction to Democracy at the Polls points out, the analysis of elections has become one of the main growth areas in the discipline: the behaviourist finds the quantitative methods needed to study elections peculiarly congenial; whilst the electoral process itself, whose rules and regulations vary little between one democracy and another, seems especially suited to comparative study. Analysis of elections also has a normative purpose. ‘The reality of liberty,’ claimed Ernest Barker, ‘consists in the details and the substance of actual institutions.’ Psephology can, therefore, be seen as the discipline that will give flesh and blood to the generalisations made by such classical writers on democracy as Mill and Bryce. For elections throw a searchlight onto the working of the democratic process in different countries, illuminating the assumptions upon which democratic government rests. General elections, to paraphrase Namier, are ‘locks on the stream of … democracy, controlling the flow of the river and its traffic’.

Colin Kidd advocates correcting the ‘democratic deficit’ in our constitution by transforming the House of Lords into a ‘German-style Bundesrat, with a membership drawn from the governments of the nations and regions of the United Kingdom’ (LRB, 17 April). But the English ‘regions’, unlike Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, have no elected governments, and show no signs of wanting them....
Colin Kidd is too pessimistic about Labour’s electoral chances were the union with Scotland to be dissolved (LRB, 8 March). ‘Without support from its Scottish heartlands,’ he asks, ‘how often, if ever, could Labour hope to form a majority in England, or even in England and Wales?’ Only in the highly marginal general elections of 1950, 1964, February and October 1974, when Labour scraped home...
Ferdinand Mount reports that Macmillan’s diaries are ‘tinged with anti-semitism’. It ought, however, to be remembered that, in 1961, Macmillan was instrumental as prime minister in persuading Eton to remove a 1945 statute requiring the fathers of candidates for scholarships to have been British at birth, since Jews were, in the words of the provost, Claude Elliott, ‘too clever’ or ‘clever...
David Runciman in his piece on the election refers to the ‘risible’ performance of the BNP (LRB, 27 May). If only. It is true that Nick Griffin failed dismally in Barking and that the party lost all of its councillors in Barking and Dagenham. But, largely by fighting on a wider front and tripling the number of its candidates, it doubled its national vote from 2005 to 1.9 per cent. Nearly two in...

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