The word ‘reform’ is loaded, and not just in the political context. The Oxford English Dictionary says ‘To amend or improve (an arrangement, state of things, institution, etc.) by removal of faults or abuses.’ The word ‘amend’ has to be read with ‘by removal of faults or abuses’, and the ‘removal of faults’ must be read to include ‘rectifying omissions.’
So, there are two things involved – change, and improvement. There is rarely doubt about the fact of change, but there is often argument about whether the change is for the better. One of the most significant legislative reforms came in England with the passing of the Reform Act, 1832. We now know that this reform paved the way for democracy, which was unthinkable then, and we believe that if the opposition to it had prevailed, there may well have been a revolution.
There is I think a general agreement now that changes to the law introduced by the Hawke and Keating governments relating to taxation, currency, and superannuation effected real improvements, and were therefore real reforms. But it is not easy to think of many other reforms in our recent history.
We have just seen another example. The federal opposition just announced a proposal to change part of the law dealing with double taxation of dividends in the hands of shareholders. The relevant law formed part of the reforms of Mr Keating. The proposed changes just announced can obviously be rationally defended as being required to make the law work better. That would mean that the change would amount to a reform – and Mr Keating was reported to have said that it was. But you could just count the minutes before a political hack used the term ‘tax grab’, usually with the epithet ‘brutal’, and wheel out a worthy couple of retirees who have structured their life savings on the faith that government will not then change the rules to make them worse off – the phrase is ‘shift the goalposts.’ For these people the proposed change is for the worse, and not for the better. It is anything but a reform. And they have a point. They have invested in good faith relying on representations from both parties that government will respect their investments and leave them alone. Taking away an ‘entitlement’ is far more threatening than offering a chance of another.
We see this problem all the time. One example is tuition fees for university students. These fees were put up as reforms – but not for the student being saddled with $100,000 debt – for fees imposed by politicians most of whose graduate members had not had to pay a cracker.
The Reformation at least began about reform. In his History of the Reformation in Germany, Leopold von Ranke said:
No man, to whatever confession he may belong, can deny, what was admitted even by the most zealous Catholics of that day; viz. that the Latin church stood in need of reform. Its thorough worldliness, and the ever-increasing rigidity and unintelligible formalism of its dogma and observances, rendered this necessary in a religious view; while the interference of the papal court, which was not only oppressive in a pecuniary sense, by consuming all the surplus revenue, but destructive of the unity and independence of the nation, made it not less essential to the national interest.
But while reform was essential, a schism, or split, was not. Ranke said:
Public order rests on two foundations – first, the stability of the governing body; secondly, the consent and accordance of public opinion with the established government…..But when the constituted powers doubt, vacillate and conflict with one another, whilst at the same moment, opinions essentially hostile to the existing order of things become predominant, then, indeed, is the peril imminent.
That proposition is pregnant for our time, and we will come back to it. But what happens when the reform movement hits full swing?
…..it is not in human nature to rest content with a moderate success; it is vain to expect reason from a conquering multitude….for the most part they were goaded by long-cherished hatred and lust for revenge, which now found vent.
We see that all the time. Some see a bit of it now in the #MeToo movement. The Germans’ political dam threatened to burst.
It was now taught that as all were children of one father, and all equally redeemed by the blood of Christ, there should be no longer inequality of wealth or station.
Well, that was at least three centuries ahead of its time (although we may be due for another explosion about inequality.) That was the way of the Peasants’ War, and a dint in the democratic glow of Martin Luther.
There were also consequences that were not foreseen.
By rejecting celibacy, they [the clergy] secured a new influence over the mind of the nation. The body of married clergy became a nursery for the learned professions and civil offices; the centre of a cultivated middle class…..In the year 1750, Justus Möser reckoned that from ten to fifteen millions of human beings in all countries and regions of the globe owed their existence to Luther, and to his example, and adds, ‘A statue ought to be erected to him as the preserver of the species.’
That’s a diverting proposition, but if Ranke is right about ‘the centre of a cultivated middle class’ in Reformation areas – such as Germany, Holland and England – that may go some way to explain the difference in political maturity between the nations of northern Europe and southern Europe.
But to return to what Ranke said about the breakdown of public order, it finds a curious echo in in the Bagehot column of last week’s Economist.
The biggest threat to British institutions, however, comes from a growing sense that democracy has let people down. Stephen Holmes of New York university points out that liberal democracy is ‘a time-tested system for managing political disappointment’ – once you’ve lost patience with the existing elite you can vote them out. But disappointment is surging, at a time when democracy’s ability to manage disappointment is declining…..The proportion of Britons who support a ‘strongman leader’ has increased from 25% in 1999 to 50%. The under-25s are much more critical than people of the same age were two decades ago. It is too early to head for the exits….But anyone who doesn’t know where the exits are is a fool.
If you believe that a decent ‘strongman leader’ is a contradiction in terms – and we are daily given countless repellent examples – then this trend is very scary. We may in truth need major reform.