August 7th, 2013


August Books 4) Proportional Representation in Ireland, by James Creed Meredith

Under the single transferable vote system there is every inducement to vote for a crank, and he generally manages to amass a considerable number of late preferences. For most of us are cranks when probed as deep as a ninth or tenth preference.
James Creed Meredith is one of those neglected figures in Irish history who managed to play a important role in several fields of intellectual endeavour (including science fiction), as well as setting up the legal system of the nascent Irish state, ending his career as a member of the Supreme Court from 1937 to 1942. In 1913, he turned his talents to the question of electoral systems for a devolved legislature in Ireland. The Home Rule Bill then being discussed provided for an all-Ireland Parliament with a 164 member House of Commons and a 40-member Senate; I confess that I was utterly unaware of the electoral arrangements prescribed, which were that the Senate should be entirely nominated at first and then elected by proportional representation from the provinces, and that the House of Commons would be elected from constituencies of a variety of sizes, with those electing three or more members (nine seats with 31 MPs) doing so by proportional representation (incidentally the multi-member seats were mainly urban, and the smaller districts rural, which - whether by accident or design - would surely have resulted in under-representation of the Left). The Irish Parliament had the power to change the House of Commons electoral system once established, but there was no such power as regards the Senate.

Meredith, a strong supporter of proportional representation over first-past-the-post (as we now call it), makes an equally strong argument that the single transferable vote is not a good system in general and that it was unsuited to Ireland in 1913 in particular. His preferred option instead is a modification of the voting system which then applied - and in fact still does - in, of all places, my adopted country, Belgium: an open list system, with the additional points that parties should be allowed to form tactical coalitions to pool their votes, and that the final seats should be allocated by Droop quota and largest remainder rather than by the d'Hondt method.

Meredith makes the point that STV is not in fact a proportional system, and that its supporters are entirely disingenuous about it effect on party politics; and much of this part of his critique remains pretty valid today, and in some respects it has been born out by Irish experience in the century since he wrote. It is undeniably true that STV encourages parties to put up fewer candidates than a list system does. It is also clear that the fewer candidates a party nominates, the greater the role of the party selectorate in choosing them. In my own Belgian village last October, four of the five parties put up a full slate of candidates for the 21 seats available, so we had 89 candidates to choose from (out of a population of just over 10,000, so roughly one inhabitant in a hundred was on the ballot paper); compare with Omagh in Northern Ireland in 2010, where there were also 21 seats up for grabs, but in three 7-seat areas with a total of 30 candidates (out of a population of just under 20,000, so one person in 600 was a candidate). In Oud-Heverlee, no party ran fewer than 5 candidates; in Omagh, no party other than Sinn Féin ran more than two candidates in any area (and the Shinners' largest slate was five).

From the point of view of party management, open lists are pretty ideal. You have a great excuse for candidate recruitment, candidates have every incentive to work hard at getting their own personal vote out (which benefits the party as a whole) and you don't have to worry about losing votes when they transfer away at later counts. It's not surprising that reform-minded Irish politicians today tend to advocate a move away from STV to a list system (missing the point that the real problem is when you insist that government ministers must also be burdened with constituency duties).

Where I part company with Meredith is that I don't agree that what is good for party managers is necessarily good for politics in general. I concede some of his points - including the argument that STV's favouring of moderate candidates against the extremes is in fact a strike against its claims to proportionality (it's a hit I am willing to take) - but it still seems to me that STV offers the voter more transparency and clarity over the process, and more influence over the result, than any list system ever can. Meredith makes much of the need to better integrate the reality of political parties into the electoral system; in fact a lot of that work has been done since 1913, with parties now registered legal entities, with certain statutory duties and obligations, in a manner undreamt of in 1983, never mind 1913.

Still, it's a very interesting book for us psephological anoraks. I do not believe I have read a more robust denunciation of STV from the pro-electoral reform side of the debate. I suspect that Meredith, by pointing out the impracticality of province-wide elections for the Senate (including 14 for Ulster, presumably the same for Leinster) may have had one immediate effect on the Home Rule legislation - the Senate ended up in the Act as a body whose members were to remain nominated but (after its first term) by the Irish rather than the British government, making it an unabashed rubber stamp and effectively demonstrating, a century ago, that Ireland really doesn't need a second chamber at all.

Wednesday Reading

Standing in Another Man's Grave
, by Ian Rankin
The Monsters and the Critics, by J.R.R. Tolkien
The History of the Hobbit, vol 1: Mr Baggins, by John D. Rateliff
Death on the Nile, by Agatha Christie
Proportional Representation in Ireland, by James Creed Meredith

Last books finished
[Doctor Who] The Wages of Sin, by David A. McIntee
Kraken, by China Mieville
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, by Agatha Christie

Next books
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, by Jeanette Winterson
Shakespeare's Planet, by Clifford D. Simak
Far North, by Sara Maitland
[Doctor Who] Shakedown, by Terrance Dicks

Books acquired in last week:
Death on the Nile
, by Agatha Christie
Dalek I Loved You (50th Anniversary edition), by Nick Griffiths
Dining With The Doctor, by Chris-Rachel Oseland
Who & Me, by Barry Letts
Tardis Eruditorum Vol. 2 - Patrick Troughton, by Philip Sandifer
VWORP!, by Earl Green
The Best of TARDIS Eruditorum, by Philip Sandifer

Here's One I Wrote Earlier, by Peter Purves
Blue Box Boy: A Memoir of Doctor Who in Four Episodes, by Matthew Waterhouse
Self Portrait: My Journey as an Actress, Wife and Mother in the Swinging Sixties, by Anneke Wills
The Big Finish Companion, Volume 1, by Richard Dinnick
The Big Finish Companion, Volume 2, by Kenny Smith

LT unread books tally: 436.

August Books 5) The Monsters and the Critics, by J.R.R. Tolkien

A man inherited a field in which was an accumulation of old stone, part of an older hall. Of the old stone some had already been used in building the house in which he actually lived, not far from the old house of his fathers. Of the rest he took some and built a tower. But his friends coming perceived at once (without troubling to climb the steps) that these stones had formerly belonged to a more ancient building. So they pushed the tower over, with no little labour, and in order to look for hidden carvings and inscriptions, or to discover whence the man's distant forefathers had obtained their building material. Some suspecting a deposit of coal under the soil began to dig for it, and forgot even the stones. They all said: 'This tower is most interesting.' But they also said (after pushing it over): 'What a muddle it is in!' And even the man's own descendants, who might have been expected to consider what he had been about, were heard to murmur: 'He is such an odd fellow! Imagine using these old stones just to build a nonsensical tower! Why did not he restore the old house? he had no sense of proportion.' But from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea.
This is a collection of seven lectures by Tolkien, of which I think I had previously read only "On Fairy Stories" and "A Secret Vice". As always, they are an interesting insight into how his mind worked, or at least how he wanted us to think it worked. The more academic pieces (in particular the second, "On Translating Beowulf") are somewhat moored in academic controversies of their time, which may or may not have subsided by now and which in any case I am not close to. But the title piece rises above that to give an argument for appreciating Beowulf as a real story with serious monsters, rather than just a source for scholarly discussion on vaguely related topics, and that is the point made in the vivid metaphor of the man who built his tower on inherited land.

The other highlight for me, even as a non-Welsh speaker, is the lecture "English and Welsh" urging those with an interest in the history of the English language not to ignore its nearest geographical neighbour. He makes the same general point made much later by McWhorter, that English shares a significant substratum with Welsh (and he is very insistent that it is Welsh/British rather than the Goidelic languages), though interestingly uses a completely different set of linguistic/grammatical clues to McWhorter in making the argument. So there may well be something to it.

"On Fairy Stories" has quite a lot of information about Tolkien's views of other works of fantasy literature, ancient and modern; it is a bit less successful at setting up an analytical framework for looking at fairy stories as a whole (Farah Mendlesohn seems to me to have a more useful and more widely applicable approach), but again he makes a convincing emotional appeal to treat the stories first and foremost as stories for an intended audience, rather than for anything else. His valedictory address, at the end of the book, is an amusing but somewhat rambling justification for wandering off the point for most of his career, but in fact a commitment to an aesthetic of narrative seems to have been precisely the point, one which he successfully communicated through both his fiction and his non-fiction.