Belloc’s book The Cruise of the Nona is not as well-known as it should be. It is a sort of counterpart to The Path to Rome, only that was written when he was in his early 30’s and this one was written when he was in his mid 50’s. Each of them is an account of a voyage interspersed with – as he puts it in the sub-title of the Nona – “Reflections and Judgements on Life and Letters, Men and Manners”. But whereas in The Path to Rome he is going to an obvious destination on foot, here he is meandering round the bottom part of the British coastline in his boat with no special goal. I don’t know if this is a kind of metaphor of how he saw his career in youth and in middle age.
At one point he reflects on a long, private meeting that he had with Mussolini, newly come to power in Italy (the Nona was published in 1925.) He has a good deal of sympathy with the dictator. They both share a contempt for the parliamentary system, which Belloc saw as a sham battle that did not represent the populace and served to conceal the real powers within the State. He is even enthusiastic about Mussolini: “What a sense of decision, of sincerity, of serving the nation, and of serving it towards a known end with a definite will!” But he also disagrees with him on one important point:-
One thing, however, struck me in his comments which was, as I thought, extreme and ill-founded; and that was his contempt for all majorities. Mussolini laid it down to me that the conception of majority government is as ridiculous as it is immoral, and should be fiercely combated as a lie and an evil in itself. I do not agree; it seems to me that the rational basis of a majority government stands firm upon certain conditions.
On many points, Belloc says, it would indeed be ridiculous to hold referenda. “What would a majority vote do with bimetallism, or the appointment of admirals?” But if five conditions are fulfilled, then, he contends, a ruler is morally obliged to follow the majority.
(1) When the question arises from a homogenous community; (2) when there is an active popular demand for its settlement; (3) when the matter under discussion is reasonably familiar to all; (4) when it concerns all, or nearly all, directly, and in much the same degree; (5) when the majority is substantial.
You must be dealing with a homogenous community – for in one made up of various races, or fundamentally different religions, a majority means nothing towards a decision. It is a mere affirmation of discord. You must have a real and popular demand for a decision, and it must proceed from the people themselves: not from a body claiming the right to frame the question: a vote on matters of no popular interest – as a vote on Welsh disestablishment in North London, or on mining regulations in Brighton – is a manifest abuse. Even on a burning matter, discussed by, known to, and affecting all, no small majority can possibly be decisive, or make an accord – for a half is not the general will. But when a community of one stuff votes by a large majority in favour of something they both understand, and desire, and that something close to their own lives, then that majority is of true effect.
This seems pretty sound to me, only Belloc apparently thinks that the ruler would be bound in justice to follow the majority if all five conditions were met, as is suggested by his use of the phrase ‘the general will’ (he loved Rousseau’s book, and yet how he would have disliked the man!) I should think the obligation is rather one of political prudence. Also, he misses out a sixth and very necessary condition – that the thing voted for be not against the Law of God.