Britain “drifting to elective dictatorship”

A pessimistic but hard-to-argue-with view of “democracy” as it stands. Note this is NOT about the Conservative Party, it embraces every government – New Labour, Coalition, Conservative – since 1997.

“Since 1997, simple parliamentary majorities have been used to radically alter the constitutional make-up of the UK. Devolution and the creation of the Supreme Court have transformed the country’s institutions. Nat le Roux argues that this is evidence of a growing imbalance of power. The executive can change the institutions of state at will – often for politically-motivated, short-term gain. The extent of the democratic mandate has been exaggerated, as the Coalition government shows.

There is a very widespread view in Britain that our political culture is dysfunctional. According to the survey carried out for the Hansard Society’s 2013 Audit of Political Engagement, two out of three citizens believe that the present system of governing Britain is in need of significant improvement. When asked how this might best be achieved, a large majority of respondents favoured action to increase the transparency of politics and the popular accountability of elected representatives.

It is easy to see why many people believe that a disjunction between citizens and elected politicians is the primary problem in an increasingly dysfunctional, and disrespected, political system. However this is at best a partial diagnosis. In reality, British politics are considerably more transparent than a generation ago: proceedings in parliament are televised, it is much easier to access many types of government information, and the public and private activities of the political elite are subject to relentless media scrutiny. From the perspective of the ordinary citizen, Westminster culture may appear introverted and opaque, but this is an inadequate explanation for the current malaise felt towards British politics and government.

Less evident to outsiders, but equally debilitating, is the growing and dangerous imbalance of power between the institutions of the state itself. Lord Hailsham coined the term elective dictatorship in 1976, and it is a more accurate description of the political landscape today than was the case forty years ago.

Two developments have taken us further down that road. The first is the increasing unwillingness of the executive to respect the independent authority of the judiciary, the civil service, local government and parliament itself. The second is the willingness of governments, especially after 1997, to introduce fundamental constitutional changes, many of them effectively irreversible. Perversely, it is the over-representation of democratic legitimacy as the dominant contemporary political virtue which arguably bears a large measure of responsibility for our current predicament. …

The reality of the democratic mandate

It is often argued by the proponents of executive supremacy that a government effectively enjoys a direct democratic mandate because most voters in general elections believe they are voting for a party manifesto and a prime minister at the same time as selecting a constituency MP. Political history suggests that this argument is a very weak one. Two of the last four prime ministers were installed by their parties between general elections, and this has always been an entirely normal route to No 10. Voters in 2010 did not choose to have a Conservative/Lib Dem coalition government (under the current electoral system there is no mechanism which would have allowed them to express such a preference). Many of the policies of that government were foreshadowed in the election manifesto of only one of the coalition partners, and some policies were in neither. The coalition’s policy platform was the coalition agreement, negotiated by the party leaders after the 2010 election and never endorsed by the electorate.

If democratic legitimacy implies substantial popular endorsement, then the democratic mandate of recent British governments rests on weak foundations. In the 2005 general election, Labour secured an absolute majority of parliamentary seats but only 35.2 per cent of the national vote. The turnout was 61.4 per cent of registered electors. Thus the Labour government which was in power between 2005 and 2010 enjoyed the active endorsement of less than one in four potential electors. …

The sovereignty of Parliament

The reality of party politics, in Britain as in other mature democracies, is that a government’s ability to sustain a majority is not based on an ability to convince legislators by reasoned argument of the merits of particular proposals.

Although backbench revolts are more frequent than a generation ago, nearly all divisions are along party lines. Bills are introduced and passed into law irrespective of their objective merit because, tout court, the government commands a majority in the House. Most MPs, most of the time, support their own party leadership for a combination of principled and self-interested reasons.

Despite the Wright reforms of 2010, it is government rather than the Commons itself which largely determines the Parliamentary timetable and enjoys a near-monopolistic control of legislative processes. At best, party loyalty severely muffles effective legislative constraint on executive action, except in those rare cases where a backbench rebellion is large enough to overturn the government’s majority. None of this is especially surprising or – arguably – objectionable in itself: that is how parliamentary democracies work. However, given the realities of parliamentary behaviour, government claims to an untrammelled and generalised authority may ring rather hollow.

Drifting towards instability?

A pessimist could easily believe that we are drifting towards institutional instability. Governments have become increasingly willing to alter very long-standing constitutional settlements for reasons which often appear short-term and politically self- interested. It seems likely that, even if the Scots vote No, the independence referendum will accelerate the breakup of the United Kingdom. A serious clash between government and the senior judges over the extent of the courts’ powers of judicial review seems increasingly likely. The constitutional position of the civil service is being challenged by the current government in a way which would have been unthinkable a generation ago. Government ministers are increasingly bold in asserting their democratic mandate – or rather an over-representation of it – to trump all opposition. All of this is taking place against a background of the general breakdown of public confidence in the political elite. Not so long ago, Britain was widely admired across much of the world as a model of strong constitutional democracy. It is hard to believe that is the case today.”