A very English democracy

In Democracy

We are blessed, in our democracy, with the Mother of Parliaments. We have a two-party system designed to allow carefully controlled opposition to the monarch's government while avoiding accusations of treason. We have a bicameral legislature that gives the landed gentry, and the Church, (the Lords Temporal and Spiritual), a measure of control over 'trade', represented in the Commons. And we have a system of elections that selects the members of the Commons to ensure that the Commons is representative.

What this gives us is a representative democracy. Voters gather to select a representative for their constituency, based on each voter's impression of the various candidates as having sensible ideas and a sound approach. The chosen representative then appears in Parliament and takes part in debates and so on with no further reference back to the people of their constituency. The principle behind this being that a Member of Parliament should not be pre-judging issues and should, instead, approach each matter with an independent mind. Up to a point. What we actually have is a constitutional monarchy, where Parliament, originally constituted from the great and the good, is seen as a brake on the power of the monarchy, and, eventually, an entrenchment of that power amongst those that mattered.

Well, a lot of things have changed in the last 150 years or so. The franchise has been extended. No longer do we have just landowners voting from among their own, we now have workers, women and, with the lowering of the voting age, young adults, able to vote and influence the choice of Member of Parliament. This has lead to a much wider range of issues and interests that need to be represented, and a feeling that the lack of input between flurries of voting does not quite do the job. At the same time, the Lords has changed, from being peopled by Peers of the Realm (any or all of them, with no limit) who distantly represent the noblemen who created Magna Carter, to being a collection of people appointed by the government, who are, in effect, a subsection of the Commons. The Church is still represented, though. At the same time, the government has reduced the ability of the Lords to seriously disagree with the Commons, to the extent that there have been threats to disband the Lords altogether if a particular disagreement continues too long. This is not to say that the Upper House is not useful, but it's role is tinged with the issues of Parliament rather than those of the citizens. Meanwhile, the Monarch still looms, in the guise of complex linkages of ancient powers that include, it turns out, the ability to shut down Parliament.

The idea of a political party is basic to our method of government. This partly comes out of the original idea of the Loyal Opposition. There are only two groups, for, or against. The groups changed shape from time to time, changed who they nominally represented, but the idea of a group of people who more or less agreed on certain things, probably because they had similar backgrounds, was, and is, seen to be useful simply because a group has more power than an individual. Because of the way the franchise has expanded we now have more groups forming, each one under a general, often ideological, heading that will attract enough voters from those who do not agree with any of the competing ideologies.

There are parts that are good, but there is still that general lack of interest in voting that pervades elections; a feeling that we can't really trust our side, but the other lot are even worse, or even a feeling that it really doesn't matter who gets in. The Brexit referendum allowed that feeling of lack of representation to come to the fore, but there have been more or less low level rumblings well before that.

Behind the scenes another set of changes has been unfolding1. The idea has come about that government, including the civil service, is not capable of managing everything it should be managing. Partly because the motivations are wrong, and partly because Members of Parliament, and civil servants, do not necessarily have the required expertise. Business understands what business needs (and business is central to the well-being of the country); economists understand how money works; and markets are the best way to manage all the interactions anyway. As a result the civil service has been significantly reduced, and the role of government is outsourced to the Bank of England, to consultants, and to the market. This has happened in parallel with an increasing view that politics is a job. Someone who wishes to become a politician can go to university for a PPE degree, follow up with a holding job in marketing or consultancy where contacts can be made, and, sooner rather than later, be offered an opportunity to stand for election. The actual party may not be so important, the job is everything. So we end up with a significant body of MPs who have a shared view of what is important for the country, economic growth, for example, have a shared view of how to achieve whatever it is, the market, and whose primary focus is on keeping the job. Thus, as soon as one election is over the planning and canvassing start on the next one.

Since we are always in election mode, we have no room for manoeuvre. The Party must always be right. The others must always be wrong. Even if the UN visit and tell us how bad austerity has been the first response appears to be to complain to the UN about political bias2.

The various inconsistencies, the public control of discussion, and the generally confrontational approach may be seen as simply part of the way the government is constrained and prevented from overreacting to every public outcry. That's OK, as far as it goes. There must be some grit in the mechanism. But there is still an underlying worry that a system initially developed, and matured over centuries, for keeping kings in check, may not have recognised the new environment and, in the end, may not be appropriate for the wider range of interests that have gained a voice since Magna Carter. We can worry about whether or not the current system does actually represent people (assuming that is what we want); we can worry about things like the separation of powers, and the outsourcing of technical matters to non-governmental institutions; and we can worry about how the constitutional monarchy business impacts both the current system and any changes we might want to make.

My own view is that we could do with a system that is both genuinely representative and built on discussion rather than confrontation. In what follows I shall pick my way through what appear to be the key issues and clarify one or two approaches that could be useful.

  1. Much of what follows is fairly well established, but these two are useful: Peter Mair, 2013, Ruling the Void, Verso, ISBN 978-1-84467-324-7, and, Peter Oborne, 2007, The Triumph of the Political Class, Simon & Schuster, ISBN 978-0-7432-9527-7 

  2. Robert Booth, 2019, Amber Rudd to lodge complaint over UN's austerity report, from the Guardian Newspaper 29 May 2019 Downloaded 14 June 2019.