Who's in charge

In Democracy

Once we have a legislature and a government we run into the interesting question of how medium and long term policy decisions are made, and, how the system reacts to situations that need immediate action. From our experience in representative democracies with majoritarian governments, such as the UK, we have become used to the idea that the government will decide policy and will also react to any threat or opportunity that arises, bringing the legislature along with it. There are, however, process that need to be observed to maintain some degree of predictability so that we are not overwhelmed by short term , knee-jerk, reactions to newspaper headlines. These processes can be reinforced and extended in a deliberative democracy. The overall policies are decided by a form of negotiation between government and legislature. As now, any new law would come with passages that define the areas that can be left for the administration of the law, the secondary legislation, and these might be as restrictive, or not, as the Interest Panel feels appropriate and as the Review Panel can accept. According to the provisions of the act, some secondary legislation can be implemented automatically, and some may require approval. Approval would perhaps go through a Review Panel as that seems the logical place in the law making process. Major policy changes can be raised by the government, of course, but they would need to go through the Agenda Council to be prioritised. And on top of these processes, we also have performance review panels to ensure that government is not overreaching itself.

So far so good. The new system has processes to keep government focused on governing within the legal context. This is not very far removed from our current system, except that the review process is deliberative, representative in a more democratic way, and free from political constraints. We run into trouble, though, when we come to foreign policy.

The UK has a history. It was, once upon a time, the most powerful nation on Earth, with an empire that extended over a high proportion of the globe. From its sheer size such an empire brings up many administrative issues, some of which can be resolved locally, while others should be referred back to the mother country. These referrals raise a problem for the civil servant back in London: should Parliament be involved? Well, it would appear not. The MPs represent their own constituencies and they were assumed to have little interest in, or knowledge of, the situation in some country thousands of miles away. It becomes so much quicker and simpler for the civil servant, or even the relevant Minister, to agree to send in the troops, or whatever, and have done with it. Whether these actions were good, bad or indifferent is not the point here. The result is a process, or set of attitudes, that bypass Parliament. Dunleavy1 calls this the dark state, not because it is nefarious, but simply because it avoids public scrutiny. He includes these aspects of largely foreign policy under the dark state:

  • The UK's nuclear capability.
  • Mechanisms and agreements to send troops to overseas conflicts.
  • Cold-war alliances that include the 'special relationship with the USA.
  • Membership of the 'five eyes' surveillance cartel.
  • An arms export industry that is central to the financial well-being of the country.

I'm not going into detail here. The point is that our current attempts to maintain our, by now rather outdated, position in the world are not subject to scrutiny and form a barrier to full democracy. All of these matters would need to be brought under scrutiny. To answer the question at the head of this piece, we cannot be sure who is in charge while these historical issues remain.

  1. Patrick Dunleavy, Alice Park and Ross Taylor, The UK's Changing Democracy: The 2018 Democratic Audit, 2019, LSE Press, https://press.lse.ac.uk/site/books/10.31389/book1/