(Photo: Hansard Society)
By Owen Buchan – Regular Contributor
In a BBC interview in 1976, Conservative Lord Hailsham described the UK as an ‘elective dictatorship’. Now, this claim was uttered under the backdrop of a minority Labour government that was able to keep legislating from 1974 to 1979. This government survived a vote of no confidence, the resignation of the PM and an economic crisis. So Hailsham’s claim was partisan, and more a reflection of his own frustration that a minority Labour government could keep functioning despite not having a majority of seats. Luckily for Hailsham, the Conservatives had the last laugh in 1979. Yet, others have heeded Hailsham’s words as a warning. He pointed out a very real issue at the heart of the UK political system, that the UK’s constitutional arrangements are vulnerable, that Parliament is often the subject of executive tyranny and dominance.
In political theory, it is often accepted that there are three branches of government. There is the executive which executes the law, the legislature who crates the law and the judiciary who upholds the laws. In most modern democracies, the idea is that these three branches of government are separate and hold each other to account through checks and balances to each other’s power. This separation of powers is very apparent in the USA for example. The Presidency is the executive, Congress is the legislature and the Supreme Court is the judiciary. These three branches interact constantly in the USA. One key example is the recent appointment of Amy Coney Barret to the U.S Supreme Court. The process starts when a position in the Supreme Court opens up. From here the President selects a candidate and the Senate, of the two houses in Congress, is left to assess and ultimately accept or reject the President’s nomination. This one example highlights how these separate branches of government have to interact in the US political system.
The UK political system, in contrast, does not entirely separate the three branches of government. Prior to 2009; all three branches were fused together. It was in 2009 that the UK Supreme Court opened, thus the judiciary is now completely separate and independent from the other branches of government in the UK. Therefore, the two other branches of government in the UK are still fused together. What occurs under the UK constitution is that the executive is drawn from the legislature. Therefore, there is a high degree of interaction between these two branches which is good for accountability and scrutiny, but what can occur in reality is that the UK executive, the Government, tends to dominate the legislature, the House of Commons and Lords.
In a general election, there are 650 constituencies that correspond to the 650 seats in the House of Commons. The largest party, currently the Conservatives with 365 seats, forms the government and their leader becomes the PM. To actually form a Government, the PM chooses a cabinet and various Junior Ministers that will help run departments; these all being MP’s from the Conservative Party. This accounts for about 100 or so Conservative MP’s. The other Conservative MP’s, who are not in the government, are often referred to as “backbenchers” because they literally sit on the back benches in the Commons. Yet when it comes to a debate or vote in the Commons, all MP’s, regardless of whether they are in the government or not take a seat and represent one vote. Thus, to the right of the speaker, you currently have the Conservatives government MPs and Conservative Party backbenchers and to the left all the MP’s from the other parties like Labour, the SNP or Green etc.
Executive dominance comes when passing legislation. So, when the Government put forward a Bill, not only will the government vote in favour of the bill but so will MP’s of the governing party. So due to pure numerical advantage, the Government will essentially always pass the laws they want and there is no way to stop them. Take the recent example of the controversial Internal Markets Bill. Despite the many voices of criticism levied against the bill, with fears the UK is undermining international law, the bill still passed the vote. As long as most of the Conservative Party MP’s vote in favour of the bill; it will pass almost by default. Therefore, only in certain circumstances, like a revolt from his own party, will Boris Johnson lose a vote. Yet this seems increasingly unlikely with the party whip system.
This shows a clear point of contention between Parliament as a Legislature and the government as an Executive. The Government is meant to be acting in the will of the majority and Parliament, representing the entire country is meant to hold the government to account. Admittedly, denying Government legislation is only one way in which Parliament can hold the government to account, but it is the most powerful and important way. The current UK constitutional arrangement makes this very difficult under normal circumstances. Furthermore, Parliament as a body is increasingly unable to pass its own legislation or proposals without government support. Take the vote on free school meal extensions for the October half-term. This motion was proposed by the Labour Party, so in turn on behalf of Parliament as an institution. Yet the government refused to support the motion and thus it was not passed. So more often than not, we are left with a system where only the government can realistically legislate, and Parliament is left as a rubber stamp. Ultimately this is just how the Uk’s political system works.
So, what do we do? Do we even try to alter things? Well, recent history seems to trend towards some reform towards more parliamentary empowerment. One big area of parliamentary empowerment is over issues of war. Under the UK constitution, it is technically up to the Government to commit to military intervention due to their wielding of royal prerogative powers. What we have seen is that governments often bring issues of military intervention to Parliament as a signature of approval. The Iraq war vote, or more recently the vote on whether to bomb Syria, have shown successive governments willingness to somewhat empower Parliament. Yet we could argue that we can’t wait for governments to secede power periodically to Parliament. Reform would ultimately be very difficult to pass as no government would realistically relinquish power out of principle. Suggestions as to how we can fix this seem to be very rare.
Ultimately, Parliament is more often than not, controlled by the Government. This is just a fact of UK political reality. Yet is this even a problem? The government represents the will of the majority and will face judgement in the next general election anyway. Furthermore, this executive dominance means that things can actually get done, especially in times of crisis. Executive dominance is a double-edged sword, and any alternation to it would require a mass change to the very fundamental principle and workings of UK politics.
BBC News (2013) “Syria crisis: Cameron loses Commons vote on Syria action”. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-23892783
BBC News (2019) “Election Results 2019: Boris Johnson returns to power with big majority”. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election-2019-50765773
Croft, J (2020) “Internal market bill fuels anger within UK legal profession”. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/37c8d9ab-e0de-49ad-b3e8-4edf343adfb3
Murphy, s (2020) “Free school meals: the Tory MPs defending refusal to support campaign” Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/oct/25/free-school-meals-uk-marcus-rashford-conservative-mps-defend-ministers-refusal-to-u-turn
Taylor, R (2019) “We are still perilously close to Hailsham’s ‘elective dictatorship’ “. Available at: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/brexit/2019/09/30/we-are-closer-than-ever-to-hailshams-elective-dictatorship/
The editorial board of the FT (2020) “The US Supreme Court turns to the right”. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/36408045-5743-4621-a102-f7690b1b6994
UK Parlaiment (2020) “Opposition (The)”. Available at: https://www.parliament.uk/site-information/glossary/opposition-the/