Risking Our Democracy
Former diplomat Alexandra Hall Hall argues that the time has come for serious discussions about reforming Britain’s political structures
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A new Commission on Political Power was launched in the UK last month to review the state of our democracy and make recommendations on how it might be strengthened. Convened by Baroness Frances d’Souza and Frances Crook, the organisation includes a range of politicians from across the political divide, academics, journalists, analysts and commentators, including myself.
There is always a risk when such a body is convened that critics will argue that we are just a bunch of ‘sore losers’ who don’t like the current Government or its policies. Having allegedly failed to see our preferred politicians or policies gain favour with the electorate, we are now just claiming it is because ‘the system is faulty’ or because ‘voters are deluded’, and are looking for ways to change it more to our liking.
This objection fails on its face, because the Commission includes politicians from both the left and the right, including from the governing Conservative Party.
But, while I can’t claim to speak for its other members, I certainly acknowledge that I am not a fan of Boris Johnson’s administration. I had such grave concerns about the way Brexit was implemented that I resigned from my role at the Foreign Office.
I never actually publicly challenged either the legitimacy or the outcome of the 2016 EU Referendum, or the UK’s right to leave the EU. What I did challenge was the dishonest and, in my view, undemocratic way in which Brexit was delivered – including the Government’s wilful misrepresentation of the implications, the unfounded claim that it had a mandate for the very hardest form of Brexit, its attempts to close down legitimate scrutiny of its approach, and its abusive slandering of Brexit opponents as ‘enemies of the people’.
I regard all of these as examples of how the guardrails of our democracy are being eroded – and why there is a need for reform now, to prevent future governments from being similarly able to abuse their powers.
Nevertheless, I accept that, given my history, my own impartiality might be called into account. It’s important to check our own biases.
I believe a good way to do this is by comparing the state of our democracy with that of other countries. In particular, I can draw from my own direct experience as a diplomat to review what our own governments have said or done about alleged flaws in other countries’ systems, and then consider if the same criticism might be applied to the UK.
Head of State
In the UK, the Head of State is the Queen, whose role has largely become ceremonial, yet in whose name the government still possesses many prerogative powers.
In many other countries, the Head of State acts as a kind of bulwark against executive overreach or constitutional abuse. There have been times when the UK has actively encouraged, or praised, a foreign Head of State for intervening in such a way. When I was the British Ambassador to Georgia, acting in the name of the UK government, I sometimes lobbied its Head of State to do so.
But in our system, the Queen cannot do that – as dramatically proved when she had no option but to approve Boris Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament in September 2019, a move later ruled unlawful by the UK’s Supreme Court.
Given that the Queen has no inherent elected legitimacy of her own, there would have been a justifiable outcry if she had sought to prevent the prorogation. Yet, given that the prorogation was in fact deemed to be unlawful, this event also exposed the lack of constitutional utility of the monarch’s current role.
Critics will say that, since the Supreme Court did intervene to overturn the prorogation, this shows that Britain does still have a strong check against executive overreach, via the judiciary. Yet, as we do not have a written constitution, the courts can only make rulings based on current laws – which the government can seek to rewrite at any time.
Under our current system, Parliament is sovereign. Indeed, taking full advantage of these powers, the Government is currently proposing legislation to restrict the use of judicial review, in what senior Conservative MP David Davis critiqued last year as “an obvious attempt to avoid accountability”.
This is despite the fact that British governments regularly raise concerns about the strength and independence of the judiciary in other countries.
Judicial independence was, for example, a regular topic of discussion during human rights dialogues I participated in as head of the Foreign Office’s Human Rights Department from 2004 to 2006 with Iran, Russia and China. We also used to criticise threats and intemperate language towards judges overseas, though some members of the Conservatives appear to have no such qualms attacking British judges who make rulings they dislike.
Houses of Parliament
In some countries, the second chamber of the legislature is another way to counter-balance the executive. But, in those countries, its legitimacy derives from the fact that it is also an elected body – unlike our House of Lords, which is comprised purely of hereditary or nominated peers, plus a few ex officio members of the clergy.
In view of its limited legitimacy, the House of Lords can scrutinise, amend and delay legislation, but it cannot ultimately override the votes of the House of Commons.
Moreover, the process of nominating peers has been exposed under this Government to be widely open to abuse – with peerages up for sale to the largest donors to the Conservative Party, or other cronies, such as friendly media or business barons. This is a system of political patronage which in other countries we might label ‘corruption’.
Previous British governments have indeed condemned similar such political cronyism or stacking of chambers in other countries. In the country of my first posting, Thailand, we regularly criticised efforts by the authorities to rewrite the constitution after military coups in order to ensure a disproportionate role for unelected military officials in their upper house. More recently, British ministers criticised the regime in Myanmar for rigging its constitution in favour of the military.
But even our elected chamber, the House of Commons, has limited ability to check our executive, since by definition, under our parliamentary system, the government has an in-built majority in the House.
It is true that the Commons can try to bring down a government through a vote of no confidence – but this is only likely to succeed when members of the prime minister’s own party have turned against their leader. It is therefore not truly in the gift of the opposition, let alone the electorate, but in the hands of the members of the ruling party, who may have their own reasons for wanting to avoid an election.
A vote of no confidence does not actually automatically trigger a new election, but sometimes only a change of leader – which, again, is something entirely in the hands of the ruling political party. While the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act created its own problems, the absence of fixed terms also gives the incumbent government an advantage in being able to call an election early, if the timing seems opportune.
This problem of an over-powerful executive is exacerbated by our ‘first past the post’ electoral system, which has resulted in successive governments since World War Two achieving disproportionately large majorities in the House of Commons, despite never winning a majority of the popular vote.
Neither of our two main political parties has wanted to change this system, as it works to their benefit, even as it crowds out many people whose votes for third parties rarely make a difference.
But this has not stopped British governments from recommending that some other countries should consider adopting proportional systems as a way to ensure ‘fairer’ electoral outcomes. This was an issue while I was in Georgia. A case of do as I say, not as I do?
Devolving more powers to state or local authorities, as is the case in many federal systems, could provide greater democratic balance – and is a model we have sometimes commended to other countries with significant regional differences or diverse populations.
When I was in Bogota, for instance, we used to lobby the government to be more inclusive and sensitive to the needs of its indigenous communities and Afro-Colombians, who were under-represented in Government.
By contrast, the UK system is highly centralised, with only limited powers granted to most local authorities. They are also very reliant on the Treasury for funding, which is often allocated with restrictive mandates attached.
In the 2019 General Election, only six Conservative MPs and one Labour MP won seats in Scotland. Ironically, both parties would have done meaningfully better under a proportional electoral system. The Conservatives won more seats in Wales, but were still outpaced by Labour. At present, the UK government could really be more accurately described as a largely English one.
Various devolution initiatives have at least resulted in the creation of the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly of Wales, and the Northern Ireland Assembly. Yet Brexit was driven through against the wishes of the majority of voters in Scotland and Northern Ireland. The UK Government retains the power to dissolve the Northern Ireland Assembly and take over administration of the province – a power it used most recently in 2017. The UK Government also remains opposed to letting the Scottish hold another independence referendum in the near future, despite the Scottish National Party holding a clear majority of seats in its Parliament.
Despite this, Britain has supported aspirations for self-determination in other parts of the world – even in India, where successive UK governments have trodden extremely carefully given Britain’s colonial legacy. Taking into account the deep sensitivities over Kashmir, UK ministers have called on India to take into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people in seeking a lasting political resolution to the dispute with Pakistan. In a debate as recently as September 2021, MPs from both sides of the House expressed concern over the decision by Narendra Modi’s Government to revoke the special status of Kashmir in 2019 and called for India to recognise Kashmir’s right to self-determination.
There are numerous other examples of where the UK’s democracy is vulnerable by comparison with that of other developed nations.
We have no method of scrutiny, for instance, to determine the aptitude and fitness of nominated Cabinet ministers for their office – unlike in the US where Cabinet nominees have to undergo a rigorous confirmation process in the Senate. Even in the EU, lambasted by some Brexit supporters for its alleged democratic deficit, there is now a process for EU commissioners to be approved by the European Parliament.
Cabinet membership in the UK seems to be as much about personal loyalty to the Prime Minister – or perhaps a method of keeping potentially difficult backbenchers onside – as it is about the knowledge and experience of the minister for the job. If there is no suitable MP available for a particular position, the government can simply confer a peerage on an associate.
Another weakness is the lack of any mechanism for upholding the Ministerial Code. As has been graphically revealed by the ‘Partygate’ scandal, the code is non-binding; the advisor on ministerial standards is nominated by the prime minister; and only the prime minister gets to decide whether to implement the advisor’s recommendations, or to censure ministers found to be in breach of the code.
This brings us to the problem of the enormous power granted to the prime minister and his government, acting in the name of the crown, to make appointments to various public watchdogs and quangos – including those overseeing important public services and the media. It is all too easy to imagine the temptation to appoint sympathisers to these important positions, who might then in turn be inclined to be lenient towards the government which appointed them.
While we have a strong tradition of freedom of expression, the ownership of parts of the media by government cronies can mute its criticisms of government policy – as can the government’s ability to grant privileged access to favoured journalists and media outlets. Boris Johnson’s Government famously boycotted Radio 4’s flagship Today programme, as well as Channel 4 News, on the alleged grounds of bias. It has also introduced legislation to circumscribe some rights of public protest.
No system is perfect and every democracy has its flaws. Each system is also unique to its country’s own traditions, culture and history. There is no perfect blueprint which can be applied. What works in one country may not work in another. The UK’s system has evolved over time, and despite its many quirks and anomalies, has generally seemed to work well enough, and commanded the consent of voters.
We have avoided the messy processes of coalition-building and fragile governments which have bedevilled governance in some of our European neighbours. We have avoided the never-ending round of elections which consume vast amounts of time and money in America, as well as its worst excesses of gerrymandering and influence buying. We have been blessed with a Head of State for the past 70 years who has been meticulous in her observance of the constitutional niceties.
I am not contending that we have become a full-blown autocracy or that there are not some good aspects of our existing system. However, we cannot afford to be complacent.
Given the limitations on our Head of State and second chamber, the skewed nature of our electoral system, the in-built majority which the government enjoys in Parliament and its ability to rewrite laws at will, our system relies heavily upon the government adhering to certain unwritten rules and conventions, and effectively restraining itself.
The trends in this regard in recent years are not encouraging. Whether it was Tony Blair’s overreach and misuse of intelligence in the Iraq War, or Johnson’s misuse of information and overreach in delivering Brexit, it has become evident that relying on self-restraint is no longer enough.
One of the most infuriating arguments used by Chinese diplomats during our human rights dialogues was to dismiss the UK’s concerns by saying that, just like Britain, they believed in the rule of law and were merely ‘applying the law’ to whatever human rights situation we mentioned. But the law is whatever the Chinese Government chooses it to be, interpreted by judges in its pocket. It was a classic gaslighting tactic.
I feel the same sense of gaslighting, when our current Government justifies its actions by saying that it is representing ‘the will of the people’, and demonises critics as out of touch, anti-democratic, elites. This is the dangerous rhetoric of demagogues.
Local elections can provide a bellwether indication of public opinion mid-term, which may encourage governments to course correct, if necessary. But under our current system, there is no sure-fire way to rein in an overreaching executive or to compel a change of course until the next election, by when it may have further corrupted the system to its advantage.
Perhaps we can continue to count on there always being enough decent politicians in Parliament to uphold standards. But looking at the trajectory of our politics in recent years, I have to ask: why take the chance? It is time to fortify our democracy and reduce the risk of further abuse before it is too late.
Hardeep Matharu, Editor of Byline Times, is an independent research consultant for the Commission on Political Power