The UK’s political system currently resembles an unelected autocracy rather than a truly representative democracy, writes former diplomat Alexandra Hall Hall

I feel a sense of utter helplessness and despair regarding the current political and economic situation in the UK. Amid all of the drama of recent weeks – the departure of Boris Johnson, the arrival of Prime Minister Liz Truss, the death of the Queen, the accession of King Charles III, and now the financial chaos unleashed by new Chancellor’s mini budget, one thought keeps going through my head: we didn’t vote for this.

In the Foreign Office, we used to assess the quality of democracy in other countries not just by whether they held elections or not. Many countries possess this most basic component of democracy and yet are inherently undemocratic in nature, because the key levers of power are, in practice, controlled by one particular political faction or elite. 

Instead, we would look at the broader picture. To what extent are elections genuinely free and fair, and representative of the population as a whole? To what extent do checks and balances exist to guard against executive overreach – such as an effective second chamber, a free press, independent judiciary or active civil society? To what extent does the country respect broader democratic rights – such as freedom of information, expression and association, the right to form political parties or trade unions, or the equality and inclusivity of minority groups? 

This Government likes to claim that it is a champion of freedom and democracy – two words Liz Truss uses a lot in her speeches. And yet, it is increasingly behaving more like an unelected autocracy than a truly representative democracy.

In less than one week in early September, the UK acquired both a new head of state and a new head of government, without any input or say by the wider public. 

Upon the Queen’s death, King Charles automatically became the new monarch. The accession council to ratify that process was a mere formality. The decision to broadcast the ceremony on television for the first time did not make it any more democratic. 

The appointment of Liz Truss as the UK’s new Prime Minister was equally undemocratic and, in some ways, even less transparent. 

There was little transparency in the process of ousting Boris Johnson, via privately submitted letters of no confidence to the secretive 1922 Committee, which supervises Conservative Party leadership contests. 

There was little transparency in the rounds of backroom bargaining and balloting of Conservative MPs to narrow the leadership contenders down to two finalists.

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There was little transparency or democracy in the fact that only card-carrying members of the Conservative Party – a deeply unrepresentative group of the UK populace as a whole, representing less than 0.1% of the electorate and disproportionately white, male and older – were allowed to vote to decide who became the new leader and thus Prime Minister. 

Now Truss, the unelected head of the UK Government, has been able to institute the most radical set of economic reforms in recent history – despite having no explicit electoral mandate for this whatsoever.

Her reforms were not in the Conservative Party Manifesto, on which this Government was elected in 2019. Her Chancellor’s plans did not involve any vote of approval in the House of Commons – they were introduced without any debate or independent assessment of their impact, as the Office of Budget Responsibility was explicitly prevented from producing such an analysis.  

As the disastrous results roil the economy, the British public have no direct way to overturn them. 

The UK’s head of state, King Charles, cannot rein in the Government because, as an unelected monarch, his duty is to support the government of the day. 

The UK’s upper chamber, the House of Lords, cannot force a change of track by the Government because it is also an unelected body. It can ask questions and delay legislation but, ultimately, it has to defer to the elected House of Commons. Yet, the Commons has no say either, because the Government’s reforms have not required any legislation. The Opposition has not even been able to achieve a recall of Parliament to debate the current economic crisis. 

In theory, MPs could compel the Prime Minister to backtrack, by threatening a vote of no confidence. But, for this to succeed, a large number of Conservative MPs would need to vote against their own Government. Though many are reportedly unhappy about the Government’s trajectory, they are in practice unlikely to want to bring it down, lest it forces a general election in which, based on current polling, many would probably lose their seats. 

Nor can unhappy Tory MPs try to compel a change of Prime Minister through initiating another leadership contest because, under the current party rules, the new incumbent is safe from challenge for a year. If enough MPs become appalled by Truss’ leadership, they could insist upon a change in the rules – but they will know that it will stretch public tolerance to the limit to have yet another leadership competition within such a short space of time, let alone one which would again allow the wider electorate no say. 

A general election remains entirely in the gift of the governing party, which is hardly likely to go for one, given the risk of electoral wipeout. A public petition currently being circulated to demand an election does not have the ability to force one, even if millions of voters sign it. 

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Meanwhile, the Civil Service cannot act as a guardrail against executive overreach. Despite the fact that numerous Conservative critics have railed against it for allegedly ‘thwarting’ Government policy, in practice it is allowed only to offer its advice on policy and then implement it. Those who do dare to ‘speak truth to power’ risk losing their jobs – as exemplified by the sacking of Treasury Permanent Under Secretary, Tom Scholar, within days of the new Government taking office. 

Likewise, the judiciary cannot hold the Government to account for its mini budget as it did not break any laws. 

Though in theory we have a robust free press, in practice, much of the media is also failing in its duty to hold the Government to account. Some parts of the media are deeply compromised by being too closely associated with those in power. Newspaper owners and editors are rewarded with peerages for their ‘loyalty’ to the government of the day. Journalists are seduced with offers of special access, or revolve in and out of government themselves as special advisors. Critics of the government are shut out.  Other parts of the media, such as the BBC or Channel 4, are dependent on government for their funding or licenses to operate. 

Truss’ actions take the UK further down the same undemocratic path as her predecessor, Boris Johnson, who wrenched the UK out of the EU on the very hardest of terms, without any explicit mandate to do so, and against the will of a majority of voters in Scotland and Northern Ireland.  

His claim that he was enacting “the will of the people” contained deeply sinister authoritarian overtones, not least when you consider that under the UK’s first past the post voting system, his party won with less than 50% of the overall votes cast.  

Whether you agreed with them or not, the lockdowns Johnson’s Government imposed during the pandemic also represented an extraordinary intrusion of executive power over individual liberty. 

And, as has been well-documented, Johnson used his time in office to erode the few checks and balances on the executive which do exist within our system. His Government made unprecedentedly extensive use of so-called ‘Henry VIII powers’ – delegated legislation that allows ministers to amend or repeal primary legislation without having to create a new Act of Parliament that MPs must debate and vote on. Legislation was passed to limit rights of public protest; to circumscribe the powers of judicial review; and to increase government control over the Electoral Commission.

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Johnson also stretched the boundaries of our unwritten constitution. He unlawfully prorogued Parliament to try to evade scrutiny of his Brexit strategy. He tried to change the rules governing the behaviour of MPs in Parliament to protect political allies such as Owen Paterson. He nominated political cronies and party donors to the House of Lords. 

On top of unleashing economic turmoil, Truss has reaffirmed her determination to pass legislation which would unilaterally breach the terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol, unless the EU agrees to renegotiate it on her terms. This is not just unlawful, but also fundamentally undemocratic, given that a majority of voters in Northern Ireland would prefer to keep the Protocol in place.  

Truss has declared that she has no need for an independent ethics advisor. She has also suggested that she would like to protect Boris Johnson from scrutiny by the parliamentary privileges committee over his actions during ‘Partygate’. 

She has arrogantly dismissed critics of her economic strategy as out-of-touch or ill-informed. She is claiming, despite all evidence to the contrary, that the UK’s situation is no worse than that of other developed countries, and that the problems stem mainly from the war in Ukraine and the Coronavirus pandemic – rather than her own Government’s reckless actions. 

The famous joke in Soviet times was that there was ‘no truth in Pravda, and no news in Izvestia‘. I fear Britain is turning into a democracy where there is no longer much democracy. 

Alexandra Hall Hall is a former British diplomat with more than 30 years experience, with postings in Bangkok, Washington, Delhi, Bogota and Tbilisi. She resigned from the Foreign Office in December 2019 because she felt unable to represent the Government’s position on Brexit with integrity


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