At the end of the year of three Conservative prime ministers leading a country in crisis, AC Grayling considers what the UK can do to free itself of the constitutional and political chaos it finds itself in

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Imagine the frustration of a teacher who teaches the same lesson over and over again and yet  the pupils never learn, indeed, they seem wilfully to refuse to learn, even though they are punished every time. The great British public are these pupils. 

They stand by mutely watching as a highly partisan political party in control of the levers of state power – having been given that control by less than a third of the electorate – changes the government at will, on its own say-so, in its own interests, not once but several times over. You would think the great British public would cry out, refusing to be treated so contemptuously as an irrelevance. But they do not.

2022 has seen not just three prime ministers but three whole governments, each formed by a Cabinet reshuffle and a major change of direction, following each internal party-appointment of a new occupant of Downing Street. This has happened with no election, no expression of a ‘will of the people’ – just the political party itself, deciding by itself on behalf of itself, everyone else having to go impotently along.

The farce of one-party state control enabled by what we are pleased to call ‘the constitution’ went so far in 2022 that the third of the year’s prime ministers was not voted for by anyone – not even members of his own political party – but simply appointed by a committee of grandees. The pretence of party democracy that had produced Prime Minister Liz Truss was abandoned so fast that few bothered to remark upon it. 

If people think it is just the post-2019 Conservative Party (an entity far different from the party of that name whose best and brightest were expelled for disagreeing with Brexit), which regards itself as entitled to treat the country at large as its private gym, they are mistaken. 

Look at Labour. Its party conference this year voted to commit itself to proportional representation at general elections, yet the leadership ignores it. A significant majority of both Labour members and voters are pro-EU but Starmer flies in their faces by doubling-down at every opportunity on maintaining the Conservative debacle of Brexit. 

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What this shows is that we have the worst of all worlds: rule by clique, and a clique with uncheckable power. It has the whipping system, the party machine, and the pretence of a manifesto, to keep the lobby-fodder members in line. The ‘will of the people’ is nowhere to be seen in this – it is less a cosmetic gesture than a flaking line of mascara on a much-winked eye.

Idealised conceptions of democracy speak of ‘government by the people’ as the source of authority and legitimacy in a state. On this view, government is the servant of the people and is constituted to enact the people’s will and to protect and enhance its collective interests. Note that phrase: the collective interests ‘of the people’, all the people, not just some of them, not just those who voted for the governing party, not just its donors, not just the media owners whose newspapers or broadcast channels support it. 

But the UK system is far from this idealised conception. Two major problems infect it.

The first is that the doctrine of the ‘sovereignty of Parliament’ is inconsistent with the concept of ‘the will of the people’, and in fact ‘the will of the people’ has very little to do with anything in the UK constitution, though the incremental extensions of the franchise that occurred between 1832 (the ‘Great Reform Act’) and 1969 (lowering the voting age to 18) were based on the democratic-seeming idea of recruiting the ‘consent’ of the people for whichever administration could command a majority in Parliament. 

Parliament’s sovereignty was established in the settlement of 1688, ‘Parliament’ being the Crown, the Lords Spiritual and Temporal and the Commons all together assembled; and it governed, as John Locke then said, with the ‘consent’ of the people – meaning not that the people voted for any of the three entities, but that they did not rise against it. 

With the increasing power of the commercial classes, the sovereignty of the whole Parliament drained increasingly into the last of its three constituents, the Commons, which used its increasing strength to diminish the power of the other two into effective nullity. That is how things now stand: a majority in the House of Commons has total and unbridled power in the state and there are no constitutional limits upon that power – nothing that the Crown, Lords, law courts or people, can do about whatever the Commons decides to do.

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This fact, and its unappetising implications, prompted Leslie Stephen (Virginia Woolf’s father) to point out in his Science of Ethics (1882) that “if Parliament decided that all blue-eyed babies should be murdered, the preservation of blue-eyed babies would be illegal”. Of course, he did not think for a moment that Parliament would so decide – more than a decade before him John Stuart Mill had said that Parliament, despite its absolute powers, would always restrain itself from such actions because “MPs are gentlemen”.

Accordingly Stephen, in the same hopeful vein, added “but all legislators must go mad before they could pass such a law, and subjects be idiotic before they could submit to it”. Stephen wrote just 50 years before the Nazis came democratically to power in Germany with their own version of a blue-eyed babies law, demonstrating that there are madmen enough in our world – and it is a very long time indeed since there were many gentlemen in the House of Commons. 

And yet, as the restraints that once made the exercise of such absolute power unthinkable have withered away, nothing has changed in the constitution of the state that defines and limits that power so that maddened legislators and arguably idiotic subjects (think Brexit, in which trade and the economy, and the British public’s EU citizens’ rights such as freedom of movement, became the blue-eyed babies de nos jours) could have their way. 

The second problem is one identified and warned against by James Madison in Federalist paper No 10 (published in Philadelphia’s Daily Advertiser on 22 November 1787): factionalism, by which he meant party politics – the setting up of political parties to serve specific interests or groups or sections of the community – business, labour, the military, the rich or the poor.

On the grounds that factionalisation of politics cannot be prevented, since you would have either to deny liberty of association or educate every voter into a paragon of well-informed good sense – the first undesirable and the second impossible – he argued that there have to be constitutional arrangements to mitigate its worst excesses. His remedy was to ensure as wide a spread of interests in the legislature as possible – such as is achieved through proportional systems of representation. 

In first-past-the-post voting systems, factionalism quickly produces two-party politics, with each party vying to get exclusive control of the levers of power to protect and enhance the interests of its supporters. In the US this has, as is inevitable, degenerated into the bitter partisanship amounting almost to civil war between Republicans and Democrats. In the UK, matters are even worse, because whichever party captures Parliament thereby commands the absolute sovereignty it represents.

This means that, between elections, the UK is effectively a one-party state. Worse still, the vagaries of FPTP voting systems hand this absolute power to the ‘winning’ party on a minority vote – the Johnson Conservatives secured an 80-seat overall majority in the Commons in December 2019 on 43% of votes cast which means, given the turnout, a mere 29% of the electorate. 

The Conservative Party treats government, and therefore the country, as its fiefdom – appointing prime ministers and changing policy direction as if arranging the furniture in its own drawing room with complete indifference to anything or anyone else (except, when they go too far, the markets). But Labour’s leadership behaves likewise with regard to the party’s members and supporters, and it is likely to behave likewise when, or if, it gets into government. This is why both Labour and the Conservatives dislike the idea of proportional representation, which would likely produce hung Parliaments and therefore serious restraints on what government can do on party-political lines. 

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This comes down to the difference between service and rule: between politicians thinking that government exists to serve the interests of the people; and politicians thinking that, when in government, they rule the people. The latter is a source of arrogance and indifference, of partisan policy, of the situation – extraordinary, when you think of it – in which the two parties that alone have a chance of getting their hands on power offer voters a ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ menu (the ‘manifesto’) of what the party leadership itself decides what it wants (no matter what anyone else wants).

This explains the extraordinary position of Starmer dictating what party policy will be despite the avowed and public will of members and voters on key issues such as voting reform, public sector pay and the EU. 

The first step in reforming the dysfunctional and outdated constitutional arrangements of the UK is electoral reform. Only when there is a genuinely representative Parliament will the next steps of reform and renewal be possible. Until then, the country is log-jammed in a system in which the majority of votes cast at elections are not represented in Parliament, and government rules without restraint.

Just contemplate the unholy fact that 57% of votes cast in 2019 were for parties other than the Conservative Party – and yet the Conservative Party has changed prime ministers three times and, with them, governments and government policy (and done ruinous things such as the mismanaged Brexit deal of Johnson and Frost to crashing the economy under Truss and Kwarteng), without any possibility of restraint or control.

Proportional representation would usually mean a hung Parliament from which consensus government could be formed – duly chastened by having to achieve its measures on a case-by-case basis, persuading Parliament on the merits each time, not simply whipping bills through legislation by means of a lobby-fodder majority.

The Theresa May Government faced a hung Parliament between the elections of 2017 and 2019 and provides an excellent case in point – every item was debated on the floor of the Commons, nothing passed without agreement of a majority that had to be won on the day, there being no automatic majority of MPs on hand to do the executive’s will. 

While the UK was in the EU, the rottenness of the constitutional floorboards under our feet did not seem to matter much. The structure of state was held up by the more rational economic and policy frameworks of a mighty edifice around it. Now, naked to view, our constitutional arrangements show themselves for what they are: a political party can treat the entire country as its personal property while it has the House of Commons in its grip. 

If there is one good thing about the mess the UK has made of itself in these past few years, it is that it has exposed just how urgent the need for reform is.

AC Grayling is a philosopher, Master of the New College of the Humanities, and Supernumerary Fellow of St Anne’s College at Oxford University

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