Britain’s democracy is a mess, made worse by New Labour’s series of piecemeal modernisations, or ‘reforms’, as ministers sought to achieve the semblance of democratic renewal while protecting the essence of the ancien regime. Stuart Wilks Heeg, who has just overseen a major audit of our democratic institutions and values for Democratic Audit, concludes that the UK’s constitutional arrangements are “increasingly unstable”, as public faith in MPs and democratic institutions decays, political inequality widens and corporate interests and wealthy individuals establish a new hegemony.
The three-year study into the state of democracy in the UK draws on a wide body of research to assess whether the British political system has become more, or less, democratic since the last audit, Democracy under Blair, ten years ago, and further back, audits in 1996 and 1999 (see below for details). So in total, Democratic Audit, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, has provided us with a unique – and much praised – survey of our democracy over a quarter of a century.
What concerns me most is the power of corporate interests over public policy in the UK, identified and spelled out in empirical detail in David Beetham’s paper, Unelected Oligarchy, and now in this audit. One manifestation of this undesirable power is the conduct of the banks, which still seem to be out of control, even after the bailouts. Of course, corporate power and influence is a global phenomenon, but the UK seems to be particularly susceptible to corporate lobbying and influence, under New Labour and more so now under the coalition government. There is a strong comparative element in the 2012 audit, revealing a widening gap between the UK and other European democracies in areas as diverse as corporate power, the protection of human rights, the proportionality of election results, and the promotion of media freedom. The graph below, from the audit, points to corporate power as a particularly British problem.
In total, the audit identifies more than 150 specific concerns about the quality of democracy in the UK, half of which are both “serious and long-standing”. But the audit also draws attention to some 60 issues not identified in previous audits or which are genuinely “new”. Stuart Wilks Heeg argues that these emerging concerns point to the one worrying development in British politics which is by no means common to other established democracies: the increasingly unstable nature of the UK constitution.
The audit does also identify 74 specific areas of improvement in UK democracy over the last decade, but notes that many reforms have proved double-edged: for example, devolution has led to identifiable democratic improvements for the 16 per cent of the British population who live in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, but the “hole” in the settlement identified in previous audits – the absence of devolution in England – inspires a growing English backlash, while demands for greater autonomy dominate Scottish politics and are awakening in Wales.
At the centre of the “instability”, Wilks Heeg argues, is a growing disagreement over constitutional basics in the UK. This is in part a legacy of New Labour’s unwillingness, under Blair and then Brown, to tackle both the core British constitutional doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty which, despite its name, gives the executive more or less unchecked power over Parliament; and the disproportional electoral system that has historically preserved the two party hegemony and underpinned Blair’s unearned electoral successes. In Labour lore, the Westminster model - a majoritarian, centralised political system dominated by a powerful executive – was “a battering ram for [socialist] change”. For the two quintessentially Labourist men it could at least provide a basis for power and a rather different change agenda.
The audit analysis reckons that the tensions with devolution noted above and other manifestations of political instability arise from the way our constitutional and political system has evolved in response to piecemeal reform over the last two decades. In its view, the UK has become an unstable hybrid of two contrasting democratic traditions: the Westminster model and the consensual de-centralised systems of western and Nordic Europe. The Westminster model has been undermined in recent decades by a combination of New Labour's constitutional reforms and changes in voting behaviour which have challenged the two-party system. In this analysis devolution is of particular significance. The UK's asymmetric federalism is simultaneously centralising (for England) and decentralising (for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). Meanwhile, while the coalition government struggles to adapt to continental coalition politics, the government and politics of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland come to resemble the democratic forms more typical of the rest of Europe. Blair and Brown tried to have it both ways with their changes and policies – adopting and advocating a measure of consensual, open and rights-based form of government without resolving the contradictions that it represented with the majoritarian realities of Westminster rule.
Now, as Wilks Heeg argues, the evidence of growing dissatisfaction over constitutional basics is “everywhere”. Tory MPs believe that parliamentary sovereignty is being undermined by British membership of the EU and the challenge of the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights. House of Lords reform reflects a similar attachment to the idea of parliamentary sovereignty which for Tory MPs is really the sovereignty of the House of Commons. Thus they see a reformed Lords as a direct rival to the rightful primacy of the Commons, employing an electoral system that would give the Lib Dems a permanently decisive role in the “other place”. (They don’t comprehend the argument that a reformed Lords in partnership with the Commons could strengthen Parliament’s power vis-a-vis the executive.) The basic differences in constitutional ideas of course embitter relations over all these issues between the Conservatives and their coalition partners who are closer to European ideas of de-centralising, sharing and rights-based politics.
It has also to be said, as the audit does, that the “flexible” unwritten constitution is untidy and not as clear as it should be; and that piecemeal reforms throw up significant constitutional issues that our politicians in all parties thus seek to resolve in their own interests. Take the role of the referendum. As the SNP government seeks to legitimise independence or greater autonomy from Westminster by way of a referendum, there is legal wrangling over who is responsible for organising an independence referendum, including the number of questions and their, or its, framing. Likewise, there is no agreement on whether this or that change of a constitutional nature should be subject to a referendum, let alone how “constitutional” changes should be defined or introduced. Important questions about the legitimacy of referendums in the first place are ducked.
The two decades of Democratic Audits point inexorably to the need for full and proper public discussion of the case for a written constitution that could deal with the “serious and long lasting”, previously unidentified, and “new” concerns that successive audits have expressed, and that could resolve the tensions that the current audit has highlighted. Such a conclusion was anathema when Charter 88 first raised it in 1988. Now it is common ground for most commentators on democracy in the UK. But there is equally common disparagement for any kind of profound debate of constitutional matters among our politicians and their media observers – just consider the contempt dished out over the “unnecessary” or “distracting”, or “second-order” proposal to make the second House of our Parliament more democratic. My overriding concern (supported in part by the graphs below) is that our political class’s casual uninterest in democratic values may be reflected among the people at large.
The first three major Audits of UK democracy were published in book format between 1996 and 2003, as follows:
- Francesca Klug, Keir Starmer and Stuart Weir (1996) The Three Pillars of Liberty: Political Rights and Freedoms in the United Kingdom, London: Routledge.
- Stuart Weir and David Beetham (1999) Political Power and Democratic Control in Britain, London: Routledge.
- David Beetham, Iain Byrne, Pauline Ngan and Stuart Weir (2003) Democracy under Blair: A Democratic Audit of the United Kingdom, London: Politico's (second edition).