In the wake of the Prime Minister’s recent resignation one UK opinion pollster asked voters which terms they most associated with their government. The resultant word cloud makes either grim or hilarious reading, depending on your point of view. ‘Shambles’ and ‘incompetent’ feature prominently as do a number of words that really shouldn’t be printed on this blog. This is because the UK of 2022 makes countries like the Italy of the early 90s seem like havens of political and economic stability. The UK government now has its 4th Chancellor in 4 months; it will soon appoint its 5th Prime Minister in 6 years. As frequently remarked upon, a fresh lettuce successfully outlasted Liz Truss. How did it come to this?
While the answer is complex, I want to make the case for a constitutional dimension to this question. In short, Britain’s political meltdown is also a constitutional meltdown – a sign of the increasing redundancy of a remarkably resilient and successful constitutional model that has seen the UK avoid the constant process of revolution and renewal that plagued other European states, at least in the 20th century. Even if one does not agree with the argument – one thing seems clear. The current state of the UK’s constitutional system is unsustainable and increasingly unable to support the primary purpose of government – to actually deliver policy.
What is this classical model? The UK’s constitutional system carries a number of key elements. At its centre is the sovereignty of Parliament and the notion that Parliament – in the absence of a written Constitution – can effectively both write the rules of political life and enforce them itself. Absent in the UK system is therefore the complex system of checks and balances found in other European democracies. In spite of its ruling in the two Miller judgments, the UK Supreme Court is no constitutional Court – it lacks a broad-based constitutional mandate to review legislation (beyond the Human Rights Act) and does not enjoy supremacy in interpreting the rules of UK political life over Parliament itself. Equally, while the UK carries devolved administrations – as the Supreme Court itself has made clear – the authority of these institutions is derived from Westminster and restricted to their ‘reserved’ powers. The departure of the UK from the EU, and its threatened abandonment of the ECHR system, further re-enforces Parliament’s untrammeled authority.
This authority and power is, however, tempered by two other factors. One is the party and voting system. One would hardly expect this to be a ‘restraint’ on power – first-past-the-post famously diminishes the power of small parties. It also, however, means that parties require a certain degree of size and broad-based support to have any chance of winning power. The Labour, Conservative (and earlier Liberal) parties therefore evolved as broad-based political movements with diverse voting blocks and constituencies (for Labour an alliance of Trade Unionists and metropolitan do-gooders; for the Conservatives, rural voters and the business class). This diversity of course tempered radical and outlandish programmes (like the now infamous ‘mini-budget’ that sunk the late Prime Minister). It also kept out of Parliament extreme political movements, starving them of the political oxygen to challenge the big beasts.
The second tempering factor is the range of unwritten and informal norms and practices known as the ‘un-written’ constitution. Even, therefore, if the executive was rarely checked by formal institutions, ‘decency’ in political life was ensured by unwritten rules that everybody respected. These ranged from the slightly quant (that MPs cannot call each other liars) to the foundational (that Ministers are directly accountable to Parliament and the Courts and cannot knowingly mis-lead them). In this sense, while Labour often lobs at the Conservatives the partisan accusation that its members belong in Eton College or the Carlton Club and not the real world, there is a real sense in which the norms of the ‘gentleman’s club’ underlie the whole system. We are to view participants in the political game as basically decent people, with deep social and cultural connections, who can be expected to act in the national interest. Via these two channels, the UK’s ‘elective dictatorship’ has been held in check for centuries.
The irony, however, is that the more powerful and untrammeled the UK Parliament has become the less able it seems to be able to actually exercise its authority. The current Conservative government carried a majority of over 80 – this has not prevented it, however, from being utterly unable to steer through its programme and develop broad-based consent for economic and social reforms. In the UK’s current constitutional settlement, it is actually the relatively powerless devolved administrations – fenced by legal acts limiting their powers, subject to stronger judicial review and based on proportional voting systems – that have proven themselves both more popular and more able to deliver long-term policy change. The current Scottish First Minister carries a positive approval rating and awaits her 5th UK counterpart, despite heading a party in power for 15 years. The Welsh FM carries an absolute majority in a proportional voting system designed to stop parties governing alone. The all-powerful Westminster Parliament seems lost and puny at a time when the devolved administrations (bar the sad exception of Northern Ireland) seem to gain in strength.
I would like to suggest that this is not entirely accidental. In simple terms, the constraints the devolved systems carry, far from being a barrier to effective government, actually help them to the avoid hubris and errors that plague Westminster. This argument must begin with the fact that the two great planks of the unwritten constitution seem to have withered away, starting with the ‘big broad tent’ parties. The difficulty of course with these parties is that – even if winning power across society as a whole requires compromise and carefully thought-out policies, the same logic does not apply within parties. Within a party, a group that has views reprehensible to society as a whole might well gather enough support to gain control within their respective group. They might in turn convince the members of that group that their view is a baseline of such importance to the party that it can no longer be questioned by any of its members. This is even more possible if the traditional cleavages demarcating the party systems – namely the distinction between left and right – are broken open by new cleavages (that allow otherwise minorities to capture new portions of the electorate).
Brexit therefore provided the opportunity to blow the stabilizing logic of the UK party system apart. It allowed two fringe groups in succession to take over the Conservative party, and with it the broader political system: the first Boris Johnson’s hard Brexit ‘European Research Group’ (a mis-leading name for a group that doesn’t seem to have researched anything); and the second, Liz Truss’ variety of low-tax libertarianism (a de-regulatory programme so extreme that even the bankers and hedge-fund buyers rejected it). In simple terms, the normal role of the party system in tempering the extremes and encouraging them to look to the centre ground has been inverted. Labour even tried its own version of this ‘shift to the extremes’ with Jeremy Corbyn.
The second great withering is of norms. No-one could look at Westminster politics today and say it is a polite, rule-regarding lot. The moment Boris Johnson shut down Parliament to get through his Brexit deal was the moment the notion that UK politicians could be relied upon to enforce the rules of fair political competition themselves died. As we speak, the Conservative party is considering returning to the Premiership a leader who has broken his own Corona rules, been frequently investigated by the police, and is currently under investigation for lying to Parliament (having already been found by the Supreme Court to have mis-led the monarch). The UK political system seems rife with factionalism and dis-function with political cooperation guided not by the ‘national interest’ but rather one party’s instinct for political survival (as evidenced in the Conservative insistence on avoiding a general election and instead installing unilaterally their 3rd PM in a single parliamentary term). This club has plenty of gentlemen, but they are unfortunately not very gentlemanly.
The guiding logic of the ‘old model’ has therefore broken down. It was that a strong political executive could break down veto players, implement an ambitious programme and at the same time act ‘decently’ and in the broad national interest. The inverse logic is that a continental constitutional system – with greater checks and balances – will lead to lowest common denominator bargaining and produce political instability. What we instead see is that the very untrammeled power of the UK executive has repeatedly led it to disaster. It encourages the government – as it did during the Brexit debacle and as it did again during the ‘mini-budget’ – to treat the party consensus as a societal consensus and to use this to drive through policies clearly unable to deliver their expected benefits. In the Brexit case, a majoritarian referendum was used to settle a vital political question prior to any serious legal, political or economic scrutiny of what leaving would mean. In the Truss case, the government could release a budget that didn’t survive contact with reality, partly because independent institutions (like the Office for Budget Responsibility) and even Ms. Truss’s own cabinet had not been consulted upon or scrutinized its contents.
On doing so, the old model has also established a system that increasingly erodes public confidence. The general UK population watched on in horror as the Johnson administration repeatedly determined that the rules did not apply to them – either in continued flouting of Corona regulations, or in manipulating parliamentary procedures to save politically important colleagues from censure. The word cloud mentioned at the beginning suggests something important. The UK’s citizens no longer trust that politicians can manage the UK’s political order themselves. Something has dawned on all of us – they are managing the system in their own interests, not ours.
What lessons should we then draw from the UK’s political meltdown? If one were to listen to most current MPs, the way-back from the mess is to return to strong and decisive leadership, perhaps in the form of Boris Johnson and the massive electoral mandate he gained in 2019. The last thing a paralysed UK political system needs is more checks and balances. One of the more amusing aspects of the last week has been to watch numerous Conservative MPs tell the British public that what Britain needs is strong, stable government.
What, however, if meaningful constitutional checks and balances are the things which are needed, not for some broader democratic reason, but because they are a corrective against disastrous, poorly thought-out and factional decision-making? While the UK’s current impasse is a serious political crisis, it is also a constitutional crisis. The notion that voters can give one party a blank cheque to govern and then tell politicians to restrain and control themselves is reaping the opposite of what it was supposed to deliver: political chaos and an utter inability to focus on Britain’s eye-watering range of policy challenges. Constitutional reform is a matter of increasing political (and not just academic) urgency.