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12 July 2012

The UK’s unstable constitution

The fall-out over Lords reform runs much deeper than party politics.

By Stuart Wilks-Heeg

On Saturday, Democratic Audit published a major three-year study into the state of democracy in the UK. Funded by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust,  the project draws on a wide body of research findings to assess whether the British political system has become more, or less, democratic since we completed our full audit a decade ago. Based on this evidence, we suggest that the UK’s constitution is increasingly unstable, public faith in its democratic institutions is decaying, political inequality is widening, and political power is shifting further towards corporate interests and wealthy individuals.

To be fair, similar concerns can be identified across other established democracies. Even in the Nordic countries, which consistently head all of the various global democracy indices, large-scale domestic studies have pointed to a process of democratic erosion. But the challenges facing UK democracy appear to be particularly intense. Our audit points to a widening gap between the UK and other European democracies in areas as diverse as the protection of human rights, the proportionality of election results, the minimisation of corruption, and the promotion of media freedom.

In total, we identify more than 150 specific concerns about the quality of democracy in the UK. While we regard about half of these concerns as both serious and long-standing, we also highlight some 60 issues which we had not identified in previous audits or which are genuinely “new”.  What is particularly striking about many of these emerging concerns is the manner in which they point to the one worrying development in British politics which is by no means common to all established democracies: the increasingly unstable nature of the UK constitution.

The evidence of growing disagreement over constitutional basics in the UK is everywhere.  Tory backbenchers argue the core British constitutional doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty is being undermined by UK membership of the EU and its acceptance of the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights. As the SNP government of Scotland seeks to wrestle political power from Westminster, legal uncertainty emerges over who is responsible for organising an independence referendum, including the framing of the question. Amid calls for greater transparency, David Cameron argues that freedom of information has gone too far, and is joined by Tony Blair, who first introduced it, in calling for FOI to be rolled back. And then, there is House of Lords reform . . .

Whatever the party-political manoeuvring over the next few weeks and months, the current Lords Reform Bill is almost certainly doomed. But even a revised one may well suffer the same fate because, at root, the disagreements over Lords reform reflects a more fundamental lack of consensus on wider core constitutional issues. Opponents of Lords reform assert that it will challenge the primacy of the Commons, while its supporters counter that it will not. Likewise, there is no agreement on whether Lords reform should be subject to a referendum, essentially because there is no agreed procedure for how constitutional amendment should be approached. The debate runs in a never-ending circle, because all the competing claims have some validity in the context of a “flexible, uncodified constitution”.

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Without agreement on the basics, it unsurprising that constitutional reform since 1997 has done so little to tackle popular disenchantment with the political system.  Our audit does identify 74 specific areas of improvement in UK democracy over the last decade, but also notes that many reforms have proved double-edged. To take a key example, devolution has led to a number of identifiable democratic improvements for the 16 per cent of the UK population who live in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.  But the absence of devolution in England represents a growing constitutional tension, exacerbated by demands for greater autonomy in Scotland, prompting demands for an English Assembly or “English votes for English laws”.

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As with virtually all of the sources of constitutional instability we identify, the tensions associated with devolution arise from the way the UK political system has evolved in response to piecemeal reform over the last two decades. The UK has become an unstable hybrid of two contrasting democratic traditions: the Westminster model exported from the UK to its colonies during the age of empire, and the consensual systems  which emerged in most of continental Europe after 1848. Few democracies can claim to represent a successful synthesis of the Westminster and consensual models, and it is not difficult to see why. The Westminster model is that of a majoritarian, centralised political system dominated by a powerful executive, whereas in consensual democracies, power is fragmented, decentralised and shared. 

The UK variant of the Westminster model has been undermined in recent decades by a combination of  Labour’s constitutional reforms and changes in voting behaviour which have challenged the two-party system. Again, 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 UK government struggles to adapt to continental coalition politics, the government and politics of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland  quietly comes to resemble the democratic forms more typical of the rest of northern Europe.

If UK constitutional reform debates have become more partisan, as many will feel is the case following this week’s events, it is largely because these fundamental underlying tensions between different democratic models have yet to be resolved.  This is about more than a need to agree on ‘the rules of the game’. What the UK lacks above all else is agreement on a set of democratic values. Constitutional reform in the UK has reached a very particular sort of crossroads. We will be unable to move forward unless we decide what sort of a democracy we aspire to live in.

Stuart Wilks-Heeg is Executive Director of Democratic Audit