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The rise and fall of British democracy

Trust in our politicians has never been lower. And the present crisis has fundamentally undermined parliament’s legitimacy and ability to function. Far-reaching reform is essential. 

If walls could talk, the structures that house our democracy would teach a desperate lesson. Beneath the gold and gilt and glamour, parliament is a ruin. Its walls are riddled with asbestos; its cracked pipes tip dirty water into the chamber; and fires break out with alarming regularity. A cross-party inquiry in 2016 found steam lines, gas pipes and water pipes piled haphazardly on top of one another, in a “potentially catastrophic mix”. Without urgent renovation, the whole edifice faced “sudden, catastrophic failure”.

It is not just the building that is in trouble. Trust in parliament has never been lower. According to the Hansard Society, barely a third of voters trust MPs “to act in the interests of the public”. Forty two per cent would prefer it if governments did not “have to worry so much about parliamentary votes”, while more than half want “a strong leader who is willing to break the rules”. An unwritten constitution, once prized for its flexibility, has created a chaotic patchwork of competing authorities – including the referendum, an uneven devolution settlement and member-led parties – with little consideration of how they fit together. In short, Britain’s parliamentary democracy has rarely felt more under siege.

Since the EU referendum of 2016, parliament has been cowering under the instruction of a higher democratic authority. MPs sit sullenly behind leaders imposed on them against their will, disciplined by manifestos on which they were not consulted and by activists who plot their deselection. Journalists, protestors and even the prime minister stoke popular hostility to parliament, casting it as a Westminster cabal bent on obstructing the will of the people.

Democracy is a cruel mistress and parliament has no monopoly on its affections. Yet our parliamentary constitution is a cause worth fighting for. Saving it will require a frank recognition of its failures, and a willingness to do more than dial the clock back to 2015. During an earlier political crisis, in the 1830s, the Whig constitutionalist Thomas Macaulay adjured his fellow members to “reform, that you may preserve”. In that spirit, let us rebuild our parliamentary democracy.

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Democracy is the civic religion of modern British politics, but its roots do not run deep. Until the 20th century, the experimental record of democracy was notoriously poor. The democracies of the ancient world collapsed into anarchy and dictatorship; in the 1790s, a revolutionary democracy in France expired in a pool of civic blood; and the United States was engulfed in civil war in the 1860s. Democracies, it appeared, were violent, despotic and unstable. “If there were a people of gods,” wrote Rousseau, “they would govern themselves democratically. So perfect a government is not for men.”

Even the reformers who flung open Britain’s electoral system were seldom believers in democracy. Lord John Russell, who devised the Great Reform Act of 1832, thought universal suffrage “the grave of all temperate liberty and the parent of tyranny and licence”. Benjamin Disraeli, who carried its successor in 1867, told MPs it must “never be the fate of this country to live under a democracy”. By the time of the third reform act, in 1884-85, the direction of travel was clear, but not necessarily welcome. The bill, wrote one minister, was “a frightfully democratic measure, which I confess appals me”.

Against this background, the triumph of democracy marked an intellectual revolution, akin to the rise of the great religions. It brought with it two features common to mass conversions. The first was an apocalyptic tendency: prophets of doom, announcing the end times of democracy, have made a healthy living since at least the 1900s. The Labour Party, the Conservative Party, the European Union, immigration, inflation and anything of which Rupert Murdoch disapproves have all been identified as existential threats to popular government. Democracy, it appears, is both so mighty that it cannot be resisted, and so frail as to be ever at risk of extinction.

Like so many great religions, democracy birthed an array of warring sects. Democracy is a principle, not a set of institutions. It declares that the people (or the “demos”) should “rule”, but says nothing about how they should govern, what they should govern or even who “the people” are. (Women, slaves, immigrants and the young have all, at one time or another, been excluded in the name of democracy.) Enthusiasts for liberal democracy, industrial democracy, direct democracy and social democracy disagree on everything from the reach of democracy to the mechanism for establishing its will. Legitimacy, in democratic thought, comes only from the people; but the very act of decision-making disrupts its unity, dividing one group against another.

The model that emerged in Britain – more by chance than design – was a distinctly conservative idea of democracy. Power remained in the hands of Britain’s medieval parliament, operating at arm’s length from the public. Pre-democratic elements, such as the monarchy and the House of Lords, both survived and thrived, while governments successfully fought off demands for direct democracy or industrial democracy. This was not the self-governing democracy of the ancient world, in which citizens made their laws in the public square. It was government by a select few, accountable at periodic intervals to the electorate.

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The supremacy of parliament was never uncontested. The programme of the Independent Labour Party, published by Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald in 1899, left open the question of “whether the representative chamber is to remain the chosen method of expressing the democratic will”. The Social Democratic Federation went further, telling supporters in 1893 that “we do not believe in the parliamentary system”. It preferred “a system of pure democracy”, expressed through the “Initiative” and “Referendum”.

In the 1930s, mass unemployment fed growing hostility to parliament, and to what Oswald Mosley, the fascist leader, called “the false liberty of a few old men to talk forever”. Parliament, thought Mosley, should hand over its powers to a government based not “on the intrigues and manoeuvres of conflicting parties, but on the will of the nation, directly expressed”. A future Labour chancellor, Stafford Cripps, argued in 1933 that a socialist parliament should immediately pass an emergency powers bill allowing ministers to implement their programme through direct orders.

The Second World War had a paradoxical effect on parliament, circumscribing its powers but enhancing its prestige. General elections were suspended, secret sessions held and emergency powers vested in the government; even the chamber of the House of Commons was destroyed by bombing in 1941. Yet the imaginative hold of parliament was never stronger, as the arena of Churchill’s great speeches and a symbol of national defiance. Churchill called it “the citadel of British liberty” and the rock on which dictators would be broken. “I do not know how else this country can be governed,” he said in 1943, “other than by the House of Commons.”

By the 1960s, however, the chorus of criticism was swelling once more. Tony Benn, soon to emerge as the doyen of the Labour left, railed against the “obsolete philosophy of parliamentary government”, which limited voters to the occasional cross on a ballot paper. It was Benn, more than any other politician, who secured Britain’s first national referendum in 1975, on membership of the European Economic Community. Soon, he predicted, there would be an electronic button in every household, making possible “a new popular democracy” in place of “parliamentary democracy as we know it”.

By the 1980s, Benn was calling for a “national liberation struggle” to tear down “the lace curtains hung by the Mother of Parliaments”. Britain’s parliamentary democracy, he concluded, was “a decorous façade, behind which those who have power exercise it for their own advantage”.

It was not only the left who looked to democracies outside parliament. “The democracy of the ballot box,” said Margaret Thatcher in 1978, was “only one form of democracy”. In “a truly free society”, it needed to be “reinforced by the democracy of the market, in which people cast their vote, not once every four years or so, but every day as they go about their daily business”. For Thatcher, the democratic control of industry would be achieved by the market, not the state, allowing each consumer to “have what he or she wants most”.

Such claims were polemical, rather than analytical. In the struggle for political power, democracy was the elder wand: a weapon that could win all battles for its rightful master. It cast its protective spell over the most improbable causes. GK Chesterton, in 1908, defined tradition as “the democracy of the dead”; an “extension of the franchise” to those “disqualified by the accident of death”. Winston Churchill made a democratic case for the British empire, which he credited with “spreading democracy more widely than any other system of government since the beginning of time”. Margaret Thatcher deployed democracy as a weapon against socialism, promising in 1981 to uphold democracy “in the dictionary sense, not the Bennite sense”. During the miners’ strike in 1984-85, she rallied her supporters with a speech on “Why Democracy Will Last”. Arthur Scargill, of the National Union of Mineworkers, retaliated with a promise to win back “for the British people the democracy… they have been denied over the past 40 years”.

So the idea of “democracy in crisis” – or the conviction that Remainers, judges or Theresa May pose a threat to the survival of democracy – is far from new. Nor is a suspicion of parliament as an obstacle to democratic politics. What has changed is the direction of fire, for the challenge to parliament has moved from the fringes into the mainstream. Tackling that requires us to understand why that change matters, and how it came to pass.

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At its best, parliamentary democracy embodies three core principles. The first is that democracy is a conversation, conjured from a glorious cacophony of voices and interests. Human beings are not, like the Borg in Star Trek, mere extensions of a single mind. They are farmers and factory workers; shopkeepers and office clerks; teachers, writers and musicians. They are “hangers-and-floggers”, “bleeding-heart liberals”, socialists, anarchists and none of the above. They follow different religions, read different newspapers and have different visions of the good society.

The role of parliament is to bring those voices into dialogue. The very name comes from the French word “to speak”: parliament is where the people come together to parley. For that reason, a parliamentary system does not entrust a single figure with the full powers of government; instead, it returns 650 different voices, ranging from Diane Abbott and Caroline Lucas to Arlene Foster and Jacob Rees-Mogg. From the lowliest backbencher to the prime minister, each has the same popular mandate; each is a representative of the people. The symbol and arena of our democracy is an argument between competing voices.

A second principle follows logically. Parliamentarism not only legitimises dissent; it institutionalises it, in the role of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. The archaic title expresses an important principle: that even those who have been defeated at a general election remain central to the democratic process. Minorities are outvoted, but not silenced. They can test and challenge the majority, asking difficult questions and trying to peel off support. Dissent is not treason or an offence against the people. It is a service to them, including those – perhaps temporarily – in a minority.

Third, no parliament can bind the hands of its successor. A democracy can change its mind; the process of argument, debate and persuasion is punctuated by the electoral system, not terminated by it. As soon as one election is over, preparations for the next begin, with the promise of new alignments of opinion and the conversion of minorities into majorities.

All three of these principles are currently under attack. For our latter-day populists, the will of the people is a single, unitary intelligence, issuing instructions to its delegates in parliament. It is an authoritarian fantasy, made possible only by the ruthless suppression of dissenting voices. When Nigel Farage hailed the referendum result as a triumph for “real people”, he meant precisely that: Remain voters were recast as elites whose resistance to “the people” must be crushed. That fuels an intolerance of dissent, in which minorities must be silenced, not simply outvoted; and it freezes the democratic process at a single moment in June 2016. The people, we are told, have spoken; and like a naughty child at a dinner party, they are not to speak again until the feast is over.

On this model, “the will of the people” is no longer a negotiation within parliament. It is a weapon to be held over it. MPs are instructed to deliver “what the people voted for”; but since none of the options before parliament was on the ballot in 2016, clairvoyance becomes a necessary art of government. Like a theocracy without a priesthood, the will of the people is endowed with the force of holy law; yet no one can agree on what it is. The test of a policy is no longer the strength of its arguments or its support in the House, but its mystical connection with an imagined people.


Speaker’s corner: John Bercow holds forth during a Brexit debate on 3 April

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How did these ideas gain traction? Parliament itself has much to answer for. Under the inflated majorities of Thatcher and Blair, MPs too often served as cheerleaders, rather than critical friends. On the Iraq War, in particular, too few asked searching questions of the case for invasion. The 2009 expenses scandal did lasting damage, as did the parachuting of party apparatchiks into safe seats with which they had little connection.

Above all, parliament failed in its core mission: to bring different opinions into dialogue. Too often, what passes for our national conversation is closer to a mass brawl at a football stadium, with MPs yelling and jeering across the field of play. Great swathes of opinion are locked out altogether, by an antiquated and indefensible electoral system. When four million people vote Ukip, as in 2015, and are rewarded with a solitary MP, we should not be surprised if they view parliament as something done to them by an external elite.

It is not only radical voices that are excluded. In the 2015 general election, unionist voices in Scotland were washed away by the Scottish National Party, which won 95 per cent of Scottish seats on 50 per cent of the vote. The SNP had earned the right to the biggest voice in Scottish politics – and unlike Labour or the Conservatives, it did not choose the system that gave it power. But less than a year after a referendum on Scottish independence, the result made a mockery of the most important fault-line in Scottish opinion.

The problem was exacerbated by constitutional jerry-rigging. David Cameron seemed to approach the constitution like the dodgy builder from Fawlty Towers: knocking through a wall here, putting in a door there, until the building nearly collapsed around him. His Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, passed for the convenience of the coalition in 2011, wrought havoc with parliamentary accountability, severing the connection between “confidence” and the ability of a government to pass its legislation. His casual use of the referendum broke the core principle of responsible government: that those who advocate a policy take responsibility for its results. The vote to leave the EU, with no indication of its terms or conditions, hit the parliamentary system like a blast from the Death Star – and as so often, it was left to a woman to clean up the mess.

That referendum was followed by a series of further shocks, of which the most important was the Labour leadership contest in the summer of 2016. When MPs overwhelmingly passed a vote of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn, they pitted their authority as parliamentarians against the will of the party membership. Their defeat marked an epoch in parliamentary history. For the first time, a candidate for prime minister drew his mandate exclusively from outside the parliamentary party. The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, told a demonstration before the confidence vote that “we will not allow the democracy of our movement to be subverted by a handful of MPs”. In a different context, it was a form of words that could have been spoken by Nigel Farage, pitting a democracy outside the House against its elected representatives.

A similar model is at work in the Conservative Party. If Theresa May stands down before the next election, Britain will acquire its first directly elected prime minister: placed in No 10 not by parliament, nor by the electorate, but by 124,000 Tory party members. (It avoided a similar fate in 2016, when Andrea Leadsom withdrew before the members’ ballot.) The radicalising effects of that change are already apparent. As the end of May’s premiership draws near, so her prospective successors move closer to a hard Brexit, drawn by the tractor beam of the party membership. Not since the days of the rotten boroughs, before the Reform Act of 1832, have a few hundred thousand people exerted such disproportionate, unaccountable power.

Party democracy has obvious attractions, at least for those inside the gates. The chance to set policy, dismiss MPs and choose a prime minister restores to members a sense of empowerment that can be lost in a sprawling, parliamentary system. But it comes at a price. In bolting on to a parliamentary system elements of a presidential and plebiscitary regime, we have cut the central artery of the British constitution: that a government must command the confidence of the House of Commons. The result is gridlock, tempered by intimidation. Labour MPs cannot force a change; Tory MPs dare not, for fear of worse to come. A solution may be found in the constituencies, as activists turf out dissenting MPs. But if pro-European Conservatives, Labour Corbynsceptics and left-wing Brexiteers are purged from the Commons, parliament will become less representative of national opinion, not more.

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Like the buildings it inhabits, parliament needs urgent renovation. The first priority is a new voting system that more accurately represents the spectrum of national opinion. The second is to replace the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, which allows zombie governments to linger on when they can no longer pass their major legislation. Third, parliament should radically reduce its workload, distributing more of its powers to local and devolved government. Party members are right to prize the immediacy of a smaller, more responsive democracy; but that should be open to all, and not just to a fee-paying minority.

Just as importantly, we need a radical shift in the culture of parliament. The closure of the Palace of Westminster for repairs offers a once-in-a-generation chance to shake the culture of the existing chamber, through a more civilised, less confrontational set-up. With the spell of the existing House broken, we could even build a new parliament, fit for the 21st century. With apologies to Birmingham and Manchester, MPs must stay close to the government they hold to account; but a new home could be a symbol of a regenerated democracy.

Rummaging around in the ashes of British politics, there are still some sparks of hope. With the majority of parliamentary talent banished from the front benches, we have the seen the return of the independent backbencher. Committee chairs have become increasingly powerful figures, while MPs such as Hilary Benn, Yvette Cooper and Dominic Grieve have made much of the running in the Brexit process. They have found a valuable ally in the Speaker, John Bercow, who has persistently championed parliament against the executive. It is a shift that must continue under his successor.

Our fractured politics has never been more in need of a place where competing ideas and interests can come together, in order to argue, to educate and to inform. But if we believe in our parliamentary system, we will need to fight for it. The pipes are leaking and the foundations crumbling, but the structure is as precious as ever. It is time to rebuild our parliamentary democracy. 

Robert Saunders teaches history at Queen Mary University of London. His most recent book is Yes to Europe! The 1975 Referendum and Seventies Britain

Robert Saunders teaches history at Queen Mary University of London. His most recent book is Yes to Europe! The 1975 Referendum and Seventies Britain

This article appears in the 12 April 2019 issue of the New Statesman, System failure