In 1976, during the Richard Dimbleby Lecture hosted by the BBC, the argument was made that the UK was an “elective dictatorship”.

The premise of the argument was that governments, if they had a large majority, could dominate Parliament and do precisely they wanted during their term of office.

As the UK Parliament can pass whatever laws it wants and is subject to no legal restraints, this meant governments could do whatever they wanted without anybody, not even the courts, being able to stop them. This, said the proposer, was proof of the need to introduce checks on such powers.

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So, who was this person? A liberal? Someone on the left of politics? Certainly somebody willing to dispense with years of “tradition”. In fact, it was Lord Hailsham, a lifelong Conservative politician.

He was to become the Lord Chancellor in one of Margaret Thatcher’s governments and promptly forgot all of this when he became part of that “elective dictatorship” but the problems he identified still exist to this day.

In the US, the powers and limitations of Congress are defined; there is after all a written constitution there, together with a court whose job it is to interpret that constitution.

In other countries, such as Germany or Italy, or indeed pretty much any true democracy it’s accepted that there is a set of rules that parliaments have to follow and a court to stop them when they don’t.

In theory, Wales has a written constitution, as the structure and powers of the Senedd and Welsh Government are laid down in a series of UK Acts of Parliament and which form a kind of constitution which is subject to the oversight of the courts. Not so the UK Parliament.

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Westminster is in effect a free-for-all. If the UK Parliament wanted to abolish the Scottish Parliament it could do so without even asking the people of Scotland. If it wanted to make it illegal to travel around the UK without permission, it could do so. It could even remove the entire court system and reintroduce trial by combat if it wished.

Perhaps the last example is a bit extreme, but the point is that Westminster can do anything it wants during the course of a parliamentary term. Nothing can restrain it and no laws apply to it. In that sense it is indeed an elective dictatorship because no citizen can challenge what the UK Parliament does. Once a Parliament is elected, the electors are removed from the picture.

Of course, parties have to think about how what they do whilst in office is perceived by the public in order to get re-elected but there’s another factor here that undermines democracy from the voters’ perspective and it’s this; people never get the government they vote for.

No party ever wins a majority of the votes and those elected by a minority usually form the government. All through the Thatcher years, change in Britain was driven by a government that most people didn’t vote for or support.

This current UK government is fond of saying it’s delivering on the “people’s priorities” that were supported by voters in the 2019 election, except that most people didn’t vote for Boris Johnson or the Conservative Party. Before anybody accuses me of being partisan, I fully concede that the same principles apply to Labour governments.

So we have a system in the UK which is the worst of both worlds. A Parliament and therefore government elected by a minority of people can do what it wants for five years without any constraint from the law or the courts. That doesn’t sound like democracy to me.

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What we have is the perpetual, unchallenged rule of the minority free to impose whatever they want on the majority. Those who expound the wonders of the UK’s system of government usually forget that point.

The UK’s first-past-the-post system creates the system where you only have to win most of the seats not most of the votes and indeed you can gain a majority even where another party polls more votes than you (as in the 1951 election).

It undoubtedly creates certainty because the likelihood is that one party will gain a majority and form a stable government. We don’t lurch from one unstable administration to the next.

Witness for example the electoral system that once prevailed in Italy after the war where governments came and went, sometimes more than once in the same year.

Many argue that what we lack in majority rule we gain in avoiding instability and besides, they say, the 2011 Alternative Vote referendum is a a sign that there’s little public attitude for change.

Yet there are systems where stable governments are formed, almost always through coalitions, that represent between them the majority of voters.

Look at Germany; no party won a majority there in the recent election but a coalition will be formed from parties which represent the votes of the majority, even if the majority have no say in what that coalition looks like. A system where the majority are represented in government looks more like democracy to many.

What we have in the UK then is a system that is stable and quite predictable. What we also have is unrestrained minority rule.

What we might do about it is what I’ll write about next week.

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