Should we be worried about democracy in the United Kingdom?

Andrew Blick
By: Andrew Blick

Concerns about the prospects for UK democracy are widespread. Many in the past have raised similar concerns. A major deterioration or shift towards authoritarianism has not previously occurred in the UK. But we should not conclude that previous apprehensions were necessarily mistaken; and we should avoid complacency today.

In October last year, Lord (David) Puttnam, retiring from the House of Lords where he sat as a Labour Peer, made a speech in which he raised concerns about the prospects for democracy in the UK. Puttnam described the Conservative government under Boris Johnson as:

‘setting out to chip away at and undermine much of what defines an active liberal democracy: those institutions that might act as checks and balances on a populist government that’s trampling on long held rights and conventions, with the sole purpose of tightening its own grip on power.’

Puttnam is not alone in harbouring and expressing such concerns. They are shared, and being voiced, by a range of figures of diverse political backgrounds. For instance, in a speech at the Institute for Government last month, the former Conservative Prime Minister John Major warned that:

‘We are living through a time of uncertainty and political turbulence – at home and overseas. At home, we take democracy for granted: we should not. It is far more complex than simply having the right to vote. In many countries, there is a widespread discontent of the governed, and democracy is in retreat. Nor is it in a state of grace in the UK.’

Should we be worried? It is worth noting that pessimism about the future prospects for UK democracy is a recurring phenomenon. It long predates the realisation of a universal franchise, a basic requirement of democracy as we understand it today (and which occurred for the UK in 1928). For instance, as long ago as 1891 Oscar Wilde wrote that:

‘High hopes were once formed of democracy; but democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people. It has been found out.’

In 1929, Lord Hewart, the Lord Chief Justice of England, in an influential book called The New Despotism, warned of the executive taking on oppressive power through the use of delegated legislation. Hewart described a system the objective of which was:

‘to subordinate Parliament, to evade the Courts, and to render the will, or the caprice, of the Executive unfettered and supreme.’

In his 1944 work, The Road to Serfdom, concerned about trends in the socio-economic role of government, Friedrich Hayek held that:

‘a democracy which embarks on planning progressively relinquishes its powers…When it becomes dominated by a collectivist creed, democracy will inevitably destroy itself.’

Demonstrating that concerns about the consequences of communications technology are not new, the Committee on Broadcasting, chaired by Lord (William) Beveridge, found in its 1951 report that:

‘broadcasting is capable of increasing perhaps the most serious of all dangers which threaten democracy and free institutions today – the danger of passivity – of acceptance by masses of orders given to them and of things said to them’.

In a recording released the following year, ‘There are bad times just around the corner’, Noel Coward sang:

‘It’s as clear as crystal
From Bridlington to Bristol
That we can’t save democracy and we don’t much care

If the Reds and the Pinks
Believe that England stinks
And that world revolution is bound to spread,
We’d better all learn the lyrics of the old ‘Red Flag’
And wait until we drop down dead.’

In 1968, Tony Benn, a Labour MP and minister, prompted partly by the wave of international protest movements of the time, gave a speech warning of: ‘discontent, expressing itself in despairing apathy or violent protest’ that might:

‘engulf us all in bloodshed. It is no good saying that it could never happen here. It could…Beyond parliamentary democracy as we know it we shall have to find a new popular democracy to replace it ’.

In 1976, from a social democratic perspective, Stephen Haseler published a book called The Death of British Democracy; while in the same year, the senior Conservative politician, Lord Hailsham, spoke of an ‘Elective Dictatorship’, cautioning that:

‘this nation …has moved towards a totalitarianism which can only be altered by a systematic and radical overhaul of our constitution ’.

In 1978 another Conservative, William Waldegrave, a future MP and minister, warned of:

‘capture of the executive by a totalitarian clique which would subsequently impose its intellectually disreputable certainties at the barrel of a gun’

The future Labour MP and minister, Chris Mullin, speculated in a 1982 novel of the same name about A Very British Coup against a left-wing government.

By the early twenty-first century, concern about falling levels of public participation in politics prompted the instigation of the Power Inquiry, a civil society exercise. It reported in 2006, expressing fear regarding: ‘The rise of undemocratic forces’ and:

‘a gradual growth of “quiet authoritarianism” in Britain where policy and law is made in consultation with a small coterie of supporters and with little reference to wider views and interests.’

Some might note that, despite perennial predictions of its being in peril, democracy in the UK has not yet suffered a major reversal of the type seen, for instance, in Germany in the 1930s. But we should avoid concluding that those perceiving threats were necessarily mistaken; or that we can dismiss the concerns of today. It may be that this very persistent caution and vigilance is a source of resilience. The identification of problems as they appear enables us to resist them.

It is with such a task in mind that the United Kingdom Constitution Monitoring Group (UKCMG), a group of constitutional experts from academic and practitioner backgrounds, was formed in 2020. It produces a biannual Constitution in Review, a report that monitors developments and assesses them against a set of constitutional principles. The second edition, covering the second half of 2021, appeared last month. It identified a series of problems, including:

  • growing arbitrary power for the UK executive;
  • failures within the executive to uphold standards and integrity, with self-regulation mechanisms proving ineffective;
  • legislative plans to reduce the autonomy of the Electoral Commission;
  • evidence of the misleading of the UK Parliament, including by the Prime Minister, and less than honest communications outside Parliament;
  • excessive discretionary authority vested in ministers through the creation and deployment of delegated law-making power;
  • attempts to restrict the right to protest;
  • disregard for international law and treaty commitments;
  • the possibility of reductions in the scope of the courts effectively to review the actions of the executive and the dilution of human rights protection; and
  • government seeking to bring about substantial constitutional change for which it has neither sought nor obtained the degree of consensus it would ideally command.

Taken as a whole, these and other difficulties comprise a serious source of concern about democracy in the UK. They may not (or may) presage a more serious deterioration. But regardless of the ultimate outcome, they already amount to a substantial and regrettable tendency. It must be considered in the wider context of international challenges. They include reversals both in emerging and more established democracies across the world; and threats from authoritarian regimes, such as – but not confined to – Russia. Through honestly recognising such vulnerabilities on the part of democracy, it is possible to enhance its resilience.

A full-length talk on this subject by Prof. Blick is available to watch on YouTube here.

Andrew Blick is Professor of Politics and Contemporary History and Head of the Department of Political Economy at King’s College London and Senior Adviser to The Constitution Society.

The Constitution Society is committed to the promotion of informed debate and is politically impartial. Any views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society.