The English delusion

By: Stein Ringen

For better public policy, Parliament should assert itself and take control of its own business (see How Parliament would take control). But what kind of Parliament?

An influential idea in political thinking is that governments need to be strong in order to deliver. That idea is influential, probably, because it seems so obvious. How can a government get anything done if it is held back by all manner of constraints?

British political thinking, or English rather, as so often when something is said to be British, has been very much of that school. Governments must be strong and have autonomy of action. They must be in charge. It is their strength that determines what gets done.

Because of this view, Britain holds on to a perverse electoral system – first-past-the-post in single-representative constituencies – that is likely to preserve a near-to two-party system and produce a majority in Parliament for one of the two major parties despite neither of them obtaining a majority of votes. In the 2019 general election, the Conservative Party won a solid majority in Parliament, 365 of 650 seats, with 43.6 per cent of the vote. On a gain of 1 percentage point in the share of the vote, it gained 47 seats compared to the last election. The Liberal Democrats increased their share of the vote from 7 to 11.5 per cent of the vote but won only 11 seats, one fewer than in the last election. There were 336,000 votes for every Liberal Democrat seat compared to 38,000 for every Conservative seat.

Smaller and aspiring parties call for a move towards some form of proportional representation, but this is consistently blocked by the major parties. They obviously want to stick with the current system because it is to their advantage, but they can justify it by referring to the theory that the English method produces governments that are able to govern.

Furthermore, the same view is responsible for the government’s control of Parliament’s agenda. In a system dedicated to the sovereignty of Parliament, the sovereign Parliament is not in charge of its own work. The Leader of the House, who manages logistics in the House of Commons, is a member of the Prime Minister’s cabinet, with responsibility for arranging things in the House according to the expediency of the government. The House does not have a leader of its own choosing. It chooses a Speaker, who presides over debates, but the Speaker and Deputy Speakers are not in charge of the agenda, and can only influence it marginally in exceptional circumstances. The defence of this odd arrangement is that the government must be free to get on with its business without having to deviate according to the whims of a Parliament that might decide on priorities of its own.

In fact, however, counterintuitive as it might seem, strength does not determine effectiveness in government. Rather, as a general rule, governments that operate with hands tied, constitutionally speaking, are more likely to be effective. If a government is able to ram its policies through a compliant legislature, it may look strong. But if you wish policies to work and endure, you are better off having a legislature that can and will scrutinise and double check what you propose. This way, Parliament can cut some of the sharp edges off a proposal in a spirit of compromise, so as to make it acceptable not only to your side but also to those who would have ideally wanted a different policy. We can see this in well-functioning democracies where things are not arranged according to the Westminster model. In many of them, coalition or minority governments are the norm, such as in the Scandinavian countries. Some, such as Germany, have constitutional checks-and-balances that deny their governments the autonomy that on the English view is essential. If we look to the record of effectiveness in different systems, and this is borne out by comparative research, the effectiveness of British government does not stand out when compared to muddled (in English eyes) systems of divided powers.

By democratic principle, parliaments should be representative of the citizenry. Britain’s Parliament is not. The electoral system is deliberately designed so that Parliament is composed in a way that is poorly representative. That is, under a theory that an electoral system that gives the winning party overrepresentation makes for strong governments, which again is thought to make for effective governance. That, however, is a false theory. A theory that has been falsified should be discarded. Once that is done, no valid justification remains for retaining the perverse election system. It then follows that this system should be scrapped in favour of a system of proportional representation. That would make for better democracy, and probably also better governance.

This is the fourth post in a series by Professor Ringen. The first piece ‘Britain is not a well governed country’ can be found here. The second piece ‘Is the Constitution Able to Learn from Mistakes?’ can be found here. The third piece ‘How Parliament Would Take Control’ can be found here.

Stein Ringen is a Visiting Professor of Political Economy at King’s College London. His book How Democracies Live will be published by Chicago University Press.

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.