Constitution

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‘Great British Democracy’: Who Voted for This?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 30/09/2022 - 9:17pm in

The UK's political system currently resembles an unelected autocracy rather than a truly representative democracy, writes former diplomat Alexandra Hall Hall

I feel a sense of utter helplessness and despair regarding the current political and economic situation in the UK. Amid all of the drama of recent weeks – the departure of Boris Johnson, the arrival of Prime Minister Liz Truss, the death of the Queen, the accession of King Charles III, and now the financial chaos unleashed by new Chancellor's mini budget, one thought keeps going through my head: we didn’t vote for this.

In the Foreign Office, we used to assess the quality of democracy in other countries not just by whether they held elections or not. Many countries possess this most basic component of democracy and yet are inherently undemocratic in nature, because the key levers of power are, in practice, controlled by one particular political faction or elite. 

Instead, we would look at the broader picture. To what extent are elections genuinely free and fair, and representative of the population as a whole? To what extent do checks and balances exist to guard against executive overreach – such as an effective second chamber, a free press, independent judiciary or active civil society? To what extent does the country respect broader democratic rights – such as freedom of information, expression and association, the right to form political parties or trade unions, or the equality and inclusivity of minority groups? 

This Government likes to claim that it is a champion of freedom and democracy – two words Liz Truss uses a lot in her speeches. And yet, it is increasingly behaving more like an unelected autocracy than a truly representative democracy.

In less than one week in early September, the UK acquired both a new head of state and a new head of government, without any input or say by the wider public. 

Upon the Queen’s death, King Charles automatically became the new monarch. The accession council to ratify that process was a mere formality. The decision to broadcast the ceremony on television for the first time did not make it any more democratic. 

The appointment of Liz Truss as the UK's new Prime Minister was equally undemocratic and, in some ways, even less transparent. 

There was little transparency in the process of ousting Boris Johnson, via privately submitted letters of no confidence to the secretive 1922 Committee, which supervises Conservative Party leadership contests. 

There was little transparency in the rounds of backroom bargaining and balloting of Conservative MPs to narrow the leadership contenders down to two finalists.

There was little transparency or democracy in the fact that only card-carrying members of the Conservative Party – a deeply unrepresentative group of the UK populace as a whole, representing less than 0.1% of the electorate and disproportionately white, male and older – were allowed to vote to decide who became the new leader and thus Prime Minister. 

Now Truss, the unelected head of the UK Government, has been able to institute the most radical set of economic reforms in recent history – despite having no explicit electoral mandate for this whatsoever.

Her reforms were not in the Conservative Party Manifesto, on which this Government was elected in 2019. Her Chancellor’s plans did not involve any vote of approval in the House of Commons – they were introduced without any debate or independent assessment of their impact, as the Office of Budget Responsibility was explicitly prevented from producing such an analysis.  

As the disastrous results roil the economy, the British public have no direct way to overturn them. 

The UK’s head of state, King Charles, cannot rein in the Government because, as an unelected monarch, his duty is to support the government of the day. 

The UK’s upper chamber, the House of Lords, cannot force a change of track by the Government because it is also an unelected body. It can ask questions and delay legislation but, ultimately, it has to defer to the elected House of Commons. Yet, the Commons has no say either, because the Government’s reforms have not required any legislation. The Opposition has not even been able to achieve a recall of Parliament to debate the current economic crisis. 

In theory, MPs could compel the Prime Minister to backtrack, by threatening a vote of no confidence. But, for this to succeed, a large number of Conservative MPs would need to vote against their own Government. Though many are reportedly unhappy about the Government’s trajectory, they are in practice unlikely to want to bring it down, lest it forces a general election in which, based on current polling, many would probably lose their seats. 

Nor can unhappy Tory MPs try to compel a change of Prime Minister through initiating another leadership contest because, under the current party rules, the new incumbent is safe from challenge for a year. If enough MPs become appalled by Truss’ leadership, they could insist upon a change in the rules – but they will know that it will stretch public tolerance to the limit to have yet another leadership competition within such a short space of time, let alone one which would again allow the wider electorate no say. 

A general election remains entirely in the gift of the governing party, which is hardly likely to go for one, given the risk of electoral wipeout. A public petition currently being circulated to demand an election does not have the ability to force one, even if millions of voters sign it. 

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Meanwhile, the Civil Service cannot act as a guardrail against executive overreach. Despite the fact that numerous Conservative critics have railed against it for allegedly 'thwarting' Government policy, in practice it is allowed only to offer its advice on policy and then implement it. Those who do dare to 'speak truth to power' risk losing their jobs – as exemplified by the sacking of Treasury Permanent Under Secretary, Tom Scholar, within days of the new Government taking office. 

Likewise, the judiciary cannot hold the Government to account for its mini budget as it did not break any laws. 

Though in theory we have a robust free press, in practice, much of the media is also failing in its duty to hold the Government to account. Some parts of the media are deeply compromised by being too closely associated with those in power. Newspaper owners and editors are rewarded with peerages for their 'loyalty' to the government of the day. Journalists are seduced with offers of special access, or revolve in and out of government themselves as special advisors. Critics of the government are shut out.  Other parts of the media, such as the BBC or Channel 4, are dependent on government for their funding or licenses to operate. 

Truss’ actions take the UK further down the same undemocratic path as her predecessor, Boris Johnson, who wrenched the UK out of the EU on the very hardest of terms, without any explicit mandate to do so, and against the will of a majority of voters in Scotland and Northern Ireland.  

His claim that he was enacting “the will of the people” contained deeply sinister authoritarian overtones, not least when you consider that under the UK's first past the post voting system, his party won with less than 50% of the overall votes cast.  

Whether you agreed with them or not, the lockdowns Johnson's Government imposed during the pandemic also represented an extraordinary intrusion of executive power over individual liberty. 

And, as has been well-documented, Johnson used his time in office to erode the few checks and balances on the executive which do exist within our system. His Government made unprecedentedly extensive use of so-called 'Henry VIII powers' – delegated legislation that allows ministers to amend or repeal primary legislation without having to create a new Act of Parliament that MPs must debate and vote on. Legislation was passed to limit rights of public protest; to circumscribe the powers of judicial review; and to increase government control over the Electoral Commission.

Johnson also stretched the boundaries of our unwritten constitution. He unlawfully prorogued Parliament to try to evade scrutiny of his Brexit strategy. He tried to change the rules governing the behaviour of MPs in Parliament to protect political allies such as Owen Paterson. He nominated political cronies and party donors to the House of Lords. 

On top of unleashing economic turmoil, Truss has reaffirmed her determination to pass legislation which would unilaterally breach the terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol, unless the EU agrees to renegotiate it on her terms. This is not just unlawful, but also fundamentally undemocratic, given that a majority of voters in Northern Ireland would prefer to keep the Protocol in place.  

Truss has declared that she has no need for an independent ethics advisor. She has also suggested that she would like to protect Boris Johnson from scrutiny by the parliamentary privileges committee over his actions during 'Partygate'. 

She has arrogantly dismissed critics of her economic strategy as out-of-touch or ill-informed. She is claiming, despite all evidence to the contrary, that the UK’s situation is no worse than that of other developed countries, and that the problems stem mainly from the war in Ukraine and the Coronavirus pandemic – rather than her own Government’s reckless actions. 

The famous joke in Soviet times was that there was 'no truth in Pravda, and no news in Izvestia'. I fear Britain is turning into a democracy where there is no longer much democracy. 

Alexandra Hall Hall is a former British diplomat with more than 30 years experience, with postings in Bangkok, Washington, Delhi, Bogota and Tbilisi. She resigned from the Foreign Office in December 2019 because she felt unable to represent the Government’s position on Brexit with integrity

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‘Small Constitutional Changes Could Urgently Address the Big Mess We Find Ourselves In’

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 23/09/2022 - 9:29pm in

Frances Crook, co-convener of the Commission on Political Power, sets out why incremental shifts in the role of monarchy and an over-powerful executive could strengthen democracy in the unlikely event of wholesale reform

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Constitutional reform is not seen as exciting and rarely reaches the news or press. But, it is the skeleton on which our entire democracy hangs – particularly now as we are in such a mess.

People clearly feel alienated and excluded from the democratic process and so something must be done. As it is unlikely that this will involve wholesale change, the new Commission on Political Power – of which I am the co-convener – is picking off key pressure points and suggesting possible incremental options for reform.

The last time we had wholescale revolution was 400 years ago and, while seismic changes do take place, they are often knee-jerk – in reaction to a crisis and so not rationally considered, often lurching from one random policy or initiative to another.

It was interesting that the hundreds of businesses which wrote to the Government this week, asking for investment in green energy, also asked for continuity and stability of policies. Yet this government is veering from one desperate policy to another, faced with a crisis of seven million people waiting for medical care, ambulances queuing at A&Es – and that is just the NHS.

It is likely the posties, rail workers, teachers, nurses, ports, university academics and maybe others will be going on strike this autumn. In some parts of the country half the children are living in poverty; and across the country there are more than 1,000 food banks.

What can be done?

The Commission on Political Power is not able to solve these fundamental problems, but the group of people who have come together with a small amount of funding from the Persula Foundation is looking at how to change some of the key structures that underpin our governance. It has published two papers so far, each setting out a range of options.

The first started at the top, with the monarchy and head of state. Our monarchy is 1,000 years old and has evolved from 'divine right' to sitting within our constitutional settlement, but it retains considerable influence and enormous private wealth. With a new king claiming that he wants to see a slimmed-down monarchy it may be time to see it move towards a purely ceremonial role, with Parliament taking more of its powers.

The second paper confronted the problem of the overly powerful executive. Over a number of years, we have moved to a quasi-presidential system in the UK without the checks and balances in place that normally come with it. This left our former Prime Minister Boris Johnson free to lie and demean the office during a national emergency.

Parliament has hardly sat during the past two months and this week saw the curious spectacle of a queue of MPs spending a whole day swearing loyalty to the new king – not because they needed to but because they wanted to put it on their social media profiles. The House of Commons has become quiescent and compliant and is failing to do its job of scrutinising and amending legislation and holding the Government to account.

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To temper this executive dominance, the Commission has suggested building on the success of parliamentary committees, giving the Commons power over its own legislative agenda (currently set by the Government), setting out the job descriptions of the prime minister and Cabinet ministers in statute, and making ministers come to their respective committees with a business plan and budget for the year. Underlying this is a sense that Parliament must become more business-like.

The Commission is now working on the third of its tranches of reform ideas: what to do about the second chamber. It is keen to hear ideas and will be considering submissions to its website as well has holding discussions with key thinkers. This paper will be published in the new year.

Change is urgently needed. The country and its people are struggling. Small shifts may well help us in the big mess we find ourselves in.

Frances Crook is the co-convenor of the Commission on Political Power. Hardeep Matharu, the editor of Byline Times, is an independent research consultant for the Commission

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Pinochet’s Long Shadow

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 23/09/2022 - 1:52am in

Chile’s left goes back to the drawing board.

Royal Ideology and the Future of Monarchy

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 22/09/2022 - 12:14am in

Florence Scott reflects on why it is time to discuss the underpinnings of the British monarchy – Christianity, wealth, class, imperialism

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The British monarchy is an institution that has its origins in the early medieval period, but much has changed even in the 70 years that Queen Elizabeth II was on the throne.

At no point in history has monarchy been more accessible to its subjects. We read about the royals in the media. We discuss them on our social media profiles. We watch their birth announcements, weddings and funerals on television. We see scandals, rumours, and allegations unfurl. They are a part of our lives like never before.

The accession of King Charles III was the first such ceremony to be televised, meaning an event that was once a ceremonial formality enacted behind closed doors now became a public spectacle.

As clips surfaced on social media of our new monarch frustratedly directing staff and grappling with an uncooperative pen in the first few days of his reign, it was difficult not to notice the contrast between his flustered demeanour and his mother’s composure.

Throughout her reign, monarchists from across the political spectrum praised Elizabeth II’s exemplary execution as head of state. Even those of us who oppose the monarchy must admit that she handled public engagements with stoicism until the day she died. While we may disagree with the elitism and colonial legacy inherent in the institution she represented, Elizabeth II was very adept at being its welcomed figurehead. So much so that, to staunch republicans, the Queen's controlled professionalism was a bit of a problem. Scandalous royals like Prince Andrew will always make for more persuasive anti-monarchy rhetoric.

But the thing about hereditary monarchy is that it has never been a meritocracy nor a popularity contest. The first born of the reigning family will be head of state, the rest will play supporting roles, and you’d better hope they’re all up to it.

King Charles’s pen-related frustration may not be exactly tyrannical behaviour, but it might be something worse – relatable, vulnerable, human. This is not what monarchy is designed to be.

As a historian, I research the early medieval period, when the ideology of European monarchy was constructed alongside Christianity. From the time the tradition of anointing kings with holy oil was first established, during the reign of the West Frankish King Pippin in the mid-8th Century, monarchy was about more than the power or persona of one individual.

Pippin, the first Carolingian king, was a usurper of the previous dynasty. He had to create a new dynasty that felt established and bigger than himself. The use of holy oil signified the religiosity of the occasion, and the anointing of his queen and his children made it a family affair. This practice was soon adopted in the kingdoms of England.

In 856, a hundred years after Pippin’s anointing, his descendant Princess Judith married a king of Wessex and was crowned his queen. For this ceremony, a prayer was written that announced Judith had been "crowned by the Lord in glory and honour". It was used as recently as 1953 during the coronation of Elizabeth II.

This same prayer will almost certainly be used for the coronation of King Charles. Its appeal to God to legitimise his kingship might seem anachronistic, but this early medieval Christian ideology still underpins the modern British monarchy.

The religious role of the monarch is evident in their position as head of the Church of England and the Christianity of royal ceremonies. This was seen most recently in the funeral of the Queen at Westminster Abbey and will soon be seen again during the coronation of her son in the same church.

Westminster Abbey itself is a religious structure that has always represented Christian royal power. A thousand years ago, a scene depicting King Edward the Confessor’s funeral there in 1066 was embroidered onto the Bayeux Tapestry. The hand of God shown pointing down at the church on the Tapestry was implicitly present at the Queen's funeral.

Monarchy must be special to survive. The notion that the royals might be just like the rest of us undermines the very ideology on which it is built. Mystery and majesty was easier for the monarchy to maintain in the past, when the king might be someone you paid taxes to but never saw. But, as we watch their humanity play out on camera and in real time, the pomp and ceremony begin to look like a façade.

The Queen was good at handling the scrutiny with unfaltering poise – her children and grandchildren seem less so. The lottery of dynastic succession has never ensured an adept monarch.

Without a broadly held belief in their special right to rule, it is difficult to justify a system that raises one family above all others and grants them wealth and influence. It is even more difficult to justify the British monarchy as the instrument of centuries of imperial violence, which still adorns its regalia with the spoils.

With this historical context in mind, it has been interesting to watch monarchy being justified for so long using the merits of the Queen herself. The actual ideological underpinnings of the British monarchy – Christianity, wealth, class, imperialism – are surely far too removed from modern values to be at the fore of discussions about its continuation.

As the mourning period for Elizabeth II ends, it is time for a public discussion about why monarchy should continue to be placed at the heart of the British political system. If not because we have a medieval sense of the monarch’s divine legitimacy, if not because we believe in their inherent superiority, if not because we would align ourselves with their historical legacy, then why?

If these questions have answers, then let them be asked.

Florence Scott is a writer and historian of queenship and coronation in early medieval England, and a PhD student at the University of Leeds

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Funerial reflections…

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 20/09/2022 - 6:22am in

So probably, the UK knows how to put on rather a good funeral and it is actually entirely (surely not?) all organised by the public sector. I think we can conclude that the public sector is more than capable of ‘delivering’ – it just needs investment in the wherewithal so to do. This really shouldn’t... Read more

‘Soft’ and ‘real’ power

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 12/09/2022 - 5:34pm in

Thought this two minutes worth was worth a listen. The author is writing a PhD on policymaking and protest under authoritarianism, but suggests that Britain knows quite a lot in that department too. Certainly Britain is past master at creating bogus ‘traditions’, which very often turn out to be much very more recent than generally,... Read more

Fresh audio product: Chilean constitution, student debt relief

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 10/09/2022 - 12:26am in

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

September 8, 2022 Chilean political activist Antonia Atria explains why that country’s voters rejected a proposed new constitution • Juliana Fredman, a public interest lawyer in the Bay Area, analyzes Biden’s student debt relief plan

Respect

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 09/09/2022 - 6:39pm in

The Queen’s sad death is the end of an era – if hardly unexpected. This is a picture of the Elysée Palace last evening: This simple gesture from the UK’s closest neighbour is, to me, far more moving than all the endless commentary on seemingly every UK radio and television channel – and all the... Read more

The first Truss PMQ’s

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 08/09/2022 - 6:41am in

The episode is recorded here. I confess to finding it somewhat comforting… Yes, Truss has some mad and ideological, seemingly unshakeable, concepts that she wants to stick by. (As indeed does Starmer, such as asking Truss how she is going to pay for it – egged on, seemingly, by Rachel Reeves). But it is not... Read more

The failed state that is now Britain

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 30/08/2022 - 5:41am in

Nothing that is government controlled or supervised now works properly or even at all. As Michael Gove puts it “Government is simply not functioning.” I learnt at school (all credit I think, to a fairly well-working history teacher) that the minimum requirements for a functioning state are defence and justice. We have since now learnt... Read more

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