Elective dictatorship

You may hope – with Trump on his way out – that his UK protégé may have given up the tricks of the Trump playbook. However, take a look behind the Brexit and Covid headlines this week, and you will get a glimpse of some devious destruction of our constitutional conventions.

In his Dimbleby Lecture of October 1976 former Lord Chancellor Viscount Hailsham – a true Tory if ever there was one – warned against Britain’s slide towards “elective dictatorship”.

With the recent publication of a draft Bill to repeal the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, his illustration of the power which then accrued to the leader of the majority party in the Commons is especially apt. “At the centre of the web sits the prime minister. There he sits, with his hand on the lever of dissolution, which he is free to operate at any moment of his choice.” In his foreword to the draft, Bill Mr Gove emphasises the over-riding principle that the Government of the day has the confidence of the House of Commons, but he then excludes MPs from the process.

The Hailsham lecture observed: “The opposition is gradually being reduced to impotence, and the government majority, where power resides, is itself becoming a tool in the hands of the cabinet”.

The controversy around whether the Internal Market Bill fulfils or negates the 2019 Conservative Manifesto continues. Hailsham commented: “I must now add the new – and, to my mind, wholly unconstitutional – doctrines of mandate and manifesto.”

Some 44 years later this lecture is especially relevant in December 2020 because it is precisely 12 months since Boris Johnson promised: “In our first year we will set up a Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission.”

After the illegal attempt to prorogue Parliament – and continuing attacks on the judiciary and Civil Service – it may seem odd that the Hailsham lecture long ago set out the Commission’s agenda. Instead of elective dictatorship he advocated conserving, restoring and refreshing parliamentary democracy.

He urged that a Constitutional Convention should examine a written federal constitution for the United Kingdom, with devolution in England as well as for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, a Bill of Rights, reform of the voting system, and replacement of the House of Lords by a Senate elected by PR.

Of course, he could not foresee the arrival of digital campaigning, and, with it, US-style inflation of “dark money”, foreign interference and attempts to undermine electoral law.

In the last few days, Mr Gove’s Cabinet Office has quietly indicated that they hope to distort the regulation of election spending still further by enabling candidates to pretend that they have no knowledge of national party expenditure on direct mail, online messaging and call centre support in target seats. Simultaneously, they propose a massive increase in the national spending limit in General Elections to permit up to £250,00 investment to help Tory candidates over-power their opponents in these seats.

Hailsham’s lecture concluded with: “My object is continuity and evolution, not change for its own sake. But my conviction remains that the best way of achieving continuity is by a thorough re-construction of the fabric of our historic mansion. It is no longer wind- or weather-proof. Nor are its foundations still secure.”

Parliamentarians of all parties and none believe that the challenge and the opportunity are now even more urgent. The Constitution Commission must be truly independent, and resolute in protecting our parliamentary democracy from this Trumpish elective dictatorship.

* Lord Tyler is the Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson for Political and Constitutional Reform.

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7 Comments

  • It’s worth noting that Prime Ministers when the FTPA wasn’t in operation have been relatively poor at operating their power to call elections with the exception of Harold Wilson.

    Labour lost in 1951 calling a snap election a year after the 1950 election. Callaghan should have arguably gone to the country in the autumn of 1978 or possibly waited until later in 1979 (there is speculation that if he had tried harder then he could have avoided going down to defeat by one in the vote of no confidence). Brown should have gone earlier and May’s election gamble in 2017 didn’t pay off. Thatcher and Blair both called elections after 4 years which became the de facto term and were undefeated as Prime Ministers.

    Theoretically at least the FTPA doesn’t make much difference. If the Government of the day has a majority it can repeal or amend the FTPA by a simple majority and therefore actually go at any time of their choosing. And we have seen that an opposition doesn’t really like to vote against a General Election as they are seen as being frightened of the electorate – as happened in 2017 and to a degree happened in a slightly more convoluted way in 2019 – albeit with Labour reluctant and the Lib Dems misguided!

  • For clarity the Government of the day if they have a simple majority under the FTPA can also call an election at any time by voting no confidence in themselves (which only requires a simple majority)

  • John Marriott 9th Dec '20 - 5:37pm

    As Michael 1 seems to imply, there really is no need to repeal the Fixed Term Parliament Act as there are clearly quite legitimate ways it can be circumvented. The cynic might say that the real reason is because it was a child of the dreaded Coalition. Gove and the FTPA is a bit like Trump was with the Affordable Care Act in the USA. He really hated it because it was Obama’s administration that enacted it. In both cases spite plays an important rôle.

  • Paul Barker 9th Dec '20 - 6:37pm

    The only advantage I can see for The Tories in scrapping Fixed Terms is that they could delay the next Election till after May 2024.

  • Graham Jeffs 10th Dec '20 - 12:26pm

    This is a depressing situation. But I sense that we fail as a party in not knitting together a raft of proposals to bolster democracy. It’s no good saying we want to devolve power if the actual mechanics in respect of the way we are governed on a day to day basis is the initial problem. Also, granting political parties the power to effectively ignore election spending limits is a disaster and we should be vocal in saying so and explaining why it is bad for democracy.

    Please let’s not retreat to bleating about proportional representation. It doesn’t currently chime with the electorate. Showing how power is being taken away and distorted might.

  • Christopher Clayton 10th Dec '20 - 7:40pm

    I used Hailsham’s first class Elective Dictatorship article with my students at the time, and set exam questions about it. When Hailsham became a member of the Government, as far as I call recall he never referred to it again, nor did he apply the Elective Dictatorship label to government under the Conservatives.

  • Peter Hirst 15th Dec '20 - 3:34pm

    I’d rather be a goat than a sheep. PR is becoming increasingly popular and the campaign on it by Make Votes Matter is to be applauded. If BJ can take us out of Europe, I don’t see why we shouldn’t do whatever it takes to achieve it.

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