How rotten is our democracy?

This is the question Isabel Hardman poses at the beginning of her review of Chris Bryant’s new book, Code of Conduct: why we need to fix Parliament – and how to do it.  Hardman’s own book, Why we get the Wrong Politicians (first published in 2018 and updated for a paperback edition in 2022) had already covered much of the same ground – on the ‘toxic culture’ of Westminster politics, the power of the whips over individual MPs, the neglect of parliamentary scrutiny of government legislation and decisions in favour of efforts to become ministers, and above all the strains on personal relations and family life.

Bryant – chair of the Commons Committees on Standards and Privileges until this month – writes in an easy, personal style, but his underlying anger at the corruption and the toxic culture of Westminster politics is evident.  He starts with the Commons’ handling of Owen Paterson’s censure for ‘paid advocacy’ for companies which were paying him more than £100,000 a year. 250 MPs voted to reject the Standards Committee recommendations, with support from Johnson as prime minister and Rees-Mogg as leader of the House.  ‘I felt that Parliament itself was on trial’ in that vote.

In the context of historical comparisons with past parliamentary scandals, he concludes that ‘this is indeed the worst Parliament in our history.  More than twenty MPs have been suspended or have left under a cloud.  Rules have been flouted… Ministers have lied and refused to correct the record…’  There is ‘a widespread sense that politicians believe the rules don’t apply to them.’

He sees ‘something rotten’ in the structure of the Westminster system, with far more ministers than in comparable democracies, dependent on prime ministerial patronage.  Unchecked prime ministerial power allows corruption to spread through PPI contracts, through the allocation of levelling-up funds and through the appointment of friends to paid public offices.  He details the lies Boris Johnson as PM made to Parliament, the bullying habits of government whips, the conflicts of interest that arise through moves from ministerial office to private directorships and consultancies.  He reports the massive outside earnings that former ministers and PMs make – noting that in the first three months of 2023 Johnson registered £3,287,293 in outside earnings.

His remedies come close to Liberal Democrat policy.  ‘We need to look at the underlying structural problem in our British way of doing politics…the “Winner Takes All” system is at the core of our problems.’  Our voting system, combined with the government’s control of parliamentary business, leaves limits on executive authority dependent on the self-constraint of ministers – and that has broken down in the past seven years. ‘Parliament needs to rediscover its backbone and reassert its freedom.  Good government and better decisions depend on the proper exercise of power.’

The case for political reform – constitutional change – is now being made by a rising number of voices.  Huge numbers who listen to Rory Stewart and Alastair Campbell’s podcast are hearing a similar message.  Anthony Seldon’s incendiary description of the chaos of Johnson’s government was serialised in the Times.  Theresa May’s memoir paints a critical picture of government, parliament and party, though largely excusing her own share of responsibility for the chaos she endured.  Lord Ashcroft’s latest analysis of public opinion for his largely Conservative audience reports that 72% of respondents agreed with the statement that ‘Britain is broken – people are getting poorer, nothing seems to work properly, and we need big changes to the way the country works, whichever party is in government.” 

Bryant does not take the stability of British democracy for granted – and neither should we.  A change to a Labour Government, almost as centralist and as committed to executive dominance as the Conservatives while cautious in repairing the weaknesses in our economy and society, could lead in a following election to a right-wing authoritarian populist alternative.  We should be making the case for a more open and decentralised democracy, and for stronger checks on executive power.  The depth of popular disillusion with politics as such is both a real danger and a potential opportunity for Liberals.  Can we turn it into an opportunity?

* William Wallace is Liberal Democrat spokesman on constitutional issues in the Lords.

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6 Comments

  • Barry Lofty 13th Sep '23 - 3:31pm

    “250 MPs voted to reject the Standards Committee recommendations, with support from Johnson as prime minister and Rees Mogg as leader of the house” . That statement just about sums up the dire state our country finds itself in and why so many people feel that the quality and integrity of the politicians tasked with the complexities of running this country leave an awful lot to be desired. Although, sadly it will not happen in my lifetime, a change to the voting system might go some way to rectifying some of these problems and tougher checks and penalties for MPs who use their exalted position for self gain.

  • Steve Trevethan 13th Sep '23 - 4:06pm

    The Polity data series classifies and scores countries on their “Democracy Score” and their “Autocracy Score” to give a Polity IV score and a Polity IV regime type.

    A score of 10 is a “Full Democracy; a score of 6 to 9 is a “Democracy”; 1 to 5 is an “Open Anocracy”;-5 to 0 is a “Closed Anocracy” and-10 to -6 is an “Autocracy”.

    “Anocracy” is a semi-democracy or part democracy and part dictatorship [oligarchy?]

    Currently the U. K. is classified as a democracy with a score of 8, as is the U. S. A. Ireland scores 10 and so is a full democracy, as are the Netherlands and Germany.

    Both Russia and Ukraine are classified as “Open Anocracies” with scores of 4 and 4.

    /en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polity_data_series

    Are there any sites with international corruption data?

  • Martin Wolf’s recent book “The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism” argues that most of the blame for loss of faith in democratic institutions and politics in general belongs to a record of dismal economic performance. For Mr Wolf, this loss of faith—and the accompanying retreat from democracy—are rooted in decades of economic failure.
    “Since the early 1980s, income and wealth inequality have risen dramatically in many countries; in America, for instance, the share of pre-tax income earned by the top 1% has nearly doubled by some counts, from about 10% to 19%. In rich economies growth in productivity and in the inflation-adjusted incomes of the typical household has been disappointing. Deindustrialisation has left many working-class cities permanently depressed
    The shock of the global financial crisis of 2007-09 turned the accumulating discontent into seething anger at governing elites and a loss of trust in the system”
    Wolf warns of the dangers of increasing chaos and popular discontent if democratic politics cannot turn this deterioration in social conditions around.

  • Most of the discussion above seems to focus on central/Westmanster goernment. As important as this is, we are a party who beleives in decisions being taken at the lowest level that is practical and thus the state of local democracy is just as important.
    Would others agree that in practice many local councils are superficially democratic, but with strong oligarchic/plutocratic overtones ? Policy detail and delivery is ofter devolved to groups claim to represent the community but are actually dominated by local elites.
    Of course, I have said nothing original or remarkable here, political scientists like Michels, Hunter, Schattschneider worked this out years ago. Just don’t understand why, as liberals, we aren’t fighting back ?

  • Helen Dudden 14th Sep '23 - 3:14pm

    Society is fairly rotten.
    Since Covid its began to follow the pattern laid by government.
    I can’t understand how this has been so easy to accomplish, no rules to prevent it.

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