Liberalism and Constitutional Democracy

The UK is sliding into a major constitutional crisis. The future of the Union itself presents the most immediate issue, with rising discontent in both Scotland and Northern Ireland. And Johnson’s casual dismissal of the conventions of constitutional behaviour, his insistence that as ‘the people’s government’ (on 43.5% of the national vote in December 2019) he and his ministers can push back parliamentary scrutiny and sweep aside reasoned criticism, is taking us down the road from liberal democracy to authoritarian rule.

Right-wing think tanks call this ‘post-liberalism’ – a kinder concept than authoritarian populism. Constitutional, deliberative democracy is at the heart of liberalism. Liberal philosophy in Britain grew out of the civil war and the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, arguing for limited government, parliamentary and judicial checks on executive power, and toleration of dissenting opinions. The 19th century Liberal Party fought for home rule (devolution), elected local government and successive widening of voting rights, and education, for citizens. Minority rights, civil liberties, power spread as widely as possible rather than concentrated in Westminster and Whitehall, have been central to liberal campaigns over generations.

Unfortunately, the rules of politics and citizens’ rights don’t arouse popular passions most of the time. Good public services, economic growth and the impression of competent government are naturally closer to most voter’s interests. So long as government seems to be managing crises (like the pandemic) and promising to deliver future prosperity, plausible leadership will satisfy most otherwise-preoccupied citizens. There are two questions for democratic liberals (and Liberal Democrats) to consider now. Do the challenges posed by Scotland and Ulster, together with the rumble of corruption and intolerance swirling round Johnson’s government, now make such issues more important in swaying more voters’ choices? And how can we campaign to raise popular attention and gain popular support for political and constitutional reform?

Nicola Sturgeon has just effectively undermined the claim to populist legitimacy the Johnson government has relied on since it gained its large parliamentary majority. Johnson, Gove and others claim they speak for ‘the people’. Sturgeon responds that she speaks for 48% of the people of Scotland – a Scottish Nationalist throwing populist rhetoric back at our English Nationalist prime minister. Neither accepts that their electorates are sharply divided. The SNP is quoting Johnson’s admission in Belfast, in March, that there must be broad acceptance of governing arrangements from those not in the majority, as applying to the Scottish minority in the UK. But that principle should also apply within Scotland, and to the large but despised ‘liberal elite’ across the UK.

This week the Queen’s Speech will set out further moves away from constitutional democracy. ID cards in polling stations, without any proposals to encourage full electoral registration, imitate US Republican tactics on voter suppression. Repealing the Fixed Term Parliaments Act will reassert prime ministerial power over Parliament. There may well be proposals to limit judicial review of government decisions; possibly a ‘Freedom of Speech’ Bill to limit university autonomy in managing academic debate; and further attacks on the BBC, as urged by right-wing commentators. And no reinvigoration of local government in over-centralised England.

We must use every opportunity we have to remind people that British democracy is built on liberal values, and that this government is deliberately moving away from them. We must embarrass Johnson every time he talks about the UK as a leading global democracy, warn that America’s experience with Trump (and Hungary’s with Viktor Orban) shows that democracies can wither, and point to the contradictions between celebrating Britain’s global leadership in ‘soft power’ and attacking the BBC, our cultural elite and our universities as ‘woke’ and left-wing.

The UK will not hold together without constitutional reform. The style of this government, sweeping away constraints on how ministers behave, the contracts they give to their friends, their active interference in the many autonomous institutions across the public sector, will attract wider disgust as time passes and the pandemic emergency eases. The quality of our institutions is already in question. Liberals must argue for stronger political institutions, against a government which wants to sweep the checks and balance of constitutional democracy away.

* Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords.

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13 Comments

  • Little Jackie Paper 10th May '21 - 12:55pm

    To be honest I’d just settle for an end to forced muzzles, regular house arrest, quasi coerced medical procedures, personal tracking devices and forced restrictions on having my family in my house.

    Nothing all that radical.

  • My thoughts:

    The problem of overcentralisation can be linked with those of poor public services and poverty to show why the former should matter to everyone. If new or improved local services did not require Westminster approval, which is so often not forthcoming or very long delayed; if local government had the power to raise investment locally; if local and regional economies worthy of the name were allowed to flourish; then there would be much less sense of neglect in the communities which now feel it. These are the terms in which we should campaign.

    The taint of corruption is perfectly capable of arousing popular disgust, as it did in 1997. We should encourage this by saying to people: it is you the right want to leech on, your ability to control your lives and resist overweening power they want to remove.

    This is essentially a Liberal issue. While allies are always welcome, Labour generally speaking do not worry much about overcentralisation, provided only that the hands on the levers of that centralised power are Labour hands. We have the opportunity gain attention by striking a chord no one else will strike.

    Success in politics comes from affecting the climate of opinion as well as from gaining seats at all levels. We need to make more of these matters – more loudly and more often.

    No leadership, however good, can be expected to achieve all this alone: hence this is a call to all members. The party needs eloquent voices in every possible community. What new mechanisms might we need to get these?

  • I thoroughly agree with everything Lord Wallace and Tom Barney have said. But I would push Tom’s last sentence a bit further. What else can we do within the bounds of legality to resist what is being done to us? While a subscription to Private Eye might make us feel better, it is a time for creative, imaginative ways of standing up to the forces of darkness. For a start we need more songs exposing the drift to authoritarian rule. Well thought out graffiti? Rigorously socially distanced marches around buildings that are centres of oppression? I probably need a few pints inside a pub to come up with more original suggestions!

  • Martin,

    you write “the question of how NI can detach itself from England is more important than when”

    As part of the Good Friday Agreement, an explicit provision for holding a Northern Ireland border poll was made in UK law. The Northern Ireland Act 1998 states that “if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland”, the Secretary of State shall make an Order in Council enabling a border poll.
    It is not clear exactly what would satisfy this requirement. A consistent majority in opinion polls, a Catholic majority in a census, a nationalist majority in the Northern Ireland Assembly, or a vote by a majority in the Assembly could all be considered evidence of majority support for a united Ireland. However, the Secretary of State must ultimately decide whether the condition has been met.
    The Queens speech is expected to address the issue of a statute of limitations on prosecutions arising from the troubles. It may well be that amnesties are the only practical way to draw a line under this traumatic episode in Anglo-Irish relations; but it remains a fine line to walk in satisfying the demands for justice by bereaved families on all sides of the conflict.

  • Roger Roberts 11th May '21 - 1:09pm

    I plan to share William’s wisdom in as many ways as I can. Thank you
    Just one comment – it’s possible to present an ID when voting in person but what can we Postal Voters do ?

  • Laurence Cox 11th May '21 - 1:40pm

    @Roger Roberts
    The existing requirement for postal voters is that they must put the date of their birth and their signature on the declaration form, and this is checked by the returning officer against the same details that were provided when they last applied for a postal vote. If my signature on a cheque is adequate proof of my identity to authorise my bank to transfer money from my account, It should be adequate to validate my vote.

  • David Evans 11th May '21 - 2:01pm

    Actually Laurence, there are several big differences between a signature on a cheque and a postal vote. Firstly, the Bank will have gone through a great many checks to verify the id of the account holder – this gives assurance that the person can validly have a bank account. Secondly, there will be money in the account that belongs to the account holder – this gives further assurance that the account holder is valid. Thirdly, the cheque itself is subject to a lot of security to confirm its validity. Finally on a cheque the signature is on the same document as the value (the monetary amount). A postal vote slip (the value) cannot have a signature on it or it would be invalid.

    Cheques are not a good analogy.

  • Andrew Melmoth 11th May '21 - 4:00pm

    Number of cases of in person fraud at the 2019 GE – 1
    Number of people in the UK without a passport or driving license – 3.5 million.

  • “Unfortunately, the rules of politics and citizens’ rights don’t arouse popular passions most of the time.”

    Indeed they don’t – as done by LDs they are seen as preoccupations of a remote elite who might as well be discussing how many angels can dance on the head of a pin and who know nothing of real life as most experience it. Also, it has to be said that LDs are often simplistic and naive in their prescriptions so don’t even attract attention in the smallish pond in which they fish. This is a party, remember, that is notably bad at managing itself effectively – see Thornhill.

    What most speaks to most people are tangible issues like food on the table, a warm house, and opportunities for themselves and their kids. So, saying in effect, “Given constitutional reform we could do something…” as LDs mostly do simply doesn’t cut it.

    What we should be saying is, “X (something tangible that people relate to) is wrong” then link that to justice – for which most have a strong sense.

    For example, I haven’t heard a peep from LDs about the astonishing miscarriage of justice committed by top Post Office managers on sub-postmasters over many years. (Something may have been said but, if so, I missed it).

    Clearly, politicians shouldn’t tell the courts what to do but it is astonishing that some PO bosses appear to have known there was a problem yet continued with prosecutions. Why aren’t we looking at lengthy custodial sentences for this? Pour encourager les autres as Voltaire aptly put it. As long as we don’t say this any proposals for industrial democracy, rule of law, inequality etc. will be frankly hot air and rightly seen as such.

    Check out the DM’s comments on this. The best rated calls for “a lengthy jail term” and, as of this writing, has an astonishing 2065 upvotes to just 2 downvotes.

    https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-9510757/Former-Post-Office-boss-step-regular-church-duties-priest-storm.html

    There is such a thing as Liberal populism which we need to rediscover.

  • Gordon 11th May ’21 – 7:03pm:
    …I haven’t heard a peep from LDs about the astonishing miscarriage of justice committed by top Post Office managers on sub-postmasters over many years. (Something may have been said but, if so, I missed it).

    Liberal Democrats including Sir Vince Cable all oversaw the Post Office while in Coalition with the Tories, and have been accused of failing in their duties.

  • I don’t understand why we are not formulating and promoting a third way for Scotland. A constitutional federation of our four nations is the only reasonable way forward. We are a federalist party and yet can’t see that its time has come.

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