Richard Johnson is Senior Lecturer in Politics, Queen Mary, University of London
The earliest use of the term ‘elective dictatorship’ in a British political context was by the former Conservative Cabinet minister Quintin Hogg during the 1966 general election. ‘Of all the democracies’, Hogg warned, ‘Britain is nearest to an elective dictatorship’. It was a charge Hogg would repeat many times (whenever Labour was in office) over the next 13 years.
To Hogg’s great chagrin, Labour governments had used their majorities in the House of Commons, sometimes quite slim ones, to nationalise entire industries, reorganise the education system, and strengthen the hand of the British worker against employers. Hogg looked around desperately for someone to stop Labour from implementing these policies, but even the House of Lords acknowledged the mandate of these governments and acquiesced to their transformative reforms. ‘Parliament has become virtually an elective dictatorship. Its legislative powers are unlimited and cannot be questioned’, Hogg lamented in 1967.
The following year, Hogg called for a constitutional convention, chaired by ‘some elder statesman of universally respected character’, to restrict these unlimited legislative powers of Parliament. Hogg proposed the establishment of regional parliaments, a British Bill of Rights that limited parliamentary action, the ability of the judiciary to override Acts of Parliament it deemed to be ‘unconstitutional’ or passed without ‘adequate debate’, and fixed-term parliaments. These reforms would ensure that a government which enjoyed the confidence of the House of Commons could be stopped from implementing its agenda whenever judges felt such policies were objectionable. The solution to elective dictatorship, then, was that ultimate power would be wielded by unelected experts.
Hogg’s vision has never yet been fully implemented; although, perhaps ironically, it was the New Labour government which came closest to embracing this constitutional vision. Nonetheless, the echoes of Quintin Hogg could be heard in Lord Judge’s Selden Society/Inns of Court Lecture. Lord Judge raised the spectre of elective dictatorship, worrying that ‘a majority in the Commons enables [the government] to do anything and everything’.
This is at once true and false. The British constitution does afford Parliament complete legislative freedom in a formal sense. Parliament could vote tomorrow to confiscate the properties of the wealthiest individuals in the country, or it could ban trade union membership. Yet, at the same time, there is a very significant check in the British constitution that prevents any of this kind of action: the electorate.
Governments rely on the confidence of MPs to govern. This is not a trivial point. It is an essential one. In turn, MPs rely on voters to stay in office. Should voters make it clear to their MPs that they are not pleased with the direction of the government, then MPs will either revise their support for that government or force it to change direction in advance of the next election. Failure to do so might mean those MPs lose their jobs. MPs’ rather keen sense of self-preservation is a crucial political constraint on government, including on the prime minister directly.
The recent case of Boris Johnson illustrates this point clearly. Johnson was not forced to resign as prime minister because of a report from a committee of experts. He was driven out of office by his own MPs after his party started losing by-elections in hitherto ‘safe’ Conservative seats, and other Tory MPs did not want the same fate to befall them come the next election.
At the same time, the fact that a government with a Commons majority could legislate on ‘anything and everything’ is a feature of the British constitution that ought to be celebrated, not condemned. It means that the full range of political choice is open to the British electorate. We are not imprisoned by what people generations ago thought ought to be the limits of political action.
This legislative freedom can enable governments, at key moments, to take significant and transformative action, so long as there is public support to do so. The National Health Service, as it exists in Britain, is a peculiar creation of a constitution that gave the Labour government an effective blank cheque to nationalise the private hospitals with little to no compensation. The British constitution, therefore, maximises both political power and political accountability.
Three major political constraints — the threat of electoral defeat, a vote of no confidence in the government, or the removal of the prime minister by his or her own MPs – hang like a sword of Damocles over any government. These are all democratic checks on the legislative freedom of Parliament. One cannot understand the nature of executive power in Britain without taking deadly seriously the threat of annihilation by the electorate or the premature end of a government or premiership at the hand of MPs.
This is why Lord Judge’s frequent comparisons of the present-day British constitution to the reign of Charles I were ill-founded. Like Quintin Hogg, Lord Judge advocates stripping the dissolution prerogative from the executive. Prime ministers who can dissolve parliament ‘more or less echo King Charles I’ in their power, Judge warns. There is a major difference, however. Missing from the seventeenth century model are the voters. Charles I had little concern for the popular will because he asserted that his will was divine and perpetual. Today, the prime minister is not some unchallengeable King who proclaims legitimacy by divine right. When parliament is dissolved, voters must choose a new one. The ultimate masters are not the prime minister but the voters themselves. Prime ministers who have tried to time elections cleverly to aggrandise their advantage have often found themselves punished by voters for doing so. For a lecture that raises concerns about threats to democracy, the electorate were curiously absent from the analysis.
The point that is sometimes missed about the ‘elective dictatorship’ critique is that Hogg was not a full-throated democrat. He was not looking for greater popular influence in government. Quite the contrary. He wanted ultimate power to be wielded by those who did not have to face electorates at all. A major question in any political system is, ‘Who guards the guardians?’. The current British constitution has a simple answer: the British voter.