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MODERN BRITISH POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM Has the period of constitutional reform since 1997 done anything to counter the accusation that the United Kingdom is an elective dictatorship?
The term 'elective dictatorship', popularised by Lord Hailsham in the 1970s, refers to the tendency of a British government with a working majority in the Commons and a disciplined party to both propose and pass legislation without constraint; this executive dominance is supported by convention and law, specifically the Salisbury Convention and the 1911 and 1949 Parliament Acts. The Hidden Wiring: P. Hennessy
- Power is highly concentrated in the hands of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, which has capacity for decisive action provided it enjoys the support of a majority of the Commons.
- Bagehot described the 'efficient secret' of the English Constitution as being the near-fusion of executive and legislative powers, with the Cabinet being the connecting link. This may no longer be the case.
- 'The Cabinet reconciles Ministers' individual responsibility with their collective responsibility.'1
- Bagehot's five functions of parliament:
- The provision and maintenance of the executive.
- The expressive function - reflecting the minds of the English people.
- The teaching function - teaching the nation what it does not know.
- The informing function - expressing the grievances of the governed to the government.
- The legislating function.
- Select Committees are generally too inexpert and ill-equipped to seriously call the executive to account. Further, despite a steady improvement in the data available to them they remain reluctant to examine in detail departmental activity. There have been very few instances of committees holding pre-legislative hearings. Some committees are kept away from the most politically sensitive subjects for fear of jeopardising them; for example, the Environment, Scotland, and Wale's Committee's failure to discuss the imminent Poll Tax. The Whips retain significant influence in the selection of Select Committee chairmen and members2.
- Select Committee influence:
- Exposing problems with existing legislation and bringing their concerns to the attention of the House.
- Exposing failings on the part of departments, agencies, and quagos.
- Scrutinising administrative decision-making.
- Exposing policy conflicts between departments.
- Supplying backbenchers with specialist knowledge and updating publically available knowledge.
- Exposing interest groups and lobbyists and accommodating them within the parliamentary process.
- Could Select Committees be improved? They should be expected to undertake pre-legislative hearings on important Bills, as well as departmental expenditure plans.
- Too many MPs are too supine to provide a real check on their ministers; opposition tends to be too indiscriminate in its opposition.
- The pool of talent from which ministers may be selected is shallow.
- The overwhelming majority of public expenditure goes through unexamined. 1 The Hidden Wiring: P. Hennessey 2 The Hidden Wiring: P. Hennessey
- Both the Commons and the Lords lack the resources to properly examine the impact of European legislation. The English Constitution: Bagehot
- 'The principle of Parliament is obedience to leaders'3. The penalty for not doing so is impotence; not only will you not be able to do anything good, you will not be able to do anything at all. If every MP were able to act as they pleased there would be 657 amendments to every Bill.
- Bagehot disagrees with the concept of entirely locally nominated MPs, arguing that it would lead to local interest being put before national interest, heighten existing geographical cleavages, and undermine moderate consensus building in parliament.
- 128 Politics and the Constitution: V. Bogdanor
- Dicey has provided a constitutional reference point for politicians and political scientists.
- Bogdanor advocates both referenda and the single transferable vote method of proportional representation as checks upon the party system, and as a method of undermining the dominance of party in the constitution.
- Bogdanor favours sharing of power with the EU, with the regions via devolution, and with the people through local government and referenda.
- The sovereignty of parliament is the central principle of the British constitution.
- The 1984 Rates Act allowed the Environment Secretary to impose maximum rates levels upon local authorities.
- The two main parties in Britain enjoy a privileged position as a result of:
- the majoritarian electoral system that disadvantage third parties which are not geographically concentrated.
- the party funding system which allows Labour to monopolise historial ties with the Unions and the Conservatives ties with business; which has the added effect of entrenching classbased political cleavages.
- Thatcher restored the authority of the State after a decade of governability but undermined 'the democratic underpinning that makes authority tolerable'4.
- Bogdanor argues that the Conservative party is more oligarchical than Labour, which is managed top-down. Thatcher was ejected from power because of the disintegration of cabinet support for her - a demonstration of the limits of Hailsham's 'dictatorship' analogy. The Conservatives are a party susceptible to pressure from both back bench MPs and their grassroots supporters.
- Notable electoral pacts (excellent BPG chapter):
- Pact between the Conservatives and the Liberal Unionists which lasted for seven general elections between 1886 and 1912, when the two parties merged.
- Pact between Liberals and the LRC from 1903 to 1906 (known as the GladstoneMacdonald Pact)
- Pact between the Conservatives and the Coalition Liberals during the 1918 Coupon Election.
- Pact between the Conservatives, Liberals, and National Labour during the 1931 election.
- The pact between the Liberals and the SDP, the Alliance, which held for the 1983 and 1987 elections.
- The ethos of British politics is adversarial, centralist, and exclusive - at odds with the EU's proportionality, consensus building, and power sharing.
- Devolution, Bogdanor argues, will mean that parliamentary authority over the devolved regions 3 The English Constitution: W. Bagehot 4 Politics and the Constitution: V. Bogdanor
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