Over the last nine years, British politics has grown more European. Coalition and minority government has become a staple of political life. Referendums, once considered a Swiss eccentricity, are the pivots on which politics now turns. The Supreme Court has become a de facto constitutional tribunal, an uncontroversial part of the judicial landscape in most European countries.
The Conservative victory in last week’s election would seem to spell the end of this decade-long flirtation with a more continental style of politics. A single party commands the legislature once more. In the absence of a gargantuan rebellion on the Conservative benches, it will be impossible to amend, let alone defeat government proposals. There will be no more referendums, whether on EU membership or Scottish independence. The Supreme Court – if the infamous page 48 of the Conservative manifesto is to be believed – will be straitjacketed.
Yet is Britain ready for majority government – what Lord Hailsham called “elective dictatorship” – once more? The evidence is less clear than the prime minister might like to believe.
The keynote of Boris Johnson’s election campaign was that parliament was “broken” and that only a majority Conservative government could fix it. Indeed, there have been times in the recent past when parliament has appeared on the brink of ruin – the MPs expenses scandal comes to mind. But for Johnson, what finally put parliament beyond the pale – so much so that he attempted to dissolve it – wasn’t any moral misdemeanour, but a procedural decision: namely, its refusal to approve his timetable for the EU Withdrawal Bill.
For all Johnson’s talk of parliamentary chaos and delay, the last decade has seen a more representative Westminster than ever before. The Conservative-Lib Dem coalition was the first administration since Churchill’s to command the support of parties with more than half of the popular vote. Johnson talks of his as a “one nation” government, but the only government in recent times to have enjoyed the backing of MPs from all four nations was Theresa May’s, thanks to her confidence and supply agreement with the DUP.
The Conservative-Lib Dem coalition, the hung parliament of the last two and a half years and successive referendums have irreversibly altered the political culture of the UK. Horse-trading, consensus-seeking and compromise have become standard components of political life. Parties now routinely overpromise in their manifestos in the expectation that pledges will be traded away in coalition talks. The referendum on EU membership, meanwhile, has established 50% of public support as the gold standard for any policy.
Tellingly, the parties that defeated Johnson on his timetable motion – Labour, Scottish Nationalist, Liberal Democrat, Plaid Cymru, Green – secured over 50% of the popular vote at the 2017 election. Conservative MPs denounced this measure as a democratic outrage, but the fact is that it emerged from a cross-party alliance that represented the majority of voters.
With 50% now the magic number, the inability of the electoral system to satisfy a majority grows more conspicuous. Johnson boasts that the new parliament is “vastly more democratic” than its predecessor. But when one examines this claim, the contrary soon becomes apparent: the parliament elected in 2017 represented the electorate rather better than the new one.
In 2017, the Conservatives secured 49% of seats with 42.4% of votes. Last week, the Conservatives won 56% of seats with just 43.6% of votes. Two years ago, the Liberal Democrats gained twelve MPs with a 7.4% vote share. This time around, their support grew by 4.2%, yet in an Alice in Wonderland-style logical contortion, the party ended up with one fewer MP.Over the last decade, the need for cross-party cooperation in order to scrape together a Commons majority has made up for some of the failings of an electoral system that warps the popular vote into unrecognisable shapes. Contrary to Johnson’s claims, swathes of the electorate have acclimatised to hung parliaments and coalition governments. In Scotland and Wales, where national assemblies are elected using semi-proportional systems, hung parliaments are the norm. In Northern Ireland, the principle of cross-party power-sharing is the cornerstone of government.
In England, too, the political culture has altered. During the last parliament, television coverage of knife-edge Commons votes attracted record numbers of viewers. Backbench MPs were elevated from lobby fodder to national figureheads, in many cases attracting a social media following beyond anything a cabinet minister could dream of. The democratic outrage that brought thousands of people onto the streets was not the defeat of the government’s timetable motion, but Johnson’s five-week prorogation of parliament.
Last week’s election offered further evidence of change. Parties across England set aside self-interest to form strategic pacts. Huge numbers of ordinary people voted tactically with the express purpose of ensuring no single party could dominate the legislature.
The prime minister wants to wind back the clock. He has ignored Scottish and Northern Irish opposition to his EU Withdrawal Agreement and ruled out a referendum on Scottish independence, however loud the clamour for one may grow. Indeed, the Conservatives wish to entrench the power of the executive. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act, a defence against the short-circuiting of the electoral cycle for party-political advantage, will be swept away or replaced by who knows what – ten-year parliamentary terms? Extraordinarily, the one democratic component of the UK’s membership of the EU – its 73 MEPs – will on 31 January be terminated, even though the UK will remain bound into the EU’s economic, regulatory and legal regime.
With the opposition rendered toothless, a second chamber bereft of legitimacy, a head of state incapable of restraining executive abuses and a Supreme Court that may soon be disempowered, elective dictatorship is back with a vengeance. Don’t be surprised if the public offers an eminently European response, and takes to the streets.