Monday, February 06, 2006

Does the U.K have a democratic government?

On the NoR forums someone asked a thetorical question about the U.K.
"The crazy didn’t write the laws. You have a democratically elected government, yes?"
Only vaguely... The commenter obviously intended to make a point about how the people get the government they deserve, but because of the structure of the British government this isn't as true as you might think.

Here's the thing, in the British system, you dont actually vote for a person to be prime minister, or any other position within governemnt. Every burrough elects their own member of parliament (MP), and the MP's all get together and decide who get's to do what.

That means if you want good local representation, you elect someone to storngly represent the issues and values of your burrough. Unfortunately, you have no control over who actually runs your country, because there are no nationally elected positions. The political parties control who gets to run things, and everything is done within the party structure; so if you want to effect things nationally you choose the party you prefer no matter who their candidate is or how you think they'll do their job. Of course by this you give up "effective" local representation.

Parliamentary systems as a whole tend to be very representative [of the will of the people] on local issues (whether they act on that will or not), and very poorly representative on national issues, because there they almost exclusively express the will of the party; but in the U.K this system is even more skewed. In the U.K. with most local government handled by local councils; MPs who are in theory elected on local issues almost never address them; and spend their time on national issues, or rather on party issues; and of course on their primary concerns, gaining more power, and getting re-elected.

Getting more power means being made a part of the government i.e. given a ministerial appointment or a party position. No-one else has any real power. In order to gain a position, one must make nice within the party. Independence is almost entirely not allowed. The party (or coalition of parties) in control decides who fills what position, and everyone else is relegated to the "back benches".

Getting re-elected almost entirely requires the support of your party. Without it, it is POSSIBLE to be re-elected, because elections are VERY local in the UK; but if the party is plainly against you, you might as well forget it unless you are a 100% lock in your burrough.

In fact, it is entirely possible for a popular party leader, whom the majority of the country believe should be prime minister, to lose their seat entirely because of local issues. The people of the nation have no say, only the people of the constituency; and as always, the party.

Because of the nature of the system, MP’s are almost entirely locked into their party lines (excepting a few fringe elements who are personality cultists, useful idiots, or complete nutters. Either way they distract the press and the people from what is really going on); and given a strong enough majority or coalition, they can do damn near everything they want; including controlling when elections happen so that they are always in a position of advantage (for example by scheduling the elections jsut after a sex or financial scandal rocks the other party).

Unlike the American system, there is no separation between executive authority, and legislative authority; except in the person of the monarch, who functionally acts as a rubber stamp on whatever the government tells them to do. The chief executive of government is also the head of the legislative branch of the government, AND the head of the party in control.
NOTE: To Americans, this particular concept simply does not compute. How can one perform in all of these roles without conflict of interest? Simply speaking, one can't; it is assumed by parliamentary systems that this is an appropriate means of government.
Combine this with the fact that there is no written constitution (the only things close are the Magna Carta, and the Bill of rights, which are not the rigths of “the people” as such, but those of the lords and the government); and the structure and limits of government are a matter of common law, and tradition.

So what gets done is generally a matter of who has the bigger political club membership (the party); and the party in power has very few actual limits on what it can do. Basically the only thing stopping them from doing whatever the hell they want is tradition, public opinion, and the level of control the party has over it's members.

Combine that with a FAR more partisan press than we have in the U.S. ; who are more interested in reporting personal scandal, smear, gossip, and naked women than what’s actually going on…

Yes, it’s pretty much a pigs breakfast.

The only thing that’s kept the british system on the rails are very strong traditions of moderation, and respect for precedent.

Unfortunately over the past 100 years or so, the Labour party (and it's predecessors) have been willing to almost entirely throw out, twist, or take advantage of every precdent and tradition they can.

Read this section on the wikipedia article about parliament for an example:
The supremacy of the House of Commons was clearly established during the early twentieth century. In 1909, the Commons passed the so-called “People’s Budget,” which made numerous changes to the taxation system in a manner detrimental to wealthy landowners. The House of Lords, which mostly consisted of powerful landowning aristocrats, rejected the Budget. On the basis of the Budget’s popularity and the Lords’ consequent unpopularity, the Liberal Party won a general election in 1910. Using the result as a mandate, the Liberal Prime Minister, Herbert Henry Asquith, introduced the Parliament law, which sought to restrict the powers of the House of Lords. (He did not reintroduce the land tax provision of the People’s Budget.) When the Lords refused to pass the bill, Asquith approached the King and requested the creation of several hundred Liberal peers so as to erase the Conservative majority in the House of Lords. In the face of such a threat, the House of Lords reluctantly passed the bill. The Parliament Act 1911, as it became known, allowed the Lords to delay a bill for a maximum of three sessions (reduced to two sessions in 1949), after which it could become law over their objections.
Yes, the labour (actually he was a liberal party PM, but modern labour is their inheritor) prime minister didn't like the results of the voting, so he simply decided he was going to get the balance of power changed to reflect what he wanted better... and this is considered a BRILLIANT manouvre.

The labour party have built a base with the enviable position such that it is almsot impossible for them to lose power. The way they have structured the burroughs, and the control of the elections combined with the co-operative highly partisan press almost completely locks labour in; and the only real contention is between different factions within Labour.

The conservatives on the other hand are fractured, unfocused, and nearly irrelevant; except as a bete noir for the press. The conservative party is almost completely unwilling or unable to either be pragmatic and do whatever is necessary to win control; OR stay ideologically pure so as to act as an effective opposition. Given this, the conservatives end up in a pointless muddle with no focus, no direction, and no power; dependent on the utter screwups of labour to occaisonally take power and form tenuous governments with weak majorities that they inevitably lose whenever the press manage to get the public to forget about the screwup that lost labour control in the first place.

Yes, it really is that bad. U.K. Subjects are pretty much screwed all the way around.