An elective dictatorship?
Posted by Matt Walker on February 10, 2010
In 1976 Lord Hailsham described the British system of government as an ‘elective dictatorship’. What he meant was that the government, once elected, is able to behave like a dictator owing to the weakness of Parliament. In modern academic parlance, this is known as executive dominance. So what is the evidence for this and why does it occur?
It is very rare for a British government to be defeated by the House of Commons. The government did lose votes on the 90 day detention orders and also the Gambling Order, but such defeats are few and far between. Furthermore, there has not been a successful Commons vote of no confidence in a government since 1979.
It would be wrong to base our analysis by this measure alone. After all, the mere threat of backbench revolt on the government benches can force the executive to think again. However, governments usually get their own way. And consider that, despite massive public opposition, Tony Blair was able to get his way over war with Iraq.
The reason for executive dominance is that most British governments have a majority of MPs in the Commons, owing to first-past-the-post. In 1997, Labour won a massive 179 seat majority, and were never likely to lose a Commons vote. Such majorities, combined with a whipping system which disciplines government backbenchers to support their own side, as well as the loyalty of MPs to their own party, means that governments rarely lose. Add to this the so-called payroll vote – the MPs who are members of the government – it is relatively straightforward to see why the executive dominates.
What would perhaps alter the situation would be a government with a small majority, or no majority at all, or even coalition government. Perhaps the next election will deliver that, enabling Parliament to reassert itself after what has been a terrible 12 months.