The Party’s Over

The author of a new book on the collapse of the British parliamentary system offers his suggestions for building something different from the rubble.

Keith Sutherland

Topics Politics

In his book The English Constitution (1867), Walter Bagehot famously likened the country’s political arrangements to a game of charades. The formal paraphernalia of government – from the Queen right through to the debates in the House of Commons – were nothing more than a smoke-screen to disguise the fact that the real decisions are made by secret cabinet committee.

Bagehot was quite happy with this – as the editor of The Economist it seemed perfectly right to him for the country to be run by a board of directors like a joint-stock company. But he would have been horrified to see his genteel game of political charades turn into a Brian Rix-style farce at the Whitehall Theatre, with politics becoming a branch of the entertainment industry.

Public interest in politics is at an all-time low. Academic experts predict that turnout at the next general election will drop below the 1918 figure of 58.9 per cent, when a significant proportion of the electorate lay decomposing in Flanders fields. This has led the Electoral Commission to propose lowering the voting age to 16 – which should not be taken as a sign that Sir Bernard Crick’s classes in citizenship have had a miraculous impact on the political consciousness of schoolchildren. Instead, the commission merely hopes to instil the ‘habit’ of voting (no doubt abstention will be punished by detention), and focus groups have indicated that the Labour Party is likely to benefit most from a reduction of the voting age.

The political class (with the notable exception of Martin Bell, who is no doubt preparing for his audition) expressed horror at the proposal by Big Brother producers that we should choose our politicians through a Pop Idol-style TV competition. The prime minister’s former director of communications Alastair Campbell has branded it ‘crass’ and ‘exploitative’, apparently not seeing the irony. Campbell, of all people, should be aware that this is the logical outcome of a political system that judges leadership in terms of charisma, and policy in terms of presentation.

The political scientist Michael Foley has attributed the increasingly ‘presidential’ turn of British politics to the personalities of former Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher and current Labour prime minister Tony Blair. But according to the sociologist Max Weber, writing in 1919, the rot set in with William Gladstone’s ‘grand demagogy’ and ‘dictatorship based on the exploitation of mass emotionality’ (1). Prime ministerial power has increased steadily since Gladstone’s time, as politicians today have no alternative but to choose a leader with the necessary charisma to win elections and then to whip themselves into line behind him or her.

Recognising this as a structural factor that has nothing to do with the personality of the incumbent of Number 10, the Labour MP Graham Allen has suggested that we should welcome this development, and recently introduced his own Direct Election of the Prime Minister Bill to the House of Commons. This is described as a ‘Ten Minute Bill’ – perhaps a reference to the time allowed before it is thrown out. But even if it did succeed, do we really want to emulate a system where elections are decided by the size of the candidate’s wad (in every sense of the word) and the munificence of the pork barrel?

In the first edition of his book The Last Prime Minister: Being honest about the UK presidency, published in 2001, Allen was optimistic that some of the reforms proposed under Robin Cook’s watch as leader of the house would provide some recourse against the British disease of elective dictatorship (or ‘executive democracy’, as foreign secretary Jack Straw prefers to call it). But by the time of the second edition, published in 2003, Allen confessed that this was no more than a pipe dream.

The brutal reality is that, as veteran Labour politician Tony Benn describes it, Bagehot’s analysis has been turned on its head and the cabinet is now part of the dignified smokescreen, whereas the prime minister has assumed all the unlimited powers of the crown and now rules with far fewer constraints than a Stuart monarch (2). Historian Anthony Seldon has demonstrated that cabinet under Thatcher and Blair only exists for ‘presentational’ media-management purposes: the real seat of power, Blair’s ‘post-modern cabinet system’, is precisely what it was in the eighteenth century, a ‘regular discussion among [unelected] friends’ (3).

I agree with Graham Allen that we should ‘be honest about the UK presidency’, but abjure his advice to emulate a system that would give us the likes of US presidents Bill Clinton and George W Bush. I would also agree with Allen’s assessment that the well-intended efforts at piecemeal reform of the Westminster system are unlikely to succeed, because turkeys, prime ministerial or otherwise, don’t vote for Christmas.

It is the party system that has created this problem and we are better off without it. Although the UK political party started off as a loose association of like-minded MPs, in recent years the tail has been furiously wagging the dog. And if we all now share the same liberal market consensus, what is the point of the party?

In my new book, The Party’s Over, I argue that we would be better off reinterpreting our own constitution more literally (4). When the chancellor really was a minister of the Crown, every line of the budget was meticulously scrutinised. The key to the changes advocated in the book is the replacement of the rusty Victorian ballot box with a modern system of representation, based on the jury-selection principle. It is impossible to present the proposals in short, so I’ve posted the full text of the overview chapter on the web (5). Brickbats to

Keith Sutherland is author of The Party’s Over: Manifesto for a very English revolution , published on 3 May by Imprint Academic (buy this book from Amazon UK).

(1) ‘Politics as a vocation’, Max Weber, reprinted in HH Gerth and C Wright Mills, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, Routledge, 1948

(2) ‘How Democratic is Britain?’, Tony Benn, in Keith Sutherland (ed), Rape of the Constitution?, Imprint Academic, 2000

(3) ‘The Cabinet System’, Anthony Seldon, in Bogdanor (ed), The British Constitution in the Twentieth Century, OUP, 2003

(4) The Party’s Over: Manifesto for a very English revolution, Keith Sutherland, Imprint Academic, 2004

(5) See The Party’s Over

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Topics Politics


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