I’ve been in the USA since Wednesday, for work. Because my work has a political aspect, I always end up having to explain the UK’s political system to Americans. This is difficult, because the US political system was designed by lots of clever people meeting over a period of a couple of years, based on defined values and principles.
The British constitution, however, has evolved from a series of fudges, equivocations and deals. The Westminster System, replicated all over the world, is actually a spectacular piece of doublethink:
On the one hand, all power emanates from the Sovereign. Judges are appointed by the Crown and the Royal Courts are just that. The Queen appoints and dismisses Ministers, and the Cabinet is technically a subcommittee of the Privy Council. And Parliament itself is a Royal Court: the Speaker of the House of Commons must be appointed by the Queen (or the Crown in Commission) and it is the Queen-in-Parliament that legislates, not Parliament itself.
On the other hand, Parliament can impeach a monarch and change the rules of succession. A government can only govern with the confidence of Parliament. Only Parliament can levy taxes and pay them over to the government. Ministers must be Members of Parliament.
The power of Parliament grew in opposition to – and as a check on – the power of the Monarch. Having Ministers in Parliament meant that they were accountable to Parliament as well as to the King or Queen.
The development of organised political parties changed this. Rather than a Government of a few ministers continually seeking the support of hundreds of MPs, a Government was only able to take office once it effectively controlled, via the Party system, roughly half of all MPs in Parliament. In other words, in order for a Government to take power, it must have already seized control of the oversight system.
At the same time successive Governments have gradually divested the Monarch of any real powers, taking control of both the Royal Prerogatives and the natural powers of the Crown, which are not subject to Parliamentary scrutiny.
Everyone knows and accepts that the Queen’s powers are ceremonial. I doubt that the public is generally aware that the same is largely true of Parliament’s.
The Government controls the Parliamentary timetable. It initiates almost all successful legislation (private Members’ bills are withering away) and is rarely defeated in the Commons. A Government won’t usually survive if it loses control of the Commons.
This means that the most important role of the House of Commons is as an electoral college, selecting the Government.
In the States, everyone gets two votes – for Congress and for the electoral college. In the UK these two votes are combined. We vote in a legislature election but the primary political act is the indirect election of the executive. It’s a mess.
Why can’t we directly elect our Prime Minister? That would create real legitimacy for the Government and free up Parliament from Government control to act as a true legislature.
This may look like a digression in a blog on the AV/FPtP debate, but it isn’t. The relationship between Government, Parliament and the electorate is surely the most important question in discussions of political reform.
There are others: Why should we have to draw Ministers from the pool of MPs (and the odd Lord)? What happens to the legitimacy and primacy of the Commons – under FPtP or AV – if the Lords is reformed into an elected chamber based on PR?
I think these are all fascinating and critical questions but the whole referendum debate has led to a public perception that Political Reform = Electoral Reform = FPtP vs AV
The problem here is that the difference between the two is so marginal. Strip away the hyperbole of the two campaigns and I think that AV is a tiny bit better than the current system, but not better enough to justify changing it, let alone the intensity of feeling on both sides of the debate. Even the constituency boundary changes are more significant than the voting system proposals.
This was the part of the blog where I was going to write that I’d be voting ‘no’ in tomorrow’s referendum. But something’s changed. ‘No’ isn’t just going to win, it’s going to win big, with polls showing something like a 6-4 split against AV (some show a 2-1). It’s gonna be a rout.
A close win for ‘no’ would have kept the debate on political reform alive. A massacre will kill it.
So I’m voting ‘yes’ tomorrow. Not because I want to see AV win (though I wouldn’t care all that much if it did) but because I don’t want to see it lose by such a large margin that it hurts the broader cause of political reform.
It won’t be a tactical vote; tactical voting is so narrow. It’ll be a strategic vote, a vote against landslides and in favour of real political reform – when someone actually offers us some.