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First Past The Post and Executive Dominance

October 3, 2015

Britain is said to have an ‘overmighty executive’; too many decisions are made by ministers without effective parliamentary scrutiny. Another term coined by the late Lord Hailsham was that Britain is an Elected Dictatorship. British Prime Ministers have a far greater range of powers than the US president for example. As I will argue below, our First Past the Post voting system is a major factor in the persistence of this situation, in that it usually delivers an absolute majority in the House of Commons.

Why is this a problem? It does deliver ‘strong government’ because government is not challenged, at least in Parliament. But every leader needs advice if she is not simply to act on the basis of her prejudices. As explained by the 20th century’s greatest management guru Peter F Drucker, any leader is in danger of becoming a ‘prisoner of the organisation’. and accepting biassed and ill considered advice. The only way in which the leader can escape from this is by ensuring that she is exposed to differing views, especially views opposed to her own. She then has to ask herself the question, “What is it about this guy’s perception of reality that makes him hold this view?” Having thought this through she will be much better prepared to make a good decision.

As Drucker explained, FDR recognised this. He started from the then economic orthodoxy (much like the current orthodoxy), but it was not pulling the US out of depression. It was only then that he paid heed to other advice and brought in the New Deal. FDR used a trick to stimulate disagreement and debate in the White House. He would call in his aides one by one and say that what he wanted to explain was strictly confidential. Each of these aides had a different opinion and FDR affected to accept it. The result was that a very lively debate on the issue in question ensued and FDR was able to benefit.

British Prime Ministers do not behave like that. By the time they achieve that position their main objective becomes retaining power for herself and her party rather than the good of the country. They are also more influenced by party donors, (whether wealthy individuals or unions), money markets, business lobbyists and mainstream media, than voters. Only an assertive parliament representing a mixture of views, and in which MPs have more loyalty to voters than party bosses. Jeremy Corbyn is a potential exception to the rule. Yes he comes from a working class backgound which he honestly states, but he also acknowledges. the need to listen, at least to his supporters. If he has any chance of being Prime Minister he has to listen to a whole raft of other views, but in the mean time has to battle with a parliamentary party that is wedded to right wing orthodoxy.

Governments need executive powers, but in a healthy democracy these should be carefully defined and limited. In Britain there are two types of executive power, those granted too freely by a parliament, elected under under our first past the post system, and subject to close party discipline; and royal prerogative powers which have never been claimed by parliament. Although these latter powers are exercised in the name of the Queen, the most important of them are exercised by ministers without reference to the Queen. The Privy Council is an elaborate side show. Prerogative powers have never been codified, an essential preliminary to parliament asserting any kind of control. The nearest to this came in 2009 when Gordon Brown asked the Ministry of Justice to look at the the question. Civil servants made a rough list of the powers ministries claimed they had, but were then allowed to get away with consigning the issue as too difficult to handle. Needless to say Parliament did not put its foot down.

But if the Privy Council does not make the big decisions, why have it? why the flummery? Why the fuss about whether Jeremy Corbyn is or is not a Privy Councillor ( see,  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/Jeremy_Corbyn/11925338/Queens-advisers-strip-Jeremy-Corbyn-of-Right-Honourable-title-after-Privy-Council-snub.html)? Unreasoning loyalty to a Queen who does not appear to love her subjects is used as a means of distracting people from the increasing corruption in government. If we are to retain a monarchy we should at least remove it from the machinery of government; have a Norwegian style monarchy.

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