Introduction

UK democracy in 2012

Contents page

Acknowledgments

This is our fourth periodic Audit of democracy in the UK, and the first to be published exclusively on-line (for our previous studies see Klug et al., 1996; Weir and Beetham, 1999; Beetham et al., 2002b). In this introductory chapter, we outline the methods used to undertake our evaluation of UK democracy in 2012 and summarise the main changes since our last comprehensive Audit in 2002. We also introduce the international comparators which feature, for the first time, in the current Audit and highlight some of the issues raised by them. Finally, we reflect on the nature of the UK’s changing constitutional order and consider the implications for future political and constitutional reform.

Auditing democracy
 
The idea of a democratic audit is a very simple one.  It is a comprehensive and systematic assessment of a country's political life against the key democratic principles of popular control over decision-making, and political equality in the exercise of that control. It is a kind of 'health check’ on the state of a country’s democracy, using a broad-ranging framework which covers all the main areas of our democratic life.
 
Before elaborating on our auditing methods, it is first important to clarify what we mean by 'democracy'. Experts agree that democracy means 'rule of the people’, but disagree about almost every aspect of how that is best achieved, theoretically or practically. There are many democratic alternatives, some of which have been attempted in the past, albeit without lasting success, while others are proposals which remain essentially untested. These are not just theoretical disputes about utopian conceptions of the popular will. If we want to try to assess how democratic a country is in practice, what exactly are the criteria we should be measuring it against? 
 
One approach, following the lead of American political scientist Robert Dahl, is to examine 'actual democracy’ which, in effect, means the variants of representative democracy found around the world.  If representative democracy is our focus, then the minimal requirements for a country to be considered 'democratic’ are surprisingly straightforward. To paraphrase Dahl (1998), in a democratic society, decisions are taken by elected representatives, returned via free and fair elections, with citizens enjoying universal and equal rights to vote, form associations, express their views and access alternative sources of information. From this sort of conception, organisations such as Freedom House have constructed simple indices of which countries in the world can be considered electoral democracies. Freedom House consult expert opinion in response to 'yes/no’ questions such as whether there is universal adult suffrage for all citizens, if elections are contested regularly with reasonable ballot secrecy and security, and so on. These opinions are then aggregated to produce simple binary scores indicating either the presence or absence of democracy. On this basis, Freedom House finds there are currently 117 electoral democracies in the world, up from 69 in 1989. 
 
However, while defining some 'minimal requirements’ for a democracy is helpful, Democratic Audit has always adopted a far broader set of criteria than are typically used in most democracy assessments. We also seek to go beyond the limitations of democracy assessment as a set of 'yes/no’ answers.  In practice, democratic values and principles are realised to different degrees by the contrasting institutional arrangement which exist in different countries or in the same countries at different times. Few would dispute that the UK is a democracy, as measured by any currently accepted criteria. Yet, equally few would have questioned the UK's democratic credentials a century ago, despite the fact that only men were permitted to vote in 1912. Put another way, it would be surprising for anyone to argue that the UK is already as democratic as it would be possible, or desirable, for it to be. Our purposes, therefore, are to ask whether the UK is becoming more or less democratic and to identify what needs to be done to broaden and deepen democratic governance.
 
Our assessment methodology is based on a framework pioneered by Professor David Beetham (1994) and begins from the two basic principles of representative democracy, namely:
 
Popular control: how far do the people exercise control over political decision-makers and the processes of decision-making?
Political equality: how far is there political equality in the exercise of popular control? 
 
From these two principles Democratic Audit has derived its full framework made up of 15 separate sections, organised into four main 'Blocks’ covering: 'citizenship, law and rights'; 'representative and accountable government'; 'civil society and popular participation'; and  'democracy beyond the state'. Each of these 'blocks’ is in turn sub-divided into a number of different sections, or chapters, covering 15 core aspects of a democratic political system, as follows: 
 
 
Finally, each of these 15 sections is further divided into between three and eight specific 'search questions’. In total, the Audit provides answers to 75 individual 'search questions’, covering issues as diverse as the inclusivity and accessibility of voter registration procedures, the extent to which the media are independent from government, and the degree to which there is public accountability of the police and security services.  In answering these questions, we do not seek to 'score' UK democracy using numerical indices. Instead, our answers to the search questions draw on a mix of qualitative and quantitative sources to evaluate the relative degrees to which democratic principles are being promoted, as well as being realised in practice. 
 
The method and framework underpinning our study have international standing and credibility. While the democratic audit methodology was originally developed for the specific purpose of assessing UK democracy, it has since been developed with the assistance of International IDEA (Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance), a non-governmental organisation based in Stockholm.  With IDEA’s support, Democratic Audit re-designed and expanded the framework to create a universal tool for assessing the condition of democracy in any country in the world. Two International IDEA publications detail the whole process of taking on a democratic audit (Beetham et al., 2002; Beetham et al., 2008). Following the completion of eight pilot assessments (Beetham, 2002), the Audit methodology has been applied in at least 15 democracies, including Australia, Austria, Ireland, Latvia, the Philippines and South Africa (see, among others, Beck and Robert, 2003; Rozenvalds, 2005; Hughes et al., 2007; Sawer et al., 2009). A similar approach has also been adopted by the Democratic Audits of Canada, Russia and Sweden – although the Audits in these countries do not use the IDEA framework (see, for example, Cross, 2011). A number of large-scale national 'power and democracy’ studies have also been conducted in recent years, notably in the Scandinavian countries  (Østerud and Selle, 2006; Andersen, 2006). In addition, the democratic auditing approach has been applied to the study of the European Union (Lord, 2004).
 
Assessing democratic change
 
As with our previous studies, our latest Audit provides a snapshot of the state of UK democracy at a particular point in time. Throughout our 2012 Audit, we seek to assess what has changed since we published our last comprehensive assessment in 2002. In each of the 15 sections which make up the Audit, we identify areas which have improved compared to a decade ago, those which we regard as continuing concerns, and issues which represent new or previously unidentified concerns. 
 
A total of 74 areas of democratic improvement are identified across the Audit as a whole, although these must be set alongside 92 continuing concerns and 62 new and emerging concerns. However, it would be highly misleading to read these outcomes as a simple scorecard, for three key reasons:
 
While there have been a handful of very significant democratic advances over the last decade, many of the improvements we identify are relatively modest in scope.  For instance, it clearly could not be argued that reducing the age of candidature at general elections from 21 to 18 equates in importance to the establishment of a UK Supreme Court. 
 
It is by no means clear that all, or even most, of the improvements we identify have become fully embedded features of UK democracy. For example, the modest progress we note with regard to economic and social rights under Labour from 1997-2010, is likely to be undone rapidly by the current Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. Meanwhile, other identified improvements since 2002 are the subject of intense political controversy, and may also be reversed by the current government.
 
Political and constitutional reforms have a tendency to create unforeseen consequences, some of which will deepen existing democratic concerns, or even create new ones. A number of democratic improvements identified in our Audit are directly counter-balanced by clear concerns arising from the very same aspects of UK democracy. For instance, while devolution has enhanced democratic arrangements in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it also poses profound challenges for the operation of democracy in the UK as a whole.  Similarly, while reforms introduced by Labour have enabled the judiciary to operate more independently from the legislative and executive branches of government, these changes have also become part of a wider set of constitutional uncertainties about where power and authority resides in the UK political system. 
 
It is also important to recognise that, due to the multi-faceted nature of the Audit framework, there is a mixture of improvement and deterioration observed in each of the 15 sections.  In all of the 15 sections, we identify at least some steps forward, but also a number of steps back, and the relative size of these steps varies enormously. Even more significantly, there are large numbers of instances where our assessment repeats the most serious concerns we have expressed in previous Audits. It is the weight of these 'continuing concerns' which are generally the most significant factor in shaping our assessment of how the UK is performing on each dimension. Ultimately, therefore, our assessment of whether the complex, and often conflicting, dynamics of UK democracy represent improvement or deterioration against our core criteria must be a subjective one.  Nonetheless, the sheer volume of qualitative and quantitative evidence we have collated, not just for our current Audit but also for our previous ones, enables us to make informed judgements about the extent to which democracy in the UK is improving or deteriorating. 
 
Overall, we find that while UK democracy has moved forward four areas since our last Audit in 2002, and is broadly static in three further areas, it has slipped back, mostly very moderately, in the remaining eight.  Below, we summarise the specific mixture of improvements and concerns identified in each of the 15 sections, beginning with those in which we adjudged there to be improvement overall. 
 
1. Overall improvement
 
Democratic effectiveness of parliament
 
The strengthening of parliament, particularly the House of Commons, is one of the most encouraging developments identified by our current Audit.  Changes introduced under Labour included experiments with pre- and post-legislative scrutiny, the introduction of public bill committees and greater transparency for public accounts. However, demands for further reform grew, particularly in the wake of concerns about parliament's lack of influence over the decision to go to war in Iraq. Gordon Brown's constitutional reform programme resulted in some modest reduction in the scope for the executive to bypass parliament via the use of the royal prerogative, but the crucial changes came towards the end of Labour's period in office. The public scandal over MPs’ expenses added weight to the case being made that parliament needed to reform itself, resulting in the introduction of elections for members of select committees and their chairs and measures to give the Commons more control over its own timetable. Arising from the report of a special select committee chaired by Tony Wright, then Labour MP for Cannock Chase, the 'Wright reforms' may, over time, help produce substantial changes in the ability of parliament meaningfully to contribute to democratic processes. Nonetheless, deficiencies remain, not least continued dependency upon the executive, a lack of powers in key areas still covered by the royal prerogative, and weaknesses in financial scrutiny. 
 
Civilian control of military and police
 
Our last full Audit concluded that the military in the UK is under formal civilian control, and that military involvement in civilian affairs, normally confined to emergencies, has not tended to be politically controversial. Against this backdrop, we highlight some modest further progress in this Audit. There have been some improvements in the social representativeness of the military and police. It is also possible to point to an emerging consensus that the Intelligence and Security Committee should provide for greater accountability of the intelligence and security services to Parliament, although concrete reforms to achieve this have yet to be realised. However, a number of concerns identified a decade ago remain evident. The 'democratic deficit' in police accountability has not been addressed, and criticisms of the police complaints system persist, despite a major reform in 2004. We have very little confidence that the introduction of elected Police and Crime Commissioners will address these concerns. Likewise, the accountability of the intelligence and security services to parliament remains very weak, despite widespread recognition of the need for change in this area.
 
Decentralisation
 
Devolution provides a clear counter-trend to decades of centralisation of the UK state, but it also creates big constitutional tensions because of the continued absence of devolution to England. The success of the devolved institutions is highly apparent and, while turnouts in devolved elections remain a concern, there is clear evidence that devolution has been instrumental in leading a process of democratic renewal in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. However, the growing 'devolution gap' between England and the three 'Celtic nations' poses serious problems for the UK political system as a whole, not least in the context of the weak autonomy of English local government and the coalition's decision to dismantle the existing English regional governance structures. If the coalition's commitment to localism is intended to reverse decades of centralisation of government in England, it is predicated on a high-risk strategy that local government will be able to find meaningful ways of using a range of new freedoms and flexibilities in the context of large-scale cuts in their revenue base.
 
The UK's democratic influence abroad
 
The UK has a relatively good record of promoting democracy and human rights and supporting institutions and international agreements designed for this purpose. However, there have also been long-standing concerns about UK participation in US-led military interventions and about UK arms exports to regimes which might deploy them in the perpetration of human rights abuses. Our current Audit identifies several instances of improvement. The UK has participated in a treaty banning cluster munitions. Progress has been made in the reaching of international aid targets; in the institutional commitment to development aid, and wider acceptance of its value as a policy goal. There have been limited improvements to the regime of parliamentary oversight of external policy. However, the UK remains reluctant to ratify certain international human rights treaties, the destinations of some arms exports remain controversial, and the UK parliament remains restricted in its ability to oversee the conduct of UK foreign policy. The most dramatic problem during the present Audit period has, without doubt, been the association of the UK with the US in the pursuit of the so-called 'war on terror’, particularly during the presidency of George W. Bush. 
 
2. No or minor change overall
 
Political participation
 
While election turnouts and party membership have declined compared to previous decades, levels of engagement in other forms of political activity, such as signing petition or taking part in demonstrations, are either stable or have increased. Moreover, there is no evidence of a decline in levels of civic participation: levels of volunteering are high and the voluntary sector has grown in size and significance. This evidence of a healthy and vibrant civil society provides a partial counterbalance to the sharp decline in electoral participation. We are also encouraged by the growth of ethnic minority representation in many areas of public office, which is also replicated, albeit to a lesser extent, with respect to some aspects of gender representation. However, there are ongoing threats to the independence of civil society organisations, particularly where they have become directly engaged in the delivery of public services. With regard to the representation of women and ethnic minorities in public life we highlight a mixture of progress and failure. Overall, women remain under-represented in all forms of public office, a pattern which is repeated with respect to the UK's ethnic minority population. Moreover, class inequalities in political participation are highly evident; those from professional and managerial backgrounds are far more likely to participate in political and civic life than those from manual occupations. It is far from certain that the coalition's 'Big Society' agenda will prove successful in addressing these concerns. 
 
Rule of law and access to justice
 
The rule of law is well established in the UK and key recent improvements include the continued extension of the scope for judicial review under the Human Rights Act 1998 and the enhanced judicial independence provided for by the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, including the establishment of a UK Supreme Court. There is qualified evidence of falling levels of crime and growing confidence in the legal system. But despite these notable forms of progress, we remain concerned about: the ongoing tensions between parliamentary sovereignty and the rule of law; the limitations placed on human rights review; the further restrictions on legal aid, which will further reduce access to the law; the use of secret evidence in judicial processes; and evidence of continued discrimination in the criminal justice system. Moreover, confidence in the legal system remains both lower than it was in the UK three decades ago and below the level typical of our main comparator democracies. 
 
Economic and social rights
 
The UK ranks among a relatively small number of countries worldwide which can point to a consistently strong track record in meeting basic economic and social rights.  There is clear evidence of improvement on a number of fronts since our last full Audit, most notably: a continued narrowing of the gender pay gap; a clear fall in levels of child poverty; and a sustained increase in expenditure on health care.  However, on a great number of other measures, progress has stalled and levels of poverty and inequality in the UK remain very high by European standards. Moreover, early indications suggest that the combined impact of the economic downturn from 2008 onwards and the policies being implemented by the coalition since 2010 have prompted an intensification of a number of social problems including youth unemployment and homelessness. 
 
3. Overall deterioration
 
Nationhood and citizenship
 
We note improvements in legislation governing citizenship, most notably the legal framework for promoting equality and combating discrimination. However, we continue to have concerns about the treatment of asylum seekers and the extent of executive immigration powers. Meanwhile, we highlight a number of democratic improvements associated with devolution, particularly in Northern Ireland, where it has been central to the peace process. However, we also document how the asymmetric nature of devolution in the UK has given rise to a number of profound constitutional tensions, especially with regard to Scotland, which highlight a lack of consensus about some of the most fundamental aspects of the UK's governance arrangements. 
 
Civil and political rights
 
The protection of civil and political rights has undergone a significant transformation as a result of the Human Rights Act 1998, including a far more significant role for the judiciary. However, the formative years of the new system have coincided with heightened concern about international terrorism, and a tendency among politicians to favour security over liberty. The act has made it harder for government to engage in actions which curtail human rights, but it has not prevented the introduction of control orders, the heavy use of stop and search powers, or the extension of periods of pre-charge detention. Taken together, these measures amount to a worrying erosion of civil and political rights under Labour, which have only been subject to very limited reversal by the coalition.
 
Free and fair elections
 
There can be little doubt that UK elections are essentially free and fair, as defined by widely accepted international standards. However, when assessed against other established democracies, a number of significant concerns emerge with regard to UK electoral processes and outcomes. Measured against our chosen comparator democracies, turnouts in all types of UK election are low, and the simple plurality system used for elections to the House of Commons produces highly disproportional outcomes.  We also highlight growing concerns about the completeness and accuracy of the electoral registers and a rise in the number of electoral fraud accusations reported to police. 
 
The democratic role of political parties
 
In past Audits we have stressed how the party system and the electoral system interact in the UK to sustain the dominance of the two main parties, despite their diminishing levels of popular support, whether measured by membership levels or votes cast at the ballot box. We have also highlighted the persistence of party funding controversies arising from the main parties' reliance on large donations and have made the case for far-reaching reforms in this area. These concerns continue to dominate the findings of our 2012 Audit, which shows that membership of the two largest parties is continuing to fall and that their dependency on 'big money' is more pronounced than ever. Moreover, while declining party membership and a loss of faith in political parties are common features of established democracies, the UK ranks poorly on such measures when compared to its European neighbours. Political parties emerge from this Audit as one of the weakest aspects of UK democracy.  
 
Effective and responsive government
 
We welcome a number of changes since our last full Audit, including: the civil service capability review; the placing of the civil service on a statutory footing;  greater acceptance within government of the value of public engagement; and the full implementation of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 in 2005. However, there are ongoing concerns about skills and organisation in the civil service, as well as tensions between the roles of special advisers and permanent civil servants. We highlight concerns about inequalities of access to government when consulting on policy, with particular reference to the role of lobbyists in this area. Finally, low levels of public confidence in government and personal political efficacy point to wider issues about the effectiveness and responsiveness of government. The failures of government to ensure adequate regulation of the financial system provide a dramatic illustration of the shortcomings we identify. 
 
Integrity in public life
 
Major political scandals have continued to occur since our 2002 Audit, despite the growth of bodies and rules intended to promote integrity in the conduct of public officials and restore public confidence.  The police investigation associated with the 'cash-for-peerages’ allegations in 2006, the MPs’ expenses scandal of 2009  and credible evidence of police corruption uncovered during investigations into the 'phone-hacking’ affair have almost certainly impacted negatively on perceptions of integrity in public life. There is, without doubt, a very strong perception, shared by experts and the general public alike, that standards in public life in the UK have declined further in recent years, both in absolute terms and relative to other established democracies.
 
The media in a democratic society
 
By international standards, the UK media is relatively free and, on some measures, relatively pluralistic. However, the concentration of media ownership in the UK, the negative impact of intensifying market competition on news reporting and investigative journalism, and the extent to which intrusion and harassment characterise the practices of  some sections of the press are all long-standing concerns for Democratic Audit. These same issues feature strongly in our current Audit, although we also add concerns about declining newspaper circulation, falling television news consumption, and the regulatory challenges arising from the blurring of the boundaries between print, digital and broadcast media.  Meanwhile, emerging evidence suggests that illegal practices in the media, including phone-hacking, email-hacking, as well as numerous forms of journalistic harassment, may well have become commonplace. Finally, we identify ongoing concerns about the scope for investigative journalism to fall foul of libel law as well as associated issues raised by the growing use of court injunctions by large corporations and powerful individuals to prevent the press reporting on specific matters of democratic importance.
 
External influences on UK democracy
 
The UK is subject to a broad range of external influences which impact on its democratic arrangements. These influences include political, diplomatic and trade organisations; powerful corporate bodies operating in industry and finance; and even other nation-states more powerful than itself. The common view is that their impact on democracy is a negative one. International bodies such as the EU and the WTO are frequently criticised for a lack of transparency and accountability. There is widespread unease about the scope for multinational corporations to shape policy, and particular concerns about the hold which financial markets have over economic policy. And many would argue that, in foreign policy, the UK is influenced to an unhealthy extent by the United States. However, we also take the view that UK policy-makers risk exaggerating the implications of these external influences. In international affairs, the UK continues to punch above its weight, generally enjoying far greater influence within multilateral bodies than its population alone would entitle it to; although without sufficient oversight of this power from both parliament and the public. Mainstream acceptance of the idea that globalisation dictates certain policy options has served to close off discussion of different policy options for the UK, leading to a clear divergence from social policy norms in Europe. Meanwhile, the UK's approach to the EU falls between two stools of either accepting the trade-off between constraints and benefits which membership entails or opting not to participate in order wholly to preserve national sovereignty. 
 
International comparisons
 

As well as evaluating how UK democracy is developing over time, our Audit seeks to compare the UK against a range of other democracies. Throughout the Audit, we make use of available statistical data to benchmark the UK’s democratic performance against the average for western Europe (represented by the EU-15) and the average for established democracies globally (represented by the OECD-34). In addition, wherever possible, we use three groups of comparator democracies within the OECD, each of which represents a specific 'type’ of western democracy. These are the English-speaking 'Westminster democracies’, the 'consensual democracies’ of western Europe,  and the Nordic countries.

Democracy type

Westminster –  OECD (5)

Consensual – OECD (6)

Nordics (5)

Welfare regime type

Liberal

Corporatist

Social Democratic

Countries

Australia

Canada

New Zealand

United Kingdom

Ireland

Austria

Belgium

Germany

Luxembourg

Netherlands

Switzerland

Sweden

Denmark

Finland

Iceland

Norway

The distinction between Westminster and consensual democracies is taken from Arend Lijphart’s (1999) classic study of democracies. In Lijphart’s characterisation, the Westminster model comprises a centralised political system, in which a majoritarian electoral system, limited party competition, a weak separation of powers and constitutional flexibility concentrate power in the hands of single-party governments. By contrast, consensual democracies are characterised by greater fragmentation of power, including a decentralised state; a stronger, formal constitutional separation between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary; and proportional electoral systems and multi-party systems which make coalition government the norm. 

We have added the Nordic countries as a separate category for two key reasons. First, the Nordics do not fit fully into the two-fold Lijphart classification. While Nordic democratic systems and traditions have much in common with the consensual democracies, the long-standing influence of social democracy had resulted in a particularly strong commitment to political equality, as typified by measures promoting the participation of women in public life.  Second,  by giving due recognition to the particularly social democratic characteristics of Nordic democracy, our Audit works with three categories of democracy which are broadly consistent with the clusters of welfare states identified in Esping-Andersen’s  (1990) book, The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism. Given the broad reach of the Audit framework, long-running debates about the relationships between democracy and capitalism, and the core concerns we express in our 2012 Audit about growing inequality and rising corporate power, this threefold classification proves to be highly revealing.  
 
We have also selected a specific country from each group of comparators to offer scope for more detailed comparison in some areas. Thus, some of our datasets compare the UK directly against Australia (Westminster democracy), the Netherlands (consensual democracy) and Sweden (Nordic), all of which are broadly typical of their democracy 'type’. In addition, we have also added two further comparators, one from the EU-15 (Ireland) and one from the EU-34 (USA), both of which sit somewhat uneasily with the Lijphart model. Ireland retains sufficient legacy of the British democratic system to still be viewed as a Westminster democracy, although it now has several features which are atypical of the model, most notably the use of a proportional electoral system. The USA, meanwhile, cannot be easily placed in either category, being a highly decentralised state with a strong separation of powers, but operating perhaps the purest majoritarian electoral and party systems to be found in any established democracy.
 
In total, our Audit includes over 40 comparative datasets, although not all compare the UK to the full range of comparators listed above. In virtually every case, the UK ranks below the EU-15 average and is usually at, or just below the OECD-34 average. The contrasts between the UK and the Nordic countries are particularly stark. Indeed, the Nordic countries out-perform the UK on just about every quantifiable measure of democracy used for cross-national comparison. For example:
 
Average turnout in parliamentary elections in the Nordic countries in the 2000s was 79 per cent, compared to 60 per cent in the UK.
In 2010, the proportion of MPs who were female averaged 41 per cent in the Nordic countries, but only 22 per cent in the UK.
While the average global ranking of the Nordic countries in the 2011 Freedom House index for press freedom was 2nd, the UK was placed 20th.
The proportion of total tax revenue raised by sub-national governments averages 25 per cent in the Nordic countries, against a mere 5 per cent in the UK.
 
What are the core problems with UK democracy? Common themes
 
There are some obvious 'weak links' in the UK's democratic system which can be identified from the above. Significantly, these weaknesses cluster around particular sets of issues associated with elections, political parties, the media, integrity in public life, and the responsiveness and effectiveness of government. Indeed, the tendencies which we see as most concerning tend to cross-cut several individual sections of the Audit framework, leading us to identify five overarching thematic concerns. Several of these themes are common to all established democracies, although we have found them to be especially pronounced in the UK. 
 
1. The UK’s constitutional arrangements are increasingly unstable and it is by no means clear what a reformed Westminster model would look like.  While significant constitutional reforms have been introduced since 1997, some changes have proved less effective then expected, several facets of the UK political system have proves stubbornly resistant to reform. Moreover, some areas of reform have had clearly unintended or unanticipated consequences, most notably devolution to Scotland. The UK’s previously unitary state is now characterised by highly asymmetric decentralisation, with considerable autonomy granted to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, while English governance remains highly centralised. Meanwhile, changes in the operation of the UK party and electoral systems have undermined some of the most fundamental planks of the Westminster model, particularly the principle of single-party majority government, but there is, as yet, little indication of UK politicians recognising these new realities.
 
2. Public faith in democratic institutions is decaying, and reforms aimed at restoring public confidence in democratic arrangements have tended to prove, at best, ineffectual and, in several cases, counter-productive.  Long-term survey evidence suggests that the public trust politicians and political parties less and less, and that they regard democratic institutions such as Parliament as increasingly irrelevant.  Measures such as the transfer of functions to independent bodies, the increased regulation of political activity and the promotion of greater transparency and access to information have done nothing to reverse these trends. If anything, they have made it worse.   
 
3. Political inequality is widening rapidly and even provisions intended to guarantee basic human rights are increasingly being brought into question. While representative democracy is notionally built on principles of political equality (such as one person, one vote), there have always been wide variations in the extent of political participation, and degree of political power exercised, by different social groups. However, political inequalities in the UK have widened over the past four decades, in tandem with the widening of economic and social divisions. While the Human Rights Act has provided for some protection for those most at risk, even this principle of a 'minimal’ guaranteeing of key civil and political rights has been called into question in recent years.  
 
4. Corporate power is growing, partly as a result of wider patterns of globalisation and deregulation, and threatens to undermine some of the most basic principles of democratic decision-making. Business interests have always enjoyed privileged status in modern democracies. However, there are very firm grounds to suggest that the influence large corporations and wealthy individuals now wield on the UK political system is unprecedented. Bolstered by pro-market policy agendas and deregulatory measures, corporate power has expanded as a variety of countervailing forces have declined in significance. Policy-making has shifted from the democratic arena to a far less transparent set of arrangements in which  politics and business interests have become increasingly interwoven.
 
5. Almost all available indicators suggest that representative democracy is in long-term, terminal decline, but no viable alternative model of democracy currently exists.  All measures of popular engagement with, and attitudes towards, representative democracy show a clear decline over time. Whether we seek to measure it via turnout in elections, membership of political parties, voter identification with political parties, or public faith in the system of government, the pattern is the same. While the same basic trends are found in all established democracies, the UK compares especially poorly on just about every conceivable measure.  While there is some evidence to suggest growing interest in forms of direct and participatory democracy, it is by no means clear how these alternative models can co-exist with the assumptions and practices which have traditionally underpinned representative democracy in the UK.  
 
The nature of the 'unwritten’ UK constitution
 
While many of the trends we point to common to all established democracies, the themes identified above also play out in a particular way within the context of the UK's internationally unusual constitutional arrangements. The UK constitution is uncodified and, in large part, unwritten. There is no single document, or set of interlinked documents, which can be clearly labelled as the UK constitution. This absence of a codified constitution is internationally exceptional, with only New Zealand and Israel counting among democracies which share this characteristic. Moreover, the lack of a written constitution is associated with the absence, in the UK system of government, of a number of internationally common constitutional features. Chief among these 'democratic design' omissions are the following:
 
A lack of constitutional transparency, including any sufficiently clear and consensual understanding of what the UK constitution comprises. At present, the UK constitution, such as it is, is contained in variety of different sources – non-statutory royal prerogative powers, acts of parliament, conventions that have no direct legal force and which are frequently not written down in any official document, and constitutional doctrines. Both conventions and doctrines can be difficult to define and there may well be disagreement about their nature. This lack of clarity can often be exploited by the UK-level executive to serve its own purposes at the expense of other groups.
 
The absence of any firmly established principle of 'popular sovereignty’. Popular sovereignty represents the idea that the authority of government is derived from the people and, in most democracies, is regarded as vital to the existence of democratic legitimacy. But in the UK, parliament (composed of the elected Commons and the unelected Lords and monarch), rather than the people, is regarded as sovereign. Yet, at the same time, government exercises a range of powers under the royal prerogative which have never been approved even by parliament, nor are they formally subject to parliamentary control.
 
The lack of entrenched tiers of governance below the UK level. Devolved and local government in the UK are both legally subordinate to the UK Parliament which can – in theory at least – alter or amend them unilaterally on simple majority votes. As a consequence the multinational nature of the UK is not given full constitutional expression and local government in England is subject to constant interference and undermining from the centre.
 
The absence of agreed democratic procedures for amending the constitution. There are no consistent and comprehensive procedures for making amendments to the UK constitution and which ensure such changes are subject to processes more rigorous and inclusive than those applying to regular parliamentary procedure.
 
The lack of mechanisms ensuring that all governmental institutions are subject to constitutional constraints. The UK Parliament, which is to a considerable extent under the effective control of the executive, possesses the ability to override constitutional principles through primary legislation. The courts are unable to disapply such legislation,  except if an act of parliament is in conflict with European law. The outcome of this position, in practice, is that central government is not subject to the restraints found in most other established democracies. 
 
The absence of a fully justiciable and entrenched Bill of Rights. The European Convention on Human Rights is incorporated to UK law under the Human Rights Act 1998. But Parliament retains the ability to legislate expressly in contradiction of Convention rights. If a court finds primary parliamentary legislation to be in violation of the Convention, it can make a declaration of incompatibility but not disapply the legislation, with the final decision about what to do left to UK-level politicians.
 
In the view of Democratic Audit, these various omissions from the UK constitution are detrimental to the functioning of democracy. Moreover, while the UK constitution remains uncodified, it will continue to be characterised by a series of problematic tensions. Central to these difficulties is the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty, according to which the UK Parliament is unlimited in its legislative power. This principle has deep roots (in English constitutional history at least). The specific label 'parliamentary sovereignty’ was popularised more recently by the legal academic A. V. Dicey from the late nineteenth century (Dicey, 1915). According to this doctrine, parliament is able to alter the constitution as it sees fit, and abrogate other constitutional doctrines such as the rule of law in the process (Bingham, 2010). Parliamentary sovereignty has frequently been wielded in this way to bring about constitutional change, by whichever party or coalition of parties dominates the Commons and thereby forms the executive. Traditionally, it has been held that no body other than Parliament is able to produce primary legislation and no court can pronounce its acts invalid. Moreover, it was once held that all acts of Parliament automatically supersede earlier acts of Parliament with which they conflict, even if they do not expressly state that do them – a concept known as the doctrine of implied repeal (Bogdanor, 2009). Finally, while Parliament is able in theory to do almost anything, the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty was often held as preventing it from doing one thing: limiting the power of a future Parliament. For this reason, a sovereign Parliament might be held to be unable to create a written constitution which would entrench certain constitutional enactments and rights, protecting them from being overturned by Parliament using regular legislative methods.
 
Various intellectual problems might be identified with the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty. For instance, why is it that an all-powerful Parliament is unable to create a constitution, and if so how can it be classed as omnipotent? Moreover, developments since Dicey’s time have called into question the practical viability of the doctrine he promoted. They include:
 
The granting of independence to numerous colonies: the acts of parliament providing for independence seemingly cannot be reversed by the UK Parliament, both on practical political grounds and, in some interpretations, even in theory (Goldsworthy, 2010). 
 
The supremacy of EU law: since the UK joined the European Economic Community (now the European Union) in 1973, it has been established that EU law takes precedence over acts of Parliament, with courts able to disapply Acts of Parliament on this basis. The European Communities Act 1972 (ECA) is protected from implied repeal.
 
Human rights legislation: the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) gives the courts a role in reviewing primary legislation (as well as other forms of legislation and administrative acts) for its compatibility with the European Convention on Human Rights, arguably challenging in practice and in law the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty (Kavanagh, 2009; Young, 2008). Like the ECA, the HRA is seemingly protected from implied repeal. 
 
The establishment of devolved governments: since the late 1990s, devolution has been established in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, (and Greater London). These tiers of governance represent a practical challenge to the supremacy of the UK Parliament.
 
The growing use of referendums: the period since the 1970s has seen a number of political decisions determined by the use of referendums, particularly those concerning constitutional matters subject to a degree of popular controversy. This adoption of 'direct democracy' is in direct contradiction to notions of parliamentary sovereignty, particularly where referendums are deemed to be binding.   
 
Evidence of changing attitudes towards parliamentary sovereignty within the judiciary: members of the judiciary have shown an increased interest (not yet acted upon) in the possibility of disapplying acts of Parliament which they found to contravene fundamental principles of the rule of law, or requiring a range of statutes they deemed constitutional not to be subject to implied repeal, but only to express repeal.
 
Attempts have been made to refine the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty to accommodate these tendencies (Goldsworthy, 2010). Nonetheless, the problem remains that at the heart of the UK constitution, as traditionally understood, lies growing uncertainty and instability. The process of adopting a written constitution for the UK would enable these tensions to be recognised and accommodated within a more coherent constitutional order. Such a project is not to be taken lightly. Drawing up a written constitution in a technically and democratically satisfactory manner, would be a substantial task. But it is almost certainly essential if the UK is to ensure that it remains in line with widely-accepted international democratic norms.
 
Mapping a route to democratic renewal
 
We welcome both the greater profile given to constitutional reform in recent decades, as well as many of the individual reforms which have been introduced. However, in view of the evidence we present in this Audit, we are critical of the failure of governments, and opposition parties, to take a 'holistic view' of the reform process. Constitutional change since 1997 has been extensive, but reform has tended to be piecemeal, lacking in any consistent or coherent approach or any clear sense of direction. The most obvious overarching objective of recent reforms has been the stated desire of senior figures across all political parties to reverse the decline in public trust and popular participation in UK democracy. Yet, as we have noted, there is little evidence that recent reforms have had any success in this regard ‒ about the best that can be said is that the decline in electoral turnout has been arrested. 
 
In this context, it is important to note that moments of crisis have often served as drivers of change, notably accusations of 'sleaze' in the 1990s and the controversies over MPs’ expenses from 2009 onwards. These 'flash-points' of popular disquiet have given rise to periods in which constitutional reform efforts have arguably been as incoherent as they have been intense. One fundamental contradiction has remained throughout. Governments have attempted to respond to declining public faith and popular participation by rendering political and governmental processes more open and transparent, and extending the options for citizen engagement. But, with the exception of devolution, they have done so without fundamentally challenging the 'power-hoarding' instincts of the British state. The result is a highly flawed variant of the Westminster model of democracy in which some elements more typical of the consensual democracies have been imported, but political power remains highly concentrated. As Matthew Flinders (2010) has noted, we are therefore caught in a process of 'democratic drift'.
 
Democratic Audit supports greater transparency and openness although, as we have already noted, there is little evidence to suggest that they will, of themselves, restore popular trust in the democratic process. We also support the development of mechanisms for greater participatory democracy. But it is also our view that simply extending the menu of options for citizens to participate, whether through consultation procedures, e-petitions, citizens juries, referendums, or the direct election of police and crime commissioners, represents an insufficient basis for democratic renewal. Some of these initiatives can, and should, have a role in reinvigorating our democracy, but they also risk becoming a diversion from the core problems of the UK's political system. 
 

We would suggest that political and constitutional reforms will only succeed if they are guided by a long-term vision of how parliament, local councils and other organs of representative democracy are to be re-established as the centrepiece of our political system. Recent reforms to the UK Parliament are an encouraging development, as is the evidence of parliamentarians becoming more assertive in their role as scrutinisers of government legislation and action. And, while they are certainly not democratic panaceas, there is a great deal to be learnt at Westminster from the way in which the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly have forged links between representative institutions and civil society. But perhaps the most significant lesson to be learnt from devolution is that democratic improvements do not stem from 'quick fixes'. The successes of devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are the products of new constitutional settlements, from which the residents of England, by far the great bulk of the UK population, have been excluded. If significant, and sustained, improvements in British democracy are to be achieved, then a fresh constitutional settlement will be required for the UK as a whole.  In this regard, the case for defining a new, written constitution for the UK, as an act of far-reaching democratic reform and renewal, has never been stronger.  

References

 

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