Most governments run out of ideas after around three years. This one is no exceptionby James Kirkup / November 27, 2014 / Leave a comment
Politicians are like insects. Specifically, the magicicada, the flying locust-like creatures that hatch every 17 years across the north-eastern US. There is a rhythm to their lives, a natural cycle that determines their actions just as surely as the ticking clock that sends salmon upstream to spawn and die. For British politicians, this is the electoral cycle and it’s supposed to last four years.
That was Asquith’s expectation in 1911 when he abolished the Septennial Act 1715 and its seven-year Parliaments. A four-year term, he said, means the Commons is “always either fresh from the polls which gave it authority, or—and this is an equally effective check upon acting in defiance of the popular will—it is looking forward to the polls at which it will have to render an account of its stewardship.”
In short, four years is long enough to get things done, but short enough that politicians never forget who’s boss: judgement day is always just around the corner.
The Coalition junked Asquith’s four-year norm in 2011 when it passed the Fixed-Term Parliament Act, the most important—and yet least-noticed—constitutional changes in Britain since Scottish and Welsh devolution in 1999.
The case for fixing the electoral timetable was sound enough: to work together, the two coalition partners had to have faith that the other was not about to collapse their shared vessel and cash in with an early general election.
Not everyone is convinced. The House of Lords Constitutional Affairs Committee last year fretted that the law makes coalitions more likely since it reduces the scope for a minority government to govern for a few months then trigger a quick second election. “This may affect government-formation negotiations by prompting parties to seek alternatives to forming a minority administration,” the peers said.
Yes, but is that actually a problem? This is an age of political fragmentation, the combined vote-share of the Conservatives and Labour sliding inexorably downwards as voters shop around and encourage smaller parties. Any constitutional device that encourages governments with the broadest support should be welcomed.
No, the problem with the Act isn’t the fix itself. It’s the timetable. Five years is too long for a parliamentary government. France, like many other republics, elected its head of state for a five years, but then checks the…