"A big win for May could make it tempting to forget the truth that Britain remains split down the middle. That would be a mistake."by Tom Clark / May 18, 2017 / Leave a comment
There are times when the British way of doing politics feels not merely unreformed, but unreformable. Not so long ago there was a coalition, a novelty in this country, which talked of overhauling the voting system, democratising the Lords and fixing election dates so they ceased to be a prime ministerial plaything. The first change died the death quickly, in a forgotten referendum, the second more slowly, ensnared in Westminster’s arcane procedures. Now—with Theresa May’s snap election—the shift to fixed terms has also been exposed as an illusion. After the unexpected return to single-party government two years ago, the oldest rule in the constitutional book, that an administration in possession of a Commons majority can do as it pleases, is asserting itself anew amid an extraordinary renaissance by a Conservative tribe which is—as Geoffrey Wheatcroft explains—the most ancient and successful political party of the lot.
Concerns about the scope for “elective dictatorship” within the British framework have often been voiced by people from all parts of the spectrum. The phrase was first used by an unbending Conservative, Lord Hailsham, as the 1970s Labour government was using the whip and the guillotine to ram through measures that weren’t to his taste. More recently, Tony Blair found little difficulty in marshalling parliament behind his Iraq misadventure because he was blessed with an ineffective opposition, under Iain Duncan Smith, and an outsize majority on his own side. Margaret Thatcher sacked a wise old Tory, Francis Pym, who had dared to caution that landslides did not encourage good governance. She ended up ruined by the poll tax, a rigid scheme that could have been softened by pragmatic amendment—if only she’d had fewer loyal MPs.
Prime ministerial hubris, then, has given way to nemesis in the past. Could that happen again? Meg Russell is more sanguine than some, pointing to devolution and cracks in traditional party discipline as new constraints on No 10. Besides, after a few years that have repeatedly made fools of the pundits, nobody should prejudge the result of this election. But, in the light of the real votes cast in the local elections, it is evident that a large Conservative majority is one very possible outcome. Newly united around quitting the European Union, helped along by Labour’s decay and Ukip’s collapse, the tide has turned in their favour, and first-past-the-post has a…