The ground rules have been rewritten, so all sides of the spectrum can feel frustrated at onceby Tom Clark / January 30, 2019 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2019 issue of Prospect Magazine
Everything in British politics used to guard against stalemate. Even close-fought elections provided clear winners. Vote shares were often close: in 1950, 1951, 1955, 1964, 1970, February and then October 1974, the rounded gap between the parties was no more than three points, and less than a point in three cases. But only one of these votes, February 1974, failed to return a PM with a working majority, and that was addressed by the October re-run.
Through the 80s, 90s and noughties, one party was normally far enough ahead to make obvious in advance who the winner would be. The one exception came in 1992, which felt like a nailbiter, though in the end produced a strong showing—and an overall majority—for John Major, right. Labour supporters remember that night as a punch in the stomach, because they immediately understood that they had lost everything: the Tories would be running the show for another five years. The Major government was soon very unpopular, but that didn’t thwart a controversial Conservative agenda: the railways were privatised, the NHS internal market driven through, and new curbs imposed on trade unions. In Britain, prime ministers and parties who won could essentially do what they liked.
In the quarter century since, however, the ground rules have been rewritten, so that political wins are no longer what they were—and all sides of the spectrum can feel frustrated at once. Power has seeped from Westminster to myriad places, starting with Scotland, where it has since passed to a party that believes Scotland is a nation that has perpetually lost through the Union. The SNP has proved so brilliant at nursing that grievance, that it can still run oppositionist campaigns after a dozen years in government.
The wings of winners have been clipped in many other ways too. Everything ministers do is now subject to Freedom of Information and human rights laws. They have surrendered power to regulators, quangos and outsourcing firms—Ofcom, the independent Bank of England, PFI providers. And officials sternly advise them against meddling: the evolving protocol insists that the new regulators deserve all the independence of judges. Power has drifted from Whitehall to real judges, too, with the development of public law and judicial review. It was, recall, the Supreme Court that forced Theresa May into a vote on triggering Article 50 following a case brought by campaigner Gina Miller.
Most fatefully, tracts of policy—covering the environment, business and social rights—were outsourced to the EU. British nationalists resented it, and a small band of anti-European leftists fixate on EU restrictions on state aid as the great obstacle in the way of industrial democracy. And we all know where this sense of lost autonomy eventually led.
As Parliament seeks to pick up the pieces, there is talk of the Commons itself seizing the power of initiative from the government, and taking unprecedented control of its own timetable. Bringing the mighty to heel sounds attractive, but the House is not set up to hammer out an agreed line in the way a government does. A weaker executive will create more murk about who is in charge, making it harder again to truly win. Even before we get there, there’s the 2011 Fixed-Term Parliaments Act to reckon with. It has separated the procedure for shattering the authority of a government from that for dissolving the House, enabling the sort of zombie governance the UK currently seems to be saddled with. It isn’t a model to make anybody feel like they’re winning.