The impact of the referendum could change the fundamental structure of our parliamentary democracyby Colin Talbot / January 10, 2019 / Leave a comment
The “three-body problem” is physics is fairly well known. Crudely, in Newtonian physics it is fairly easy to reduce the interactions of two astronomical bodies—like the Earth and the Moon—to simple equations, but as soon as you introduce a third body—like the Sun—the maths becomes much more complex.
Stripped of inessential factors, the way modern British Government usually works can be seen as being a bit like the three-body problem. Between elections, and in normal times when there is a Parliamentary majority for a single Party, only three institutions really matter: the Executive, Parliament and the political parties.
The way our “parliamentary democracy” emerged was by gradually eroding the powers of the actual Monarch and passing these instead to the Prime Minister (executive). Parliament’s role was to authorise the Government to govern and to scrutinise how they did it—but the balance of power lies with “Her Majesty’s Government.”
The third element of this triangle is the parties, which tie together the other two. The Leader of the Party that “commands the confidence (majority) of the House of Commons” usually becomes the Prime Minister. This effectively neutralises many potential tensions between the House of Commons and the Executive. It’s why it has often been referred to as an “elective dictatorship”—the Government rules OK. Or, as the anarchist slogan used to have it: “Whoever you Vote for, the Government will get in.”
The political parties marshall “their” MPs in the House of Commons behind the Government’s policies. Although there are degrees of interaction between back bench MPs and Ministers, the ruling Party provides the glue that holds Government and Parliament together.
The existence of the main Opposition Party—or “Her Majesty’s loyal opposition”—also forms part of this configuration, keeping disputes and arguments within the usual channels of Parliament.
When it works, this system is relatively stable. Currently, it faces an almost perfect storm of challenges.
The Reduced Pull of a Minority Government
As soon as you have a minority Government—as we currently do—this relatively stable set of relationships starts to wobble. Ruling party MPs may be tempted to use their extra leverage to wins concessions from the Government. Minority parties can use the Governments weakness to likewise push for…