[ESSAY] To what extent does the ‘Westminster model’ still adequately describe the UK political system?
(Written prior to Brexit and as part of my British Politics 2 module)
At the dawn of the Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition, Nick Clegg declared there would be a ‘new politics’ and ‘a new kind of government’. Jeremy Corbyn claimed his Labour leadership campaign was ‘a vote for change in the way we do politics’. The foundations on which the British political system is built on has been severely affected by the Coalition that emerged after the 2010 election. Events since 2010 have led to questions whether a new political age is sweeping into Britain. Before analysing whether the British political system is transforming, the traditional model of how Britain is governed (the Westminster model) needs to be explained. Some of the key elements of the model must be critiqued to answer whether the Westminster model is still an adequate description of the UK political system.
The Westminster model was the dominant theory of British politics for the nineteenth century and defined the way the British system works, or ought to work. The core principles include parliamentary sovereignty, which locates supreme political authority at Westminster, a government with a parliamentary majority controls the legislative process and a two party system. Criticisms of how well the model’s core principles describe the modern British political system have emerged between writers.
Dicey defined parliamentary sovereignty as parliament ‘under the British constitution’ having ‘the right to make or unmake any law and…that no person…is recognised by the law of England as having a right to override or set aside the legislation of Parliament’. According to Bagehot, ‘the ultimate authority in the English constitution is a newly-elected House of Commons’, demonstrating the importance of the British Parliament in the political system. The principle of parliamentary sovereignty has been questioned due to the growing influence from the likes of the European Union and multinational corporations.
Britain’s membership in the now called European Union began in 1973, with its stay confirmed through a referendum in 1975. Before Britain had entered the then ECC, the European Court of Justice had already established that European law took priority over the laws of individual states. The Factortame case in 1990, a pivotal moment in UK-EU relations, held that ‘A national law should be set aside where it prevents the granting of interim relief in a dispute governed by EU law.’ The assessment, therefore, that Dicey presented has significantly changed since EU law is able to set aside British statutes. Bogdanor dispels the argument that sovereignty ultimately lies with Parliament as it can at any time leave the EU, writing, ‘If, in a federal constitution the right of secession is constitutionally recognised, that does not make the provincial units sovereign.’ On top of the power of the EU, the British parliament is also influenced, legally and politically, by their inclusion in the likes of the IMF, NATO and the UN.
Globalisation has proven too powerful for political institutions with the wants and needs of multinational corporations having increasing influence on national and supranational institutions. George Osbourne celebrated in January 2016 a deal struck with Google in which the technology company agreed a £130m settlement in back taxes with the HRMC relating to a period from 2005 to 2015. This is despite the company between 2005 and 2015 generating an estimated profit, in the UK, of about £7.2bn. The dealings of the UK government and Google presents a microcosm of the influence that multinational companies now wield over the UK political system, and therefore the principle of parliamentary sovereignty. King identifies both that British governments have struggled to stop British businesses being taken over and transferred overseas, but also, successive governments, scared of discouraging foreign investment, have kept corporation tax low. After holding hearings with Amazon, Google and Starbucks, the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee reported ‘international companies are able to exploit national and international tax structures to minimise corporation tax on the economic activity they conduct in the UK.’ The state of British steel perhaps shows the level to which Parliament has conceded power to the globalised economy with its inability to act to save its production and subsequent jobs. The European-U.S trade deal known as TTIP currently being negotiated is reported to include powers for multinational corporations to sue EU governments that take on policies presumed to go against free trade.
The changing status of Parliamentary sovereignty has aligned with the potential shift away from Britain’s two party system, a key element of the Westminster model. In 1957, ninety-seven percent of the electorate voted Labour or Conservative with both being able to boast memberships of over two million. Today they have less than two-hundred-thousand members with the 2010 election seeing the two party’s gaining 65.1 percent of the vote and 67.3 percent in 2015. The Liberal Democrat inclusion in government after 2010 showed the importance of smaller parties as king makers meaning much of the following election coverage speculated what coalitions may be formed.The parties once completely side-lined have risen considerably with UKIP, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all participating in leadership debates in the run up to the 2015 election. The election saw the SNP win fifty-four seats in Scotland and UKIP gaining almost four million votes. Elections to the devolved bodies and the European Parliament, using proportional electoral systems, have seen the once smaller parties such as the SNP forming a government in Scotland, Plaid Cymru entering into a coalition with Labour in Wales and UKIP winning a European election. The effective number of parties on the national scene has increased from just above 2 in the 1950’s to over 3.5 in 2010. Across constituencies, party competition is becoming more diverse with the Conservatives and Labour coming out as the top two in less than 45% of constituencies in 2010. Elections may continue to fluctuate due to changing British political trends including falling turnout, declining trust in politicians and the growth in populist politics.
The British party system has traditionally gone hand in hand with executive dominance, leading to the Westminster model being seen as shorthand for a dominant executive over the legislature. Being a majoritarian theory, it is based on one party gaining a majority and using it to govern effectively. In 1904, Low commented, ‘The House of Commons no longer controls the executive… the Executive controls the House of Commons’. The story of the British political system has been one of executive dominance with governments wielding big majorities in the Commons, specifically Thatcher and Blair, being able to steamroll through legislation. For those trying to defend the record of the British parliament, the cold hard facts don’t make good reading. Eight years into Blair’s government and he still hadn’t suffered a defeat in the Commons. However, rebellions have increased since the 1970’s from eight percent of divisions in 1997–2001, up to thirty-nine percent for 2010–2014 under the coalition. The true power of parliament, going against the narrative of executive dominance, lies in the fear of government presenting legislation that will warrant resistance. Mezey points out, ‘government proposals [may] appear to pass the legislature unopposed and unamended simply because the government avoids introducing those things which may provoke legislative resistance.’ For example, Osbourne in 2016 wasn’t defeated on pension reform or cuts to disability benefit as neither were voted on due to fears they wouldn’t pass the Commons. .
The traditional role of the House of Lords is as a revising chamber cleaning up any problems with bills presented by the commons (and by extension the government). However, despite the government having the power to over-rule the House of Lords, the chamber has advanced its role due to the greater legitimacy the House of Lords Act 1999 created. The established role of the Lords is personified through the fact that only on three occasions between 1911 and 1999 did the Commons have to use the Parliament Act to pass legislation without the Lords’ consent. The psyche of the Lords was one of cautiousness, embodied by the Salisbury-Addison convention, whereas recently the Lords continually collided with Blair’s government and has already thrown out a disputed manifesto commitment of the Conservatives by rejecting cuts to the tax credit system. The greater legitimacy brought about by the scrapping of all but 92 hereditary peers has not completely transformed the powers of the chamber. It has, however, led subsequent governments to tread with caution, shown in 2005 where, over a measure to restrict trial by jury, the government withdrew a piece of legislation expecting a defeat. Between 1999 and 2010, the government suffered 458 defeats in the Lords but one peer pointed out, ‘if government believes that the numbers may be stacking up against them then they’re much more likely to settle the matter outside.’
The history of Britain has allowed its political system to progress in, mostly, an organic fashion creating a unique structure. However, it’s still a structure that can witness seismic shifts. The problem with Westminster model theory is its black and white nature, whereas politics has always been a complex issue. A large part of what the Westminster model presents is an accurate description of the UK political system. It could be argued that sovereignty does lie with Parliament as it has voluntarily joined supranational institutions and played up to big business interests. Elections for the foreseeable future are going to produce either a Labour or Conservative Prime Minister. To a large extent there is an executive dominance, especially when the government wields a large majority. However, the influence of the multinational corporations continues to grow, eating away at parliamentary sovereignty; backbenchers have become more assertive, as has the Lords, and there is no denying the increasing importance of other political parties such as UKIP and the SNP. What would be an adequate description of the UK political system is it’s a neo-Westminster model. As so many theories and areas of political thought have adapted (like neo-liberalism), so must the description of the system in the UK.
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