The British constitution, despite being uncodified, is among the most complex (and oldest) in the world. So, unsurprisingly, an ever-growing part of the population seem to be in favour of reforming it in some way: be it in order to give the vote to 16 year olds, to ditch First Past The Post, to abolish the Lords, or anything in between. However, there is one piece of recent constitutional reform that you’d be hard-pressed to find any constitutional expert who doesn’t consider it to be an appalling piece of legislation. I am, of course, talking about the Fixed Terms Parliament Act 2011.
To understand the FTPA, we need to take a look to the past. Up until 1911, Parliaments were limited to a maximum of seven years before an election had to take place (not that they often lasted that long). The imaginatively-named Parliament Act 1911 changed that by limiting Parliaments to a shorter five year term. That was far from the biggest change to the constitution brought about by this act: the Lords lost their right to veto bills (particularly so-called ‘money bills’) and could instead only delay bills for a maximum of two years. This established the primacy of the Commons over the Lords, and gave parliament more accountability to the people. At the same time, another of the demands of the much maligned Chartists (more about them in a later article) was met: MPs were finally granted a salary, allowing those other than the wealthy who already had another source of income to enter politics. A few years later, women were granted the vote (as long as they fulfilled certain requirements), and ten years after that, the franchise was extended to all women over 21. Twenty-two years after that, the power of the Lords was further diminished: their delaying period was reduced from two years to one.
The next major reform wouldn’t come until 1999, with the House of Lords Act — hereditary peers, who had almost always made up a large proportion of the Lords, and guaranteed a near-permanent large Conservative majority. This act reduced the number of hereditary peers to 92, and made them stand for election to those positions (only other members of the lords were allowed to vote though). The plan was for this to only be the first step in New Labour reforms to the Lords, though none of the other reforms came to fruition. The Commons was now truly the most powerful house, and Britain was, by any measure, truly democratic.
There was one thing that many still complained was undemocratic though — the prime minister could, at any time dissolve parliament and call a general election with the Royal Prerogative. Elections could happen at any time really, as a no-confidence vote would also cause the government to fall and a fresh election to take place. The Fixed Term Parliament Act 2011 was designed to be a fix to this — it was one of the major reforms attempted by the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government. The act would set parliaments to last five years, and no less — the idea is sensible at first glance, but take a closer look and you realise just how ill thought out it is.
The main issue is that the act can be circumvented with great ease — all a Prime Minister needs to do is request an election by putting before the commons a bill the call an early general election and get two-thirds of the house to vote for it. The thing is, the government are going to vote for it (there’d probably be a three-line whip for the motion) and the opposition would vote for it too: if they don’t, it implies to the media that they are happy with the current government and don’t want to challenge them and try to enter government themselves. This issue notably manifested itself in 2017 when Theresa May announced plans for an early general election — the first snap election under the FTPA.
The other problem is that fixed-term parliaments are just a bad idea, plain and simple. Just look to the US, where political gridlock is constant and things seldom get done. The government has a tiny majority with the support of the DUP, and having to face down both hardcore brexiteers and remainers in her party will likely lead to the collapse of the government at some point. If we had truly fixed terms, thanks to the extreme political polarisation that we’re seeing at the moment, then nothing would get done in Brexit negotiations and Britain would crash out of the European Union with no deal. The ability for a Prime Minister to call an early general election is key.
So surely these problems cancel each other out? No, they just make the act pointless, as we end up in the same place as we did before.
That’s not to say there’s nothing good about the act — requiring that Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament elections not take place on the same day as a general election is sensible, and allowing the Prime Minister to extend a parliament by up to two months under emergency circumstances seems like a good idea too. But the bulk of the act is simply pointless and self-defeating, and just serves to complicate our already hopelessly complex constitution even more. The power to call a general election through Prerogative powers was quite probably the PM’s greatest power, and this act designed to do away with that power instead does nothing but endear their power to the media.