Unique Britain – Brexit and the Distinct Characteristics of the British Political System

By Norbert Rebow

If you have been following Brexit developments recently, you may have been struck by some of the distinct ways the British political class and the country’s institutions have handled this process. In this article I will try to dispel some of the confusion and mystery surrounding the British political system to help you make sense of the drama emanating from London.

One distinct area of the Brexit process have been the passions in the debate about the  possibility of a second referendum. The opponents of a second vote argue with intense conviction that asking the public again would be overturning ‘the will of the people’ and be dangerous to democracy. How does the British political system influence this debate? Two related points are of particular importance – historically referenda in the UK have been rare and there is a different theoretical approach to the source of power. There have been only three national referenda – the 1975 European Communities membership referendum, the 2011 referendum on changing the electoral system to alternative vote and the 2016 EU membership vote. Prominent politicians including the prime ministers from both the Conservatives and Labour including Margaret Thatcher and Clement Attlee have criticised the use of referendums as being tools of dictators.

Unlike in most European democracies, where written constitutions explicitly state that the people are the source of sovereignty, in the UK where the constitutional set-up consists of ordinary laws and conventions, sovereignty originates from the Queen and is exercised by Parliament. This is why you may have heard parliamentary sovereignty being mentioned in Brexit debates over the last few years and especially in recent weeks as MPs have sought to take control of the agenda.

Taken together these two elements mean that the British political class is inexperienced and uncomfortable in dealing with the outcomes of referenda. The sheer rarity of these votes gives them a prominence that make their results difficult to ignore – indeed many British politicians who campaigned on both sides of the 2016 referendum have expressed deep concern about the consequences for faith in democracy if Brexit is not implemented. Recent polls do show an increased support in the British electorate for solutions to the current constitutional crisis with some stark methods – more than half are in favour of the country being led by ‘a strong leader willing to break the rules’ [1]. The importance of parliamentary sovereignty also helps explain why the party manifestos are mentioned so frequently in the Brexit debates – historically votes for a party in a general election have been interpreted as endorsements of the full policy platform. This is strained in a situation where the electorates of both major parties are divided on the issue of EU membership.

Many Europeans have also been shocked that it is only in the last weeks, as the Article 50 period has been extended, that the two major parties have started talking about a common approach to Brexit. This lack of coordination arose partly out of the particular style of democracy and electoral that the UK employs – it is an adversarial system where coalitions are extremely rare. In the British conception democracy is maintained by the electorate choosing from a range of manifesto proposals, then judging the party that won at the next election on whether it has fulfilled its promises. The first-past-the-post system that Britain uses to elect its Members of Parliament usually returns the overall parliamentary majorities that allows this understanding of democracy to function. The country is divided into 650 constituencies which each elect one MP who takes up a seat in the House of Commons – to be elected a candidate needs to get the most votes in the constituency but not a majority. On the national scale this means that large parties and parties that have their supporters concentrated in specific parts of the country, have a higher share of seats in parliament than their share of all votes cast. In almost every election since the Second World War this has resulted in one party having an overall majority – the exceptions were February 1974, 2010 and in 2017, when the current House of Commons was elected.

The 2010 election led to Britain’s first coalition government since 1945 and the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government passed a constitutional change that influences events in the British Parliament today. Before the Fixed-term Parliaments Act became law in 2011, while each parliament could last a maximum of 5 years, the prime minister could unilaterally call an election earlier. In order to avoid David Cameron, the Conservative prime minister of that coalition, arranging a snap election when the polling was good for his party, the Liberal Democrats insisted on changes that brought in the requirement for a supermajority of 2/3 or for 2 weeks to pass after a vote of no confidence in the government for a new election [2].

The 2017 election also did not deliver a majority for any party. Theresa May formed her current government with the support of the Democratic Unionist Party. She thus leads a minority government, something that is also almost alien to the British political system The DUP is a party from Northern Ireland that is the main representative of unionists – supporters of Northern Ireland remaining part of the UK. It backed Brexit in the referendum while 55% of people in that part of the UK voted to remain. The DUP is concerned about anything that might undermine the link between Northern Ireland and Great Britain over the course of the Brexit process [3]

In short, therefore, as Britain makes decisions on the largest reorientation of the country since the Second World War, it does so in a political situation that is not suited to its constitutional traditions. It is also showing how distinct its political culture is on the European scene.


Sources used in this article

  1. https://edition.cnn.com/2019/04/08/uk/hansard-strong-leader-brexit-poll-gbr-intl/index.html
  2. https://www.ft.com/content/17eda04e-ea24-359a-8c7e-d0caed79cb5e
  3. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/brexit-news-latest-dup-article-50-theresa-may-a8847041.html
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