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Liberal Democracy or Elected Dictatorship? The Case of the British State

Updated on March 17, 2013
Downing Street, Center of Government?
Downing Street, Center of Government?

To the vast majority of Britons, the British state is a liberal democratic state. After all, we have elections. Our successive governments have preached to the world, from Korea to Venezuela, Russia to Iran, on the apparent defects of their democracy. The media led by the state owned BBC tell us we are a liberal democracy. We have an education system that teaches the history of electoral reform and universal suffrage, and speaks not of the state using violence on its own people eg the Battle of George Square when the government sent the tanks into Glasgow City (Of course we hear plenty of Tianeman Square or Hungary 1956), or the miner’s strike, or Bloody Sunday.

The undemocratic actions of the state at any time in history are plentiful. But what will be focused upon here is the structural shape of the British state, more so than its actions. For its structural formation alone succeeds in revealing the nature of the British state: it is an absolutist Hobbesian state, a semi-elected dictatorship.

The Constitution

Britain lacks a constitution in the sense of typical liberal democracy. There is no one piece of paper containing the guiding principles of the land. Instead what we have is known as an uncodified constitution. Our constitution is simply the collection of existing bills passed by parliament, these themselves can be overturned at any given time by the creation of new laws.

Anyone who has studied politics in a British University will be well familiar with the notion that there is nothing parliament cannot do. Historically, it was said that the only thing parliament cannot do is turn a man into a woman. In the modern day with the miracles of science, it could no doubt do that too. It is important to note, and will be made clearer as we continue, that what is really meant is that the sovereign can do anything, not parliament. As the great popular myth is that parliament is sovereign, although not even bourgeois academics hold that position - only popular culture holds this view.

Liberal Democracy

On paper this is a system of universal representation. There is equality before the law. Most crucially the 3 branches of government are divided. Power is not to be centralized, instead the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government are separate and divisible. This is the key structural formation, whereas other features may be said to exist: free speech etc, such features are of little structural significance.

When we speak of the British state, it is difficult to understand the branches of government as tripartite. For not only are the 3 classical liberal democratic branches of government fused, other structural dimensions exist. To the man on the street, the monarchy is a symbolic and powerless institution. However, this is a structural falsehood of which more will be revealed. Added to this is the EU dimension which depending on one’s view either infringes upon or interpenetrates with all 3 classical domestic branches.

Cabinet Meeting
Cabinet Meeting

The Executive Branch

Loosely speaking the government is the executive branch. Academics have typically portrayed cabinet as the institution of primary importance. This consists of departmental ministers and the Prime Minister who is said the be the first among equals. That some are more equal than others is evident by the process that the Prime Minister hires and fires all other ministers. The democratic deficit is further revealed by the fact that no-one elects the Prime Minister, he is appointed to office by the monarch. The Prime Minister is only elected as a constituency Member of Parliament. David Cameron was elected only as MP for the upper class Oxfordshire constituency of Witney, not as Prime Minister.

As alluded to by the PM’s appointment by the monarch, many of the powers of the executive will be returned to later with regards to the discussion of the monarchy.

House of Commons
House of Commons
House of Lords
House of Lords

The Legislative Branch

This consists of parliament, not only the House of Commons but the House of Lords & the devolved parliaments. The House of Commons is of course of primary importance, it is the main lawmaker. It is elected in a first-past-the-post system designed to keep the large parties in power and negate the influence of smaller parties.

Rather than being separate from the executive branch, it is the talent pool of the executive branch and under its control. It is the talent pool because it is where cabinet ministers are almost always drawn from (barring cases like Gordon Brown appointing an Admiral as a minister). Lords also can and have been made government ministers, thereby giving them more power than most elected MP’s (although the Lords as a house can only delay the passing of legislation, it cannot draft laws). It is under the control of the executive because the Prime Minister can dissolve parliament and call an election on a whim, because the executive sets the agenda in parliament and decides what is discussed and debated, and when this occurs. Similar agenda setting occurs in the media realm. The state controlled and ran BBC sets the news agenda and tone of dialogue. We need not even address the cosy relationship between media barons and the state: relationships between Blair or Cameron and Rupert Murdoch, or the volume of knights of the realm and Lords who are media moguls.

The legislative branch also includes the devolved parliaments and assemblies in Scotland, Wales & Northern Ireland. All of these are subordinated to the will of the executive who can recall their limited powers at any time.

Judiciary

Historically, the highest law in the land was the Law Lords. These were a selection of lawyers sitting in the unelected legislature, the House of Lords. These were the highest source to appeal to. As Lords they were appointed by the PM and Monarch, thus were under the control of the executive branch. As Lords they sat in parliament and thus were part of the legislature. Therefore, in the judiciary we had the complete fusion of all 3 classical branches.

This changed in 2009 when the Supreme Court replaced the Law Lords. At least there was theoretical change, a change in title. For the Law Lords simply transferred to the supreme court, they remain appointed by the monarch and PM and are given the title of Lord for Life.

The Queen Opening Parliament
The Queen Opening Parliament

Monarchy

Here is the most misunderstood of institutions. In popular culture it is viewed as serving a symbolic function, of being Apolitical and powerless. Instead the monarchy is tied up with the executive. Typically, we believe that the only power of the monarchy is its right to advise and be advised. Walter Bagehot described the monarchs powers as “the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn”. In practice the Monarch meets regularly with the Prime Minister. In these meetings the monarch has the right to be updated on all matters of state. The current monarch is notorious in exercising this right. She also uses this platform to privately criticise policy and suggest amendments or a change of course. The private nature of this role is to allow the Queen to be seen to be above politics while simultaneously pursuing active involvement. And while all powers of the monarch are not always exercised, the monarch does retain the legal right to do so. That she has not dissolved parliament or unilaterally declared war is less the point than that she has the legal right to do so.

The most important aspect of the monarchy is its prerogative powers. These are powers which are remnants of the archaism of absolutist monarchy. Prerogative power is the ability to make actions that are not subject to the scrutiny of parliament (the significant structural implication is that parliament is not sovereign). Such powers include the right to declare war, deploy the military, summon and dissolve parliament. Just how many of these powers exist is not publicly known, not by media nor academics.

How prerogative power is exercised is by the earlier noted fusion of monarch and PM in the executive. The PM has royal powers transferred by the monarch upon him. In practice this means that with the Queens approval he can dissolve parliament, declare war etc. Some notable and less notable cases of the use of prerogative powers include the invasion of Iraq in the case of the former, and ethnic cleansing of Diego Garcia in the latter. The former is so well known that it need not be touched on any further. In the case of Diego Garcia, the Wilson Labour government agreed to lease its imperial island to the US military in exchange for polaris nuclear submarines. In order to do this the government had to plan the forced evacuation of the inhabitants of Diego Garcia by sending them to slums in Mauritius. However, the government did not have the right to make this order, as this was a prerogative power. The ethnic cleansing was made possible only by the signature of the Queen, who duly obliged.

In military matters the monarch is the supreme ruler. It is to they that they armed forces swear allegiance to, not to the people, not even to parliament, not even the government. The military is under the command of the monarchs prerogative powers. The Royal family have the right to hold high ranking military office and make military appointments. If parliament voted to abolish the monarchy, the military would be obliged to turn on parliament, the same obviously goes for a people’s revolution - the military must kill and enslave the people to save the monarch. Clearly democracy is only permitted insofar as those elected are approved by the absolute sovereign. This is not only a theoretical truth, but was made clear by the plans for a palace-military coup against the petty-bourgeois social democratic Wilson government.

A final interesting point is that the monarch is also head of the Church of England, the official state church. Therefore, not only is the monarchy fused with the executive, judiciary and military, we also have the fusion of church and state, in particular church and monarchy. This relationship is further exemplified by the Church's right to have Bishops appointed to the legislature.

The EU

Here we have the final dimension of the British state. The executive retains the right to exit the EU. But while a member of it, the state is bound to European legislation and directives. A British government cannot for instance, take the means of production into public ownership. This and a host of other things are illegal under EU law. There can then be no real democracy, perhaps not even liberal democracy while being an EU member state, as laws and rules are passed by unelected bourgeois bureaucrats in Brussels. Through the European Commission, Parliament and courts, we see that the EU interpenetrates all levels of government. Again, that no government in practice opposes the EU is not the point, the point is it is subjugated by capitalist Europe even if it did not want to be. But the fact is that all the major political parties want to be in the EU. It is politically useful to ruling bourgeois regimes. The EU can pass the unpopular laws against public ownership, which Tories, Liberals and Labour all stand for. But it allows these parties to posture against the EU, to argue over fringe issues like pounds or kilos. It gives them the opportunity to pass the buck on unpopular decisions, unpopular decisions which the ruling class and their parties privately and sometimes publicly support.

Last Words

What we see clearly is that Britain is no liberal democracy. The 3 branches of government are fused together and with antiquity in the shape of the monarchy. The monarchy although presented as a friendly symbol is the ultimate political authority in the land. It rules like a subtle version of Hobbes’ Leviathan, transferring powers to bodies willing to act on its behalf. It organizes and penetrates at all levels in a peculiar arrangement that sees the bourgeoisie and institutions of feudal aristocracy aligned in statehood. This makes it at best a bastardized liberal democracy and at worst a semi-elected dictatorship.

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