Wednesday 12 May 2021

UK Democrcy: going backwards

 The "Whig view of history"  was  that, on the whole, by and large, in the main, and little by little,  our country gradually became more tolerant, more civilised, more free, and more democratic. Surely there were fits and starts, and a few stops along the way, but the inexorable movement was for things to get better for everyone.

We can see this pattern very clearly in the development of our democracy.  The happy story took the following path.

The "Great Reform Bill" of 1832 sorted out the "rotten boroughs " which had few, and in some case no, population, but two MPs, and re-allocated them to the growing cities such as Leeds and Manchester which had lots of population but no MPs

The next "Reform Bill" in 1867, when Disraeli, a Tory never one to miss a trick , "caught the Liberals bathing and stole their clothes" and gave the right to vote to lots of householding men.  The act of voting, the ballot, was made secret in 1872 and the right to vote, the franchise extended to yet more men in Gladstone's 1884 "Third Reform Bill" and to women in 1918, provided they had reached years of discretion (30: men reached them at 21).

 Ten years later  the age limit was lowered and women could also vote at 21. The age was lowered to 18 for everyone in1969.  In Scotland it has now been lowered to 16 for devolved elections.  

 Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland use moderately proportional electoral systems for their Parliament and Assemblies, and local govenment, but First Past the Post is still the rule in England, except for a supplementary vote in the election of Metro-Mayors  and Crime Commissioners.

In parallel moves over a longer period Magna Carta in 1215 established that the government (in those days the Monarch ) was not above the law.   The "Glorious Revolution " of 1688 established the supremacy of parliament over the government, the powers of the House of Lords were reduced to the right to delay legislation for two years rather than defeat it in 1911 and this was reduced to one year in 1949.  

Life Peers were introduced in 1958 and these could be women.  The number of hereditary peers allowed to sit was reduced to 99 in 1999 (the existing hereditary peers elect them from their number).

 In 2011 the Fixed Term Parliament Act took away the prime minister's right to call a general election when he thought his party had the best chance of winning.  In future parliaments would run for a regular term (5years) as legislatures do  in most countries and the timing of elections was "fair" to all.

And so on: onwards and upwards.

That is, until 2021.

 In yesterday's "Queen's Speech" which sets out the government's programme for the parliamentary session:

  • people will be allowed to vote only if they can produce photographic proof of their identity.  This is allegedly to reduce voter fraud, for which there is negligible evidence in the UK.  It will potentially disenfranchise up to 2 million voters, mostly  from the more marginalised groups, who, surprise surprise, are least likely to vote Tory.  The US call it "voter suppression."
  • The Fixed Term Parliament Act is to be repealed, thus returning  the right of calling an election to one of the contenders at a time when he or she thinks will be most favourable to their own party
  • There are to be restrictions on the right to protest, particularly if you make a noise.
  • Measure which claim to increase freedom of speech (and prevent so-called no platforming of undesirables in universities,) are likely to reduce it.
  • The right to judicial review of government actions to ensure that they do not break the law is to be reduced.
  • Elections with a "supplementary vote" to ensure that the winner is supported by a majority, are to be returned to First Past the Post and so often result in the  return of a  minority.

This is indeed the end of "the good chaps theory of government."




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