In 1976 Lord Hailsham coined the term ‘elective dictatorship’ to describe the extent to which the Government controls the Parliament of the day. Essentially, the term implies that in the UK political system, when elected, a government can essentially take whatever actions it wants without effective scrutiny. So why might it be said that elective dictatorship routinely exists in the UK?
There is no doubt that, generally, the elective dictatorship does indeed exist. However, depending on the make-up of Parliament and the circumstances of the day, it can significantly subside in certain circumstances. For example, Theresa May’s premiership, in which she lost two votes on her Withdrawal Agreement, can certainly not be described as ‘elective dictatorship’. Equally, until the General Election of December 2019, her successor was not in control of Parliament. As Prime Minister, Boris Johnson lost his first four divisions (parliamentary votes) and became the first Prime Minister since 1894 to lose their very first parliamentary division.
Why does the Elective Dictatorship exist?
There are a number of reasons why the Elective Dictatorship exists. These include:
- The UK Electoral System tends towards firm majorities
The First Past the Post system has the effect of creating a clear two-party system. First Past the Post is also a ‘winner takes all system’, this means that minor parties find it incredibly difficult to establish a presence in Parliament. This is because votes cast for smaller parties in most constituencies are unlikely to topple one of the two major parties. For example, in the 2019 General Election the Conservatives won 365 seats and the Greens won 1 seat. Nationally, it took an average of 38,264 votes for each seat the Conservatives won, but 865, 707 votes led to the Greens winning just one seat.
The fact that minor parties find it difficult to make an electoral impact means that power swings between the two major parties and the swing between them is usually enough to ensure a majority in Parliament. The average majority in Parliament since 1945 is 58.4 seats with only three hung parliaments in this time. Added to this is the fact that landslide victories are not uncommon in the U.K. system. Some of the biggest are:
Clement Attlee (Labour) – Majority of 147 Seats in 1945
Margaret Thatcher (Conservative) – Majority of 144 in 1983
Tony Blair (Labour) – Majority of 179 in 1997
2. The Government controls the parliamentary agenda
The agenda and activities of the House of Commons are largely controlled by the Government as dictated by Standing Orders (the rules of Parliament). It is Standing Order 14 (1) that outlines that the government usually have control of the parliamentary agenda:
“Save as provided in this order, government business shall have precedence at every sitting.”
Other time allocated in Parliament that is not controlled by the government is limited to:
- 20 Days for Opposition Business
- 35 Days for Backbench Business
- 13 Fridays for Backbench Private Members Bill
3. Party Loyalty
One of the most important factors that create the impact of ‘elective dictatorship’ is party loyalty. In the UK political system it is exceptionally difficult to become an MP without standing as part of a political party. At the 2019 General Election only one MP was elected as an independent, however, even then Neale Hanvey was on the Ballot Paper as an SNP member, but was suspended just before the election. The last true independent in the U.K. was Sylvia Hermon who was elected as an Independent MP for North Down between 2010 and 2019.
Not only do MPs rely on their parties to be elected, they also rely on their party for their career development. Most MPs want to advance their career, either becoming a Select Committee Member or a Minister or Shadow Minister. To become a Minister or Shadow Minister they have to keep their party onside, whilst becoming a Select Committee Member will be much easier with the support of their parties.
As a result of this, rebellions in the House of Commons are rare. Although there are naturally rebellious MPs (Jeremy Corbyn famously voted against his own party 428 times when he was a backbencher) most MPs ‘toe the party line’ and vote the way that their party whips want them to, enhancing the power of political parties and contributing to the elective dictatorship. Since the 2019 General Election there are 276 MPs who have never once rebelled against their own party.
The fact that Britain has a fusion of powers means that if the executive can keep their own party onside, they will normally be able to carry out most of their agenda.
4. Government rarely lose votes in the House of Commons
As a consequence of these factors, sitting governments very rarely lose votes in the House of Commons. Between 1945 and August 2023, the sitting government has won 99.27% of all divisions in the House of Commons:
|Session||Government||No of Divisions||Government Defeats|
|1945-46||Clement Attlee – 1st Ministry||294||4|
|1950-51||Clement Attlee – 2nd Ministry||170|
|1951-52||Winston Churchill – 3rd Ministry||245||1|
|1956-57||Anthony Eden/Harold Macmillan – 1st Ministry||180|
|1957-58||Harold Macmillan – 1st Ministry||206|
|1959-60||Harold Macmillan – 2nd Ministry||156||0|
|1963-64||Harold Macmillan – 2nd Ministry/Douglas-Home||148|
|1964-65||Harold Wilson – 1st Ministry||276||6|
|1966-67||Harold Wilson – 2nd Ministry||496|
|1974||Harold Wilson – 3rd Ministry||109||25|
|1974-75||Harold Wilson – 4th Ministry||405|
|1979-80||Margaret Thatcher – 1st Ministry||500||4|
|1983-84||Margaret Thatcher – 2nd Ministry||482|
|1987-88||Margaret Thatcher – 3rd Ministry||496|
|1990-91||John Major – 1st Ministry||233||6|
|1992-93||John Major – 2nd Ministry||401|
|1997-98||Tony Blair – 1st Ministry||380||4|
|2001-02||Tony Blair – 2nd Ministry||361|
|2005-06||Tony Blair – 3rd Ministry||343|
|2007-08||Tony Blair – 3rd Ministry/Gordon Brown||341|
|2010-12||David Cameron – 1st Ministry||544||7|
|2015-16||David Cameron – 2nd Ministry/Theresa May||269||3|
|2017-19||Theresa May/Boris Johnson||446|
|2021-22||Boris Johnson/Liz Truss/Rishi Sunak||270||0|
|* Until 25/08/23||Totals:||20549||151|
5. The House of Commons dominates the House of Lords
Further to the fact that the Government largely controls the House of Commons, the House of Commons is dominant over the House of Lords. There are a number of reasons for this:
Parliament Acts (1911 & 1949) – The Parliament Acts mean that the House of Lords can no longer block legislation, but merely delay it for one year. If the House of Lords blocks a bill they the House of Commons wants to pass, it can invoke the Parliament Act. This means that if the same bill were passed by the Commons in the subsequent year, it could be forced into law. The Parliament Act has only been invoked four times since 1949 (most recently for the Hunting Act 2005) but the very fact that it exists makes the Lords more reticent to challenge the Commons.
Salisbury Convention – Since the 1940s it has become a well established convention that the House of Lords does not vote against a bill that was clearly a part of the Government’s election manifesto. The reasoning behind this is that if an issue was in the manifesto of the winning party in the election it is fair to infer that the policy has a mandate from the people. For example, the Withdrawal Agreement with the European Union featured heavily in the 2019 Conservative Manifesto, as Boris Johnson promised to ‘Get Brexit Done’. Consequently, the bill was not heavily challenged in the House of Lords.
Financial Privilege – By long-standing Convention the House of Lords does not vote against any bill that is raising money, for example a bill to raise taxes or the Government’s Yearly Budget.
6. The existence of Royal Prerogative Powers
In the UK the Government possess a number of Royal Prerogative powers. These are powers that technically belong to the Monarch, but are now exercised by government Ministers, particularly the Prime Minister. These powers include:
- Calling a Snap Election
- Appointing a Cabinet
- Ordering Military Action
Importantly, because these powers are derived from Parliament, they are also beyond parliamentary scrutiny.
What problems does the elective dictatorship present?
There are a number of problems that the concept of elective dictatorship presents in a liberal democracy:
- There is an erosion of democratic accountability
When the government have such control over Parliament, the government may feel far less accountable for its actions, particularly when it may be another 5 year period before another election is mandated.
2. There is a lack of parliamentary scrutiny
When the government have such complete control of the parliamentary agenda and arithmetic, it is exceptionally difficult for effective scrutiny of the executive to take place.
3. Minority voices can be discounted
An important part of liberal democracy is that minority and not just minority voices are heard. This can lead to policies and decisions that do not adequately protect minorities.
4. There is a lack of political compromise
The fact of elective dictatorship can mean there is little need to compromise on policy. As such, policies are likely to be created that are extremely partisan and lack consensus. Upon a change of government, these are likely to be reversed, leading inconsistency in policy.
5. Civil Liberties can be eroded
Governments who can avoid accountability because of the elective dictatorship are more likely to use their power to limit fundamental civil liberties in their own political interests.
6. Corruption can become endemic
Governments that lack effective accountability can quickly find themselves open to corruption and the abuse of power.
The elective dictatorship is a concept that suggests that Governments in the UK can largely do as they please, with little to limit their power. There are a number of factors that impact this including the First Past the Post electoral system, the power of patronage of the PM, the strong royal prerogative powers and the control of the agenda in the House of Commons.
Elective Dictatorship – A concept developed by Lord Hailsham to explain the fact that in the UK a Government can normally do as it wishes with little constraint.
Royal Prerogative Powers – Powers that technically belong to the monarch but are now exercised by Government Ministers.
Parliament Acts – Acts of Parliament from 1911 and 1949 that limit the legislative powers of the House of Lords. Today, the House of Lords can only delay legislation for two parliamentary sessions (one year).
First Past the Post – The single-member plurality system – the electoral system used for elections to the House of Commons. It creates a clear two-party system and often leads to governments with large majorities.
Standing Order 14 – The Standing Order of the House of Commons that ensures that the Government are in control of most of the business of the House.