(Scenes from the ‘Poll Tax Riots’ in London, 1990. Copyright BBC. What happens when the people don’t accept the legitimacy of government – especially when it’s imposing taxes).
If this General Election doesn’t produce a result that satisfies the majority, there is a danger that existing dissatisfaction might be compounded, developing into further anger and frustration – former Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell, speaking on Sky News, 30 March 2015.
So, parliament has been dissolved (does anyone else, when they hear this, have a Python-esque mental image of the Palace of Westminster having a big tablet crumbled ever it and the buildings literally disappearing? No, OK, well moving on…!) and the clichéd ‘starting gun has been fired’ in what everyone agrees is the most unpredictable general election in living memory.
We’ve had ‘too close to call’ and ‘knife-edge’ elections before, but never one that is likely to result in both a messy and possibly contrary result, in a parliamentary system that, since the 19th century and the development of party domination in the House of Commons, has been reliant on one clear winner (to form the government) and a second-placed (to form Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition and be a government-in-waiting).
Nobody knows what the situation will be, say a week after the election. Trying to explain the British constitution is about as easy as describing an escalator without using your hands, but at least we used to kinda knew how it worked. Teaching it as best I can, I begin by telling my students that all power in the British state flows from the monarchy, to whom every holder of any office in public life – from judges, to MPs, and crucially, the police and the armed forces – swears personal allegiance
Most of that power has been passed down to ministers of the Crown, with the Prime Minister in reality making all appointments in government and making all the important decisions, even if ministers are formally appointed by, and resign to, the Monarch, with senior ministers having private audiences with The Queen and being appointed of the Privy Council – to whom they swear a lifetime oath of total secrecy.
So far, so much smoke and mirrors! But something very significant happened four years ago – the ramifications of which could be profound.
The Fixed Term Parliaments Act of 2011 – which received remarkably little public comment at the time of its passing – has fundamentally altered the balance of power in our system AND is likely to have to have a major impact on what happens AFTER the election.
On the face of it, it’s good news for those who think the power of parliament over the executive should be strengthened. In theory, before this Act was passed, the Monarch could dissolve parliament and call a new one at his or her whim, but clearly this has, for several centuries, merely been a formal power; so far as we know, the Monarch has never demanded a dissolution, and a Prime Minister has never been refused such a request, certainly since universal suffrage in 1918. In the same way that the Monarch could refuse to sign an Act of Parliament, but hasn’t done so for over 300 years. But for around 200 years, unless parliament went right to its full term, or the government lost a vote of confidence, the leader of the government has been able to set the date of the general election. No longer! The Fixed Term Parliaments Act set the date (then some four years away) for the next one in 2015 and for that of every subsequent general election, unless the Act is repealed, subject to a review before 2020. There are many consequences of this: some involving niceties and protocol; some that could radically affect the political future of the country.
As I’m writing this I am observing, via rolling news’ channels, the niceties, which even I – as a political anorak – hadn’t quite appreciated until today: for the first time since England was, briefly, a republic in the 17th century, parliament was dissolved without a Royal proclamation (I had thought there still would be one, even though the parliamentary term was fixed, as supposed to there being a maximum term). But no! Cameron’s trip to Buckingham Palace today wasn’t even a formality; it was a courtesy. No proclamation! Strangely though, there is still a Royal Proclamation needed for prorogation and the Privy Council did have to meet today to issue a proclamation of the date of the formation of the NEXT Parliament (May 18th). The Crown is also still expected to have “a role” in the issuing of the individual writs for elections in each constituency – as before. Sort of. Work THAT lot out!
But this is SO much NOT the most important aspect of the Act. That lies in the clauses relating to the ousting of a government once formed. Now, pretty well everyone who has crunched the numbers, looked at the trends and viewed the marginal seats (and taken into account the extraordinary rise of the SNP since last September – talk about dragging victory from the jaws of defeat!) reckons that neither Labour nor Conservatives will (or even can) win an overall majority. More than that, it’s likely they may not be able to form a majority even with the support (tacit or formal) of just one other party – or if they can, that party is likely to be the SNP: dedicated to the breaking up of the United Kingdom. Now, the SNP leaders have said they will never form a pact with the Conservatives, so it’s quite possible that the Conservatives could end up being the largest party (with or without the largest share of the vote; under our electoral system the relationship between national share of the vote and share of seats is another conundrum altogether!) but be out-gunned in the race to form a government by a Labour party that can count on (sort of) the support of the SNP.
But it gets better! Once appointed, a government cannot now be removed by a simple majority in a vote of confidence and be forced to seek a new mandate, as the Callaghan government was by a single vote in 1979. Now, following such a lost vote, the other parties have TWO WEEKS to try to form a new government, and, if successful, a new Prime Minister and executive can be formed without reference to the electorate.
So a very plausible scenario is that Cameron gets to form a government, with the surviving Lib Dems and N Ireland Unionists giving him what’s called a ‘supply (finance) and (Queen’s) speech’ majority – but then quite quickly, say over new welfare cuts, loses a vote of confidence. The SNP then agrees to support Labour if they won’t go for those cuts (and goodness knows what other demands), which gives Miliband enough votes to form a new government. (The only way to force a new election other than failing to form a new government in this time is for TWO-THIRDS of the MPs to vote for such a thing – hardly likely in almost any circumstances).
Now, how do you think this will go down, especially as probably two-thirds of those who voted didn’t vote Labour! IMAGINE THE TORY PRESS IN FULL THROAT! It would be portrayed – not entirely unfairly – as a coup against the people. The party that lost the election is in power, supported by one that wants to break up the state – and without any kind of approval by the people! So much for democracy! If the new government then introduces new taxes, or raises existing ones (very likely), then the howls of outrage may turn into something far nastier and more dangerous. Many revolutions and civil wars in the world (including in England) have been triggered by a perceived unfairness of taxation and the illegitimacy of the imposers of the tax. Some of the most violent post-war civil disturbances on the British mainland were over the so-called ‘Poll Tax’ in 1990 (see pic above). And how will all this play around the world and in the international money markets (let alone internal investment by nervous companies)?
The former Cabinet Secretary, Gus O’Donnell (known, for good reason, by his initials – GOD) who drew up the ‘rules of engagement’ for the negotiations between the parties last time round – and not someone prone to hyperbole and hysteria – opined on TV this morning that this situation could lead to real trouble. He talks to the (aforementioned in this Blog!) Peter Hennessy about the steps after an indecisive election. But 2015 is likely make the situation after the 2010 general election – entertainingly and authoritatively portrayed in a Channel 4 drama-doc on Saturday – seem very straightforward. O’Donnell sounded a lot more sanguine in that radio programme, broadcast only a couple of weeks ago, than he did today. The difference in those few week is ‘the SNP factor’ and the open demands and conditions stated by its leaders (current and immediate past).
Last December I went on a rare trip to London’s Theatreland to see the play King Charles III – which is about (plot-spoiler warning!) a constitutional crisis triggered when the new King objects to a proposed law about state regulation of the press (yes, the sorts of topics that float my boat!).
The fictional disturbances triggered by this work of the imagination do make you think about the fragility of our system. One of the strengths of the British constitution is that something that isn’t written down cannot be torn up. It makes a coup or revolution far more difficult, because you not only have to overturn the government, you have to completely finish off the monarchy (and the succession list is a LONG one!). Once you DO write it down it makes all sorts of undesirable and, for many, unpalatable (to put it mildly) consequences possible.
An Act that was passed primarily to stop the senior party in the coalition formed after the last general election from ‘cutting and running’ could lead to a collapse in the authority and legitimacy of government, and even – with that personal, sworn loyalty of the police and armed forces – drag The Queen into a constitutional crisis. Oh, the irony! An Act which purposefully excluded the monarchy from any discretionary role could end up doing the one thing that all those involved have strived to avoid.
My prediction, by the way, for what it’s worth, is that Labour will be comfortably the largest party, but short of an overall majority by 10-20 seats, and will form a minority government. Even with this relatively benign result in terms of the constitution and stability I still think it would be outrageous for Miliband to go for a full five years, quite possibly even after the Labour party loses a string of by-elections and is hit by defections and resignations.
One of the first things the new parliament should do is to repeal the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. In a democracy – as a former Prime Minister said – one vote is enough. She meant that one vote in excess over all the others was enough to win. But equally, one vote in parliament should be enough to lose – to bring a parliament to an end and force a new election.