Some questions don’t seem worth asking, until you try to answer them. For instance, everyone knows what kind of country Britain is until they start thinking about it for more than a few seconds. Most British people couldn’t tell you the name of the country where they live. If asked, they would probably say that they live in England. In fact, they live in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, one of the longer titles in the United Nations clubhouse. More to the point, scarcely one in a hundred could give a clear and accurate description of this country’s system of government.
Though it is widely described as a constitutional monarchy and a democracy, technically speaking this United Kingdom is neither. No clear constitutional principle establishes the status of the monarch. Rather, the reigning king or queen is sovereign. Parliament legislates and the Cabinet rules in his or her name. The people do not provide the basis for legitimate authority. The democratic elements in the Parliamentary system are established by legislation by the Crown-in-Parliament that Parliament is formally free to repeal.
The confusion that surrounds the country’s constitutional nature has long been part of how the constitution works. To take one influential example, Walter Bagehot’s The English Constitution of 1867 famously divided the country’s constitutional arrangements into the dignified and the efficient. The valuable, and acutely political, purpose served by the dignified elements, the Crown especially, is less well known. The bulk of the population – those Bagehot dubbed “the vacant many” thought that the Queen ruled. The responsible and more highly evolved classes – “the inquiring few” – knew differently. The country he described was one where “the appendages of monarchy have been converted into the essence of a republic” but where “it is needful to keep the ancient show while we interpolate the new reality”.
Bagehot wrote that “the working classes contribute almost nothing to our corporate public opinion, and therefore, the fact of their want of influence does not impair the coincidence of Parliament with public opinion”. The country was a republic whose body politic was educated, propertied and male. This public was represented in Parliament and “the House of Commons” was “the true sovereign” that appointed the “real executive”, that is the governing Cabinet.
Since, then the masses he thought unfit for elective government have won the vote. To accommodate these changes, the sedative comment that surrounds the constitution has had to change. After all, even the modern equivalents of “the peasants of Dorsetshire”, Bagehot’s “miserable creatures”, know that the Queen isn’t, for most purposes, the country’s ruler. Nowadays, therefore, we call ourselves a democracy and a constitutional monarchy, even if the foundations of the constitution have not changed since Bagehot’s era of frank oligarchy.
“Most MPs don’t know how the British economy works and would be sincerely baffled if someone suggested that they ought to
We do, though, live with a new demarcation of the dignified and the efficient. Much of Parliament and parts of the executive have become merely ornate, an advertisement for the idea of accountable government, rather than a substantial contribution to it. Individual MPs are creatures of their party and not embodiments of various strands of sectional and regional opinion and interest. The House of Commons still chooses the executive, but does not pretend to do so by assembling some dominant fraction of a public opinion existing in the country. A Parliamentary majority is a party mandate that delivers the executive to party leaders to do with as they see fit.
Most MPs don’t know how the British economy works and would be sincerely baffled if someone suggested that they ought to find out. A mere handful of politicians at the top of their parties take an interest in such matters. Lobbyists and officials at the Treasury and the Bank of England vastly outnumber these few. In economic matters, the governing public is situated in the financial sector and exerts its influence through the most intellectually impressive elements of the permanent administration.
Meanwhile, the figure of the Prime Minister has become more prominent, even dignified after a fashion. Prime Ministers nowadays have young families in Downing Street and try as best they can to embody some kind of national aspiration for wholesome normality. The electorate increasingly votes for one or other party leader as their preferred Prime Minister, rather than for the candidate written on their ballot paper. Those aiming for Downing Street must look the part, in order to inspire vague sentiments of uplift and new beginnings that are more familiar in the presidential style of politics.
Public opinion in the broad sense is far too important to be left in the hands of “the vacant many”. Accordingly, the state has taken the trouble to create the BBC, a national broadcaster that acts in perfect independence from external pressure, except in all politically significant matters, where it does what it is told by politicians. This broadcaster discovers public opinion in the editorial pages of the daily press and in the utterances of the political class and then presents it to everyone else. In their hands politics is what a few politicians say it is and controversy does not stray into areas of taboo. The system remains responsive by asking the population what it thinks about matters brought to its attention. The BBC is one significant addition to the constitution of the last century and is appreciated as such by only a very few.
In the words of William Blackstone, Parliament “can, in short, do everything that is not naturally impossible”. But this is only true within the bounds established by the Crown since Parliamentary authority cannot exceed the Crown’s. Inasmuch as the City of London preserved its liberties under the kings, it retains them to this day. Hence we have the anomaly of a Mayor of London who does not administer the city’s Roman heart. The limits of the Crown’s authority also give the overseas territories a wide field of autonomy. Together with the City of London they form a labyrinth of unreformed jurisdictions that achieve a state of almost quantum uncertainty, at once reassuringly British and inviolately offshore.
Meanwhile, the Crown-in-Parliament itself is an instrument that serves an effectually ruling public far smaller than the population at large or the active electorate. This ruling public is itself closely aligned with the City, with the United States, and with the prevailing constitutional settlement. It is not true that the unreformed constitution doesn’t really matter, as its more serpentine defenders like to insist. It has important consequences for the distribution of knowledge, property and power.
Dan Hind is the author of two books, The Threat to Reason and The Return of the Public. His pamphlet, Common Sense: Occupation, Assembly, and the Future of Liberty, was published as an e-book in March. He is a member of the Tax Justice Network.