Sunday, November 16, 2008


The accountability of our government versus, say, various private bodies, is often taken for granted. Regulation of the economy, for instance, it is presumed, means making "unaccountable" companies (i.e. firms that respond to changes in supply and demand!) beholden to "accountable" public bodies.

Well, with this in mind, I will reproduce a forum post I made today, because I like it. It was in response to somebody who said that under democracy a large proportion of the public give their assent to the laws of that society. My response was this:

Which planet is this on? Since 1997 there has been an average of one new law passed every day. I'm sure you don't even know what most of them are, let alone have given your assent to them.

Take all the people employed by the state: Thats 520,000 civil sevants added to the armed forces, police, school teachers, and local government employees, plus 300 odd quangos, the total number of people employed by the state is in excess of six million, more than a tenth of the population. There are 650 MPs. So saying the government is elected is a bit of a stretch - actually it is only one thousandth of one percent of the government that is elected.

You might say that by "government" you mean, as the media often means, the ruling party. However, in reality the ruling party is that which gets the most votes, but the prime minister is the leader of that party, and he is not elected by anybody other than some of the party members eligible to vote for him. The prime minister then selects a cabinet - it is not elected.

New laws are debated by both houses, and have to pass three readings by the houses. Of course, one of those houses is the house of lords, full of unelected people. Then it has to be signed by the queen - also unelected.

And this is ignoring other details: In the last few years we have had unelected prime ministers: John Major, Gordon Brown. On top of that, during an election, government carries on as normal, because that is seen to by the civil service, who are unelected. Judges are unelected, military officers, customs officials, treasury bureaucrats, civil servants, and local cheif directors, all unelected, and yet they all do work administering and enforcing the law.

So the reality is that far from government being elected, only a tiny percentage is. The actual governing is done by thousands of other people who never had to submit to an election, never had to persuade voters that they are worthy of the positions they hold. It is these people who decide how to do what parliament decrees, and so weild enormour power - they are the executive branch of government, and are largely unelected. So most of the actual power holders in our government are unelected.

Beyond this, you have the reality of elections, which is far from being majority rule. Tony Blair's win in 2001 is called a landslide win. Labour got 10.7 million votes in that election. That means that the majority of those who voted, 15 million people, including eight million Conservatives, voted against Labour. 30% more people voted against Labour than voted for them.

On top of this, there are 45 million registered voters in the UK. If, in 2001, 10.7 million voted Labour, and 15 million voted for somebody else, then 25.7 million out of 45 million registered voters voted. In other words, less than 60% of the electorate voted. So, even bigger than the majority of 15 million who voted against Labour, is the 18 million eligible voters who couldn't be persuaded that anybody in the election was worth voting for.

So, we have a government which is called elected when in reality less than a thousandth of a percent of all the people working in it are elected, and real power is excercised by those who aren't. We also have a government called "majority rule" under which a landslide victory is claimed from election by a party that does not recieve the majority of votes, but actually gets 10.7 million votes for it compared to 33 million against it. If we had majority rule, then the 33 million who chose against Labour would get their way.

Of course, 2001 is not the only example. Thatcher won a famous victory in 1983 after the Falklands War. That was another result that was called a landslide win. In that election no less than 162 of her MPs won a majority of the votes cast in their constituencies. That means that over 40% of her MPs came from constitutencies where most people who cast a vote did so for somebody else. Labour fared even worse, though, in that election: 68% of Labour MPs failed to win a majority. But all these people went to Westminster, claiming to have been elected by their constituents, rewarded themselves fat salaries and expense accounts from the public purse, and called themselves "Honourable"!

Once elected, of course, MPs are free to switch parties without the approval of their constituents. You could vote a Labour MP into office and suddenly find yourself "represented" by a Tory!

But we can go further. Although MPs are supposed to represent their constiuents (how they represent people that preferred somebody else did the job, I don't know!), they are not actually obliged to vote in parliament. Only 40 MPs, out of 650, are required for a quorum. This means that even on some big, headline grabbing laws (i.e., the tiny minority that you may have actually heard of), hundreds of MPs may not actually turn up to vote.

And since we are talking about laws, lets go back to those unelected civil servants. After all, it is they, not the MPs, that draft the laws. A final polish is added by a committee containing only a handful of MPs, and then parliament is asked to vote. The few MPs that turn up to vote on it may well not have even read the law, which can contain pages and pages of detail, have been presented to them at an antisocial hour, and in legalese language few could understand. Usually the law is passed at a nod.

The above is a summary from a book, of course. The person hearing these facts announced afterwards, "But if the government authority is supposed to be based on the will of the people, on the will of the majority at least, and if what you say is true, then the British government has no real authority at all."


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