There is a structural flaw in British politics. In theory, we have a representative democracy: we the electors vote for members of Parliament, whose job is to represent us, and who, collectively, are the sovereign power. In practice, though, it doesn't quite work like that. We the electors vote for MPs, who regard their primary role as being representatives of their political party, and who pay just enough attention to their electorate in order to get re-elected. In effect, power has been devolved from the electorate to the political parties, and in particular to the leader of whichever party is in government; given a fat enough majority, the prime minister can do more or less what he likes, and the only brake on his power is how much he can get his own backbenchers to sign up to. So a leader can, after winning a general election, in effect take the phone to the electorate off the hook for the next four and a half years. This is not an accident, it is the way the system is supposed to work: a fundamental democratic deficit, designed to deliver functioning majorities of power with a minority share of the vote, and a permanently empowered class of politicians and civil servants. When you make this point to anyone involved in active politics, they always, always say the same thing: 'What about capital punishment?' The idea being that if more power was given to the proles, the nation's lampposts would immediately be festooned with lynched paedophiles. And the answer to that, in turn, is: 'What about Iraq?' A system without a democratic deficit would never have gone to war, and would certainly not have gone to war with the two main political parties, 'representing' 578 of Parliament's 646 seats, both whipped to vote in favour.
LRB 16 August 2007 | PDF Download