Last week the Chancellor of the Exchequer published a budget in which a poor population was told it would have to pay more taxes for less public services. The adjustment was inevitable. A previous short-lived government had tried a different policy, on the make-believe that there was prosperity to build on in the economy, and crashed. The opposition could offer no alternative.

The Chancellor blamed outside factors: Covid, the war in Ukraine. But Britain’s decline is prior. The turning point was Brexit. A population turned its back on collaboration and embraced conflict. Economic barriers were erected to the country’s most important trade and labour markets. Since then, Britain has been in social and economic decline, sapped of energy and productivity, now coming to terms with a falling standard of living.

The decline is systemic. Making good decisions and workable policies is difficult. The British system is so arranged that too many mistakes slip through. The government has it too easy and gets away with inadequate planning. Policies in the making do not get adequate scrutiny. The country does not get the governance it needs.

The rot sits in Parliament, and in Parliament in the House of Commons. A government with a majority can do as it wants.  

The Brexit referendum decision was made with no other role for Parliament than to say “amen.” In the most consequential policy decision for the country in decades, the House of Commons did no work – nil – to inform itself on possible consequences and led the population in a leap in the dark. I suppose a people may be entitled to shoot itself in the foot, but hardly without ascertaining if blood will flow. The aftermath has been bad news all around: economy, border control, immigration, health care, social care, poverty. There are more food banks than McDonald’s outlets across the country, and that was even before the inflation crisis.

Earlier this year, in another example, the government introduced a policy of removing asylum seekers from the country and outsourcing them to Rwanda for processing. A totally new policy was introduced with zero participation by Parliament. As it happens, a very bad policy: expensive, unworkable and unethical. The system is without mechanisms to protect against mistakes.

As luck will have it, there is a simple solution: give the House of Commons a proper role in pre-decision scrutiny of policy. As the system now works, our elected representatives are passive servants of the government. Let instead government and legislature be partners. Let government policy in serious matters be tested by proper parliamentary scrutiny before being unleashed on the population. No government could then come to Parliament with poorly planned policies – the Rwanda example. No policy could pass through Parliament without careful analysis of workability and consequence – the Brexit example.

The technical way to do this is to give the House of Commons control of its own agenda. Let parliamentary business be managed by a Committee of Speakers. Abolish the post of Leader of the House (the government’s commissar in the legislature). Impose formalised routines of pre-decision scrutiny with most of the work done in Select Committees. It’s not revolutionary, just a matter of making Britain’s archaic Parliament a modern legislature.

For moee detailed analysis, see How Democracies Live.


The democratic answer is NO.

British politics have taken us through a natural experiment. A Prime Minster (Boris Johnson) was forced out by his Parliamentary group because of political mismanagement. In a situation of extreme stress, politically and economically, the final decision on his replacement was put to a vote of party members. The members elected a political fantasist (Liz Truss) whose brief government plunged the country yet further into economic, political and moral crisis. She and party members had been warned that the policies she promised would have the consequences that followed, but the members nevertheless voted her into office. She had, however, not persuaded a majority the party’s MPs. Had the decision been left to them, the political fantasist would not have been chosen.

This all is in confirmation of basic principles of representative democracy. Citizens (or party members) elect representatives to be in charge of governing and decision-making. We “ordinary people” know, or should know, that we are ourselves not competent for complex decision-making. We therefore elect those among us who are competent to act as our representatives. That is done in competitive nominations and elections whereby (usually) those most persuasive prevail and (usually) cranks fall by the wayside. Those who succeed form assemblies of collective decision-making in which they must defend their positions in open debate and face having them challenged. We citizens (or party members) not only have no tested competence, we also do not have the benefit of the support system of assembly decision-making. It is in our interest that we leave difficult decisions to our representatives (as long as they are democratically elected representatives).

If this sounds idealistic, bear in mind that it is exactly as things have recently unfolded. Party members allowed themselves to be duped by a candidate who promised what they wanted to hear, such as tax cuts, however impossible. Party MPs, collectively, recognised “fairy-tale economics” and would have prevented the calamity that was unleashed.

The experiment then continued to further confirm the logic of representative democracy. Once it was clear that Truss’s policies were destructive, her Parliamentary group forced her out, as they had forced out her predecessor, in both cases rightly so. The possibility then arose for the disgraced Mr. Johnson to make a comeback, which he tried. Survey evidence suggest that had the replacement decision again gone to a vote of party members, it is likely that he would have been re-elected. That was prevented by the party MPs, who denied him the support he would have needed for political leadership. Representatives protected members from the misfortune they would have brought on themselves – and their country.

A note of caution: Competitive nominations and election do not ensure that we always get wise leaders, far from it as we know. Assembly decision-making does not always look pretty and does not necessarily produce sound decisions, again far from it. But the recent British stress test nevertheless shows that representative democracy is more than abstract theory, it actually works in real-life practical politics.

On the “unexpected smartness of representative democracy,” see How Democracies Live.