Checks and balances: what are they, and why do they matter?

Checks and balances are fundamental elements of constitutional democracy that prevent the unconstrained exercise of power, improve the quality of decision-making and ensure that mechanisms exist for preventing or penalising unethical behaviour. Lisa James, Alan Renwick and Meg Russell argue that they therefore play a vital role in maintaining public confidence in the political system and the government has a particular responsibility to uphold them.

Background

The importance of checks and balances is often cited in debates about the health of democracy, and their erosion is widely considered a sign of democratic backsliding. But what are they, and why are they important?

Checks and balances are the mechanisms which distribute power throughout a political system – preventing any one institution or individual from exercising total control. The words ‘checks’ and ‘balances’ are typically used together, but can be thought of as referring to subtly different (though overlapping) things. Checks are the mechanisms which allow political institutions to limit one another’s power – for example by blocking, delaying or simply criticising decisions. Balances, meanwhile, ensure that a wide variety of views and interests are represented in the democratic process. This includes structures like federalism, or broader features of democratic functioning such as the existence of multiple political parties.

The term ‘checks and balances’ is given more prominence in some countries than others, and is often particularly associated with the United States. But the principle is core to all modern democracies.

Checks and balances operate between and within most political institutions. However, the risks of unconstrained power are often considered particularly high with respect to the executive. This briefing hence focuses on the key institutions which check and balance executive power at UK level:

  1. parliament
  2. the courts
  3. impartial officials, and
  4. media and civil society.

Why do checks and balances matter?

Checks and balances play two key roles. First, they limit the power of the majority to act without regard to the views or interests of others. They ensure that the perspectives of those who are in the minority on a given issue are represented – for example, by guaranteeing that opposition voices are heard in the process of law-making. Second, at a more practical level, they ensure that policy is tested and behaviour supervised. This helps to improve the quality of decision-making, and prevent behaviour which might threaten the integrity or reputation of the political system.

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The Constitution Unit blog in 2022: a guide to the last 12 months of constitutional news

The four years preceding 2022 were a fascinating time to be writing about the UK constitution, its institutions and those involved in working within them. It had got to a point where it didn’t seem life could get any more interesting. And then 2022 gave us two prime ministerial resignations and an end to the longest monarchical reign in British history. As the year comes to an end, blog editor Dave Busfield-Birch offers a roundup of the 12 months just gone, as well as a look at the reach of the blog through the lens of its readership statistics. 

2022 included a seven-week period in which we transitioned from one monarch to another and had three Prime Ministers. Two of those Prime Ministers – Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak – were fined for breaking COVID-19 lockdown regulations earlier this year and the third, Liz Truss, now has the dubious distinction of being the Prime Minister to have held office for the shortest time in modern history. In addition, we lost the longest-reigning monarch in British history and welcomed the first monarch to have the benefit of a seven-decade apprenticeship and a new Prince and Princess of Wales. The state of the Union also appears less stable, with Scotland found to be unable to legislate for an independence referendum and May’s elections in Northern Ireland leading to political deadlock that has no immediate end in sight. Below are our most popular blogs from the past year, preceded by a personal selection by me, at the end of my fifth year as blog editor.

Editor’s pick

How far did parliament influence Brexit legislation? by Tom Fleming and Lisa James.

As good as this blog is, the real meat is in the excellent journal article that it summarises. In this post, my colleagues Tom and Lisa analyse to what extent parliament and its members influenced the outcome of the Brexit process. The answer might surprise you.

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What does the new Prime Minister mean for the constitution?

The Constitution Unit held an event in November at which three expert panellists discussed the potential constitutional impact of newly appointed Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, discussing the problems posed by concerns about ministerial standards, the government’s decision to proceed with several bills that pose worrying constitutional questions, and the future of the devolution settlement. Alice Hart and Hashmath Hassan summarise the contributions.

On the day that the UK Supreme Court ruled that the Scottish Parliament cannot legally hold another independence referendum without Westminster’s approval, the Constitution Unit held an event to discuss the potential constitutional impact of the new Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak. The event was chaired by Professor Meg Russell, Director of the Constitution Unit, and brought together three expert panellists: Jill Rutter (a Senior Research Fellow at UK in a Changing Europe and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Government); Dr Ruth Fox (Director of the Hansard Society); and Professor Colm O’Cinneide (Professor of Constitutional and Human Rights Law at University College London). The summaries below are presented in order of the speakers’ contributions. 

Jill Rutter 

Jill Rutter discussed the need to repair the damage done to the perception of standards in public life during Boris Johnson’s time as Prime Minister. Johnson suffered the resignation of two Independent Advisers on Ministers’ Interests in as many years, tolerated misbehaviour from his MPs and was ‘fast and loose with the facts’ in parliament. Sunak’s commitment to the integrity agenda is unclear, Rutter stated. He has made assurances that he will appoint an Independent Adviser (unlike his predecessor, Liz Truss, who indicated that she did not need one) and has appointed a barrister to lead an independent inquiry into bullying allegations against Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab. However, questions remain about Sunak’s approach to his new Independent Adviser, such as whether he will provide the postholder with sufficient resources (as promised by Johnson to former Independent Adviser Lord (Christopher) Geidt) and whether he will make any effort to ensure their independence in terms of both the publication of reports and initiation of investigations without the approval of the Prime Minister.  

Other than these immediate actions, little is known about Sunak’s plans to restore integrity and trust in government. Clamping down on lobbying may be a good place to start, Rutter suggested: she noted that the Gordon Brown review of the constitution commissioned by the Labour Party is planning to propose limitations on MPs’ second jobs. She provided some examples of big ideas that Sunak could adopt, such as Labour’s proposal to establish an Integrity and Ethics Commission and the Australian government’s introduction of an anti-corruption commission. A key challenge for Sunak, Rutter suggested, is dealing with Johnson’s and Truss’ lists of nominations to the House of Lords – especially with regard to how they may affect trust in politics.  

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Monitor 82: achieving a new normal for the constitution?

Today the Unit published Monitor 82, containing reporting and analysis of recent constitutional events, covering the period from 1 August to the debates on the Counsellors of State Bill earlier this week. Even by the standard of recent years, the last four months has been a period of constitutional turbulence that has seen the ousting of two Prime Ministers and the death of a monarch who had sometimes seemed a constitutional constant. Meg Russell and Alan Renwick argue, in this piece, which is also the lead article for Monitor, that the new Prime Minister and monarch face significant challenges if they wish to rebuild stability and faith in the UK’s institutions.

Recent months have seen unprecedented turbulence in UK politics. This blogpost, like the current issue of Monitor, covers developments over just four months, yet reports on a change of monarch and two changes of Prime Minister, plus remarkable churn in ministerial positions, and much else.

As reported in the previous issue of Monitor, in early July Prime Minister Boris Johnson was forced to announce his departure following a wave of ministerial resignations. Concerns about propriety and integrity were central to his removal. Yet these topics played disappointingly little part in the leadership contest which unfolded over the summer, including in a series of hustings meetings for Conservative Party members between Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss. The primary focus of the contest was understandably the cost of living, with contention between the candidates over their economic approaches – Sunak warned against the dangers of Truss’s proposed unfunded tax cuts.

Truss won the contest, becoming Conservative Party leader on Monday 5 September, and she was appointed Prime Minister the following day by Queen Elizabeth. Cabinet positions began to be filled the day after that. But on 8 September, the day of the new government’s first major statement on the energy crisis, news emerged that the Queen was unwell. Her death was announced that evening. The end of a reign lasting over 70 years was a major moment for the United Kingdom’s national and constitutional self-understanding. The country entered a period of national mourning during which the funeral was held. Prince Charles immediately became King. Within days, he delivered a televised address, gave an oath at the Accession Council, addressed MPs and peers in Westminster Hall, and spoke at the Scottish Parliament, the Senedd, and Hillsborough Castle.

This delayed the new government’s activities, but a shock of a different kind occurred on 23 September, when Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng announced his so-called ‘mini budget’ to the House of Commons. Including ambitious tax cuts beyond those that Truss had pledged during the campaign, it resulted in grave instability for the financial markets. Ultimately Truss sacked Kwarteng on 14 October, but was forced to announce her own resignation just six days later. This triggered a further Conservative leadership contest, which saw Sunak appointed to the role of party leader and Prime Minister.

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Boris Johnson’s constitutional legacy

Boris Johnson’s premiership is expected to end on 6 September, when it is anticipated that he will offer his formal resignation to the Queen at Balmoral and make way for the winner of the Conservative Party leadership election. Lisa James demonstrates that his time in office has been marked by an impatience with constitutional checks and balances and a willingness to depart from convention. She argues that his legacy risks being the normalisation of such behaviour.

What have been the major issues and challenges during Johnson’s premiership? 

Constitutional controversy has been a consistent feature of Boris Johnson’s premiership. His first months in office, amid the turmoil and acrimony of the late-2019 Brexit deadlock, were marked by the unlawful prorogation of parliament, suggestions that he would defy the law, and briefings from allies that if the Commons withdrew its confidence he would ‘dare the Queen to sack him’.

Thankfully, the monarch was not dragged into Johnson’s resignation this summer. But the Prime Minister stepped down only after a tense standoff with his own party, as it forced him from office over a series of standards-related scandals. The most prominent of these, partygate, will outlast Johnson’s premiership – with the Privileges Committee’s investigation into whether the Prime Minister misled parliament ongoing.

Though the intervening years perhaps lacked such obvious constitutional fireworks, these topics were never off the agenda. The Johnson government’s reform programme, and behaviour, often provoked controversy; the COVID-19 pandemic raised questions about how the country should be governed in times of crisis; and the fallout from Brexit heightened tensions over the territorial constitution, as discussed elsewhere on this blog – particularly in Northern Ireland.

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