What is democratic backsliding and is the UK at risk?

Concerns about the health of UK democracy and the risk of democratic backsliding are rising. Meg Russell, Alan Renwick and Lisa James warn that MPs, who are the ultimate democratic safeguard, cannot afford to be complacent if we wish to prevent backsliding and safeguard our democracy.

Commentators, civil society groups, think tanks and academics are increasingly warning about the health of UK democracy. Such warnings often draw on the concept of ‘democratic backsliding’.

But what is democratic backsliding? And is there good reason to worry about a risk of it in the UK?

What is democratic backsliding?

Democratic backsliding is, in its simplest form, the process by which a state becomes gradually less democratic over time. Scholars emphasise that no cataclysmic state collapse or overthrow is required for backsliding to take place; instead, it is a gradual process, coming about through actions of democratically elected leaders.

Democratic backsliding has been observed internationally, and extensively catalogued by scholars including Stephan Haggard and Robert Kaufman (Backsliding: Democratic Regress in the Contemporary World, 2021) and Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (How Democracies Die, 2019). Such accounts generally define backsliding as involving the reduction of checks and balances on the executive. This might include:

  1. breakdown in the norms of political behaviour and standards;
  2. disempowerment of the legislature, the courts, and independent regulators;
  3. the reduction of civil liberties and press freedoms; and/or
  4. harm to the integrity of the electoral system.

Backsliding has been identified in multiple countries, with frequently cited cases including Poland, Hungary and the United States. Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party has significantly reduced judicial independence, and put pressure on the independent media. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán has repeatedly assumed emergency powers allowing him effectively to bypass the legislature, undermined press freedom, and – as in Poland – curbed judicial independence. Donald Trump’s attempts to delegitimise the 2020 presidential election, as well as longer-term patterns of voter suppression, have shown how backsliding can affect even very well-established democracies.

Continue reading

The Queen’s speech, the Johnson government, and the constitution – lessons from the 2021-22 session

As a new session of parliament commences, Lisa James discusses what constitutional lessons can be learned from its predecessor. She argues that the government’s legislation and its approach to parliamentary scrutiny in the 2021-22 session suggest that a disregard for checks and balances, a tendency to evade parliamentary scrutiny, and a willingness to bend constitutional norms are fundamental traits of the Johnson premiership.

A new parliamentary session began last week, with a Queen’s speech that laid out a highly ambitious volume of new bills. Many of these are likely to prove controversial – including planned constitutional measures.

To assess how the government might proceed, and how this might play out in parliament, it is useful to look back at the 2021-22 session. This was the first of Boris Johnson’s premiership not wholly dominated by Brexit or the COVID-19 pandemic – offering insight into both the government’s constitutional agenda, and its broader legislative approach. Since becoming Prime Minister, Johnson has been accused of a disregard for checks and balances, a tendency to evade parliamentary scrutiny, and a willingness to bend constitutional norms. In earlier sessions, his supporters could blame the exigencies of Brexit and the pandemic – citing the need for rapid action in the face of fast-moving situations. But the government’s legislation and its approach to parliamentary scrutiny in the 2021-22 session suggest that these are more fundamental traits of the Johnson premiership. And whilst Johnson has thus far been successful in passing his constitutional legislation, his rocky relationships with both MPs and peers mean that he may face greater difficulties in the future.

Continue reading

Partygate illustrates the fundamental constitutional responsibility of government MPs

Boris Johnson and his Chancellor have now been fined for breaking lockdown restrictions. Both have misled parliament over Downing Street parties. These are clear breaches of the Ministerial Code, which should lead to resignation. If the PM refuses to police the Code, says Meg Russell, that constitutional responsibility rests with MPs. A failure to exercise it would seriously undermine both the integrity of, and public trust in, the democratic system.

The Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer have been issued fixed penalty notices for breaching COVID-19 lockdown rules over parties in Downing Street. This means that they have broken the Ministerial Code on two counts. Paragraph 1.3 emphasises ‘the overarching duty on Ministers to comply with the law and to protect the integrity of public life’. But the police have concluded that the law has been broken. Paragraph 1.3c of the Code then states that:

It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister.

But it has been clear for some time that Johnson breached this rule, by repeatedly insisting in the House of Commons that all regulations were followed, and denying knowledge of Downing Street parties, when it subsequently emerged that he had attended such gatherings. Multiple sources have catalogued these denials. Rishi Sunak also said on the parliamentary record that he ‘did not attend any parties’.

But the final line of paragraph 1.3c is the rub. While both of these forms of breach would normally be considered resigning matters, the ultimate keeper of the Code is the Prime Minister himself. He has already faced down criticism over failing to uphold it in the case of bullying allegations against Home Secretary Priti Patel, which led to the resignation of the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests. Both Johnson and Sunak have insisted that they are not going to resign, indicating that the Prime Minister is once again setting aside the Code – this time over multiple breaches, which are highly publicly salient.

Continue reading

The Backbench Business Committee: an unfinished revolution?

2020 marked the tenth anniversary of the establishment of the House of Commons’ Backbench Business Committee – an event that marked the first major reversal of a century-long trend of the government taking increasing control of the agenda of the House. But the anniversary went largely unnoticed. Paul Evans, a former Clerk of the committee, asks whether this is because it has been outmanoeuvred by the usual channels, has lost its cutting edge, or because relative obscurity is what backbenchers really want.

The birth of the Backbench Business Committee

The background to how the Committee on Reform of the House of Commons (commonly known, after its chair Dr Tony Wright, as the ‘Wright Committee’) was established can be found, for those interested, in the introduction to its first report. Amongst the matters the House instructed it to consider, when it was set up on 20 July 2009, was the ‘scheduling of business by the House’. It recommended the creation of a new category of ‘backbench business’, to be managed by a new committee of backbenchers, a new ‘House Business Committee’ to bring transparency to the way in which the House’s wider agenda was determined, and a system by which the House as a whole would be given the final say on its agenda. Many of these ideas had been foreshadowed in a Constitution Unit report published in 2007.

After an inconclusive debate on the proposals of the Wright Committee on 22 February 2010, on 4 March, amongst other reforms arising from the committee’s recommendations (most significantly on the election of chairs and members of select committees) the House agreed that a proposal for the establishment of the Backbench Business Committee should be brought to it by the government (emphasis very deliberately added) before the start of the next parliament, and that a House Business Committee should be established during the course of that new parliament. In fact, as everyone knew at the time, the timetable for doing so was well-nigh impossible. The parliament was dissolved on 12 April, just 20 sitting days after the 4 March debate. That could have been the last we heard of the recommendations on new ways to schedule the House’s business.

Continue reading

Taking back control: why the House of Commons should govern its own time

Various high-profile tensions between parliament and government – including over Brexit and COVID-19 – have focused on what the House of Commons can discuss and when. In a major new report published today, Meg Russell and Daniel Gover highlight the problems that result from the government’s default control over the Commons agenda, and make proposals for reform. They argue that the fundamental principle guiding House of Commons functioning should be majority decision-making, not government control. 

The last few years have been turbulent ones in the House of Commons. First over Brexit, then over COVID-19, tensions between government and parliament have sometimes run exceptionally high. This was perhaps predictable during 2017-19 under minority government, but has remained the case subsequently despite Boris Johnson’s 80-seat Commons majority.

A common theme throughout this period – as highlighted in a major new report, published today – has been frustration about the extent to which the government decides what MPs can discuss and when. Brexit saw headlines about MPs ‘seizing control’ of the Commons agenda (some suggesting that this marked the ‘end of politics as we know it’), followed by worldwide media attention on the government’s attempt to prorogue parliament (ultimately overturned by the Supreme Court). During the COVID-19 pandemic, complaints have focused on parliament’s limited opportunities to scrutinise ‘lockdown’ restrictions, and ministers’ resistance to MPs’ ability to participate in the Commons virtually. On all of these matters, MPs have struggled to secure debates on their own priorities at key moments – despite the Commons’ status as the senior chamber in a supposedly ‘sovereign’ parliament. Even when lacking a Commons majority, ministers have generally been able to exercise agenda control.

Controversies about government control of the House of Commons are nothing new. At one level, they are part of a tussle for dominance that dates back centuries. In more recent times, they were a key focus of the Select Committee on the Reform of the House of Commons (generally referred to as the ‘Wright Committee’) which reported in 2009. It recognised ‘a feeling that the House of Commons, as a representative and democratic institution, needs to wrest control back over its own decisions’, and made a series of recommendations to achieve this. Some – including the election of select committee members and chairs, and establishment of the Backbench Business Committee – were implemented. But others were not. The failure to resolve these issues helped fuel the tensions of recent years.

Continue reading