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.

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The Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill: why the House of Commons should retain control over dissolution

Next week MPs debate the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill, which seeks to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FTPA) and revive the former prerogative power of dissolution. Meg Russell, Gavin Phillipson and Petra Schleiter, all of whom gave evidence to the parliamentary committees considering FTPA repeal, argue that the government’s bill is flawed. It seeks to keep the courts out of dissolution decisions, but risks drawing them in, and risks politicising the role of the monarch. Removing the House of Commons power over when a general election is held, and returning it to the Prime Minister, would be a retrograde step.

On 13 September, MPs debate the remaining stages of the government’s Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill, which seeks to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA) and revive the former prerogative power of dissolution. Three parliamentary committees have considered FTPA repeal, to which all of us have submitted evidence. This post summarises key flaws in the government’s approach identified by the committees, and areas where expert evidence suggested solutions to address these flaws.

The post does not argue for retention of the FTPA. Instead it proposes a solution to the problems with the bill that would leave parliament at the heart of decision-making. It makes three key points:

  1. While aiming to exclude the courts from the question of dissolution, the government’s bill instead potentially draws them in.
  2. Placing sole reliance on the monarch as a check generates uncertainty, and risks politicising their role.
  3. The solution to both of these problems is to retain a requirement for the House of Commons to vote on the Prime Minister’s request for a general election by simple majority. Concerns that this could recreate the 2019 Brexit deadlock are groundless.

Our core argument is that maintaining the Commons’ ultimate control over dissolution, while fixing the defects of the 2011 Act, would be a better solution.

The bill seeks to exclude the courts from dissolution but risks drawing them

The bill’s central objective is to return the power to dissolve parliament to the monarch, to be granted on the Prime Minister’s request – that is, to restore the pre-FTPA status quo. Clause 3 (‘Non-justiciability of revived prerogative powers’, commonly referred to as the ‘ouster clause’) seeks to exclude the courts from considering cases relating to dissolution. The courts have never intervened in dissolution decisions (the 2019 Supreme Court case was on prorogation, which is different). But inclusion of the clause suggests that the government perceives some risk of judicial intervention if it attempts to revive the prerogative.

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The Fixed-term Parliaments Act did not cause the Brexit impasse

Next week MPs debate the government’s bill to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. One argument frequently deployed for scrapping the Act is that it generated gridlock over Brexit. But, Meg Russell argues, no clear counterfactual to support this claim has ever been presented. In fact, when considering the possible scenarios, it seems likely that the situation would have been made worse, not better, had the Prime Minister retained an untrammelled prerogative power to dissolve parliament in 2017–19.

Next week MPs debate the remaining stages of the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill, which seeks to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA). It proposes to reinstate the pre-FTPA position, whereby the Prime Minister would effectively control general election timing using prerogative power. A key argument deployed by those seeking repeal of the FTPA is that it helped to cause the Brexit deadlock of 2019: that the FTPA, as the Conservative manifesto put it, ‘led to paralysis at a time the country needed decisive action’. But to what extent is this really true?

While suggestions that the FTPA created the Brexit deadlock are commonplace, most experts who contributed to the three parliamentary committees that have considered FTPA repeal (the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Lords Constitution Committee and Joint Committee on the Fixed-term Parliaments Act) argued that the deadlock resulted from other factors. Most obvious were the post-2017 combination of a minority government, the need to deliver on a contested referendum result, and deep divisions within the governing party. These problems were clearly serious, and it is very far from clear that the FTPA could have resolved them.

A careful reading of the evidence presented to the three parliamentary committees, and of the Commons second reading debate on the bill, finds that most claims against the FTPA over Brexit are distinctly vague. No clear counterfactual is offered. This particularly applies to events during Theresa May’s premiership, when the most intractable problems arose. The situation did change in the autumn of 2019 under Boris Johnson (as discussed below), but the FTPA’s targeting as a causal factor dates back far earlier than this. Likewise, during interviews with a series of senior figures for a current book project on parliament and the Brexit process, I have asked several critics of the FTPA how, if Theresa May had been able to trigger an early general election without parliament’s consent, things would have turned out differently. I have yet to receive a convincing reply.

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FTPA Joint Committee lays down marker for the future

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 placed a legal obligation on the Prime Minister to make arrangements for a committee to review the legislation before the end of 2020. That committee was duly created, and published its report last month. Robert Hazell and Meg Russell offer a summary of the committee’s report, which was rightly critical of the government’s draft repeal bill, but argue that the committee ‘ignored’ the weight of the evidence in some key areas.

On 24 March the parliamentary Joint Committee to review the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA) published its report. The committee was established last November under section 7 of the FTPA, which required the Prime Minister in 2020 to make arrangements for a committee to review the operation of the Act, and if appropriate to make recommendations for its amendment or repeal. The review was carried out by a Joint Committee composed of 14 MPs and six members of the House of Lords, and chaired by former Conservative Chief Whip Lord (Patrick) McLoughlin.

The government pre-empted the review by publishing a draft FTPA (Repeal) Bill a week after the committee was established. The Conservative and Labour manifestos in 2019 had both contained a commitment to get rid of the FTPA. As a result the committee focused a lot of attention on the government’s draft repeal bill. But the report devotes almost equal space to the FTPA and how it might be amended, in case parliament prefers to go down that route, now or in the future.

There was clear interest in the committee for retaining but improving the FTPA. The government had a bare partisan majority (11 out of 20 members), and not all Conservative members supported the government line. But the committee managed to avoid any formal votes, instead referring in parts of the report to the majority or minority view. On some key issues the majority view went against the weight of evidence received.

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Moving Westminster into a multi-parliament world: the Commons takes a fresh look at devolution

The UK’s devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales celebrated their twenty-first anniversary this year. Their powers have changed several times since their creation, but much of this has occurred in an ad hoc way, without deep consideration at UK level of the overall devolution framework. Paul Evans explains how a new Procedure Committee inquiry into how the House of Commons should adapt to the ‘territorial constitution’ presents an opportunity to give some key devolution issues the attention they deserve.

Devolution in the UK turned 21 this year, and watching it grow has been a fascinating study in making up the constitution as you go along. The Scotland Act 2016 and the Wales Act 2017 (each of them the third major reworkings of the statutory basis of devolution in those nations in less than 20 years) declared the devolved legislatures there, along with their governments, to be a permanent part of the UK’s constitutional arrangements, which could be abolished only with the consent of the people in a referendum. 

In both those nations 16- and 17-year olds have been newly enfranchised and will participate in the elections of their parliaments next year. The Northern Ireland Assembly restarted (once more) in January after a three-year absence, and in May the Welsh Assembly renamed itself the Welsh Parliament (or Senedd Cymru if you prefer to use the UK’s – so far – only other official language). 

All in all, the journey towards a pragmatic form of de facto federalism in the UK has been a remarkably peaceful and generally good-natured velvet revolution. So perhaps it’s not so surprising that the House of Commons Procedure Committee has not felt the need to have a major review of the implications of devolution for the workings of the Commons since 1999.

Watching its progeny develop their own values and make their own decisions has, nonetheless, been a challenging learning experience for Westminster. The assertions of devolution’s permanency and its implication of equality of esteem between the four legislatures of the UK has often appeared more rhetorical than real. Whitehall seems never to have fully come to terms with the loss of centralised control which devolution necessarily entails. But, collectively, the elected members of the four legislatures have done little better in opening up and sustaining channels of communication – though some good work has been done at the margins. 

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