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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Lord Geidt’s resignation is a fresh reminder of the government’s restrictive approach to scrutiny of its actions

After barely a year in post, Lord (Christopher) Geidt resigned yesterday as the Prime Minister’s Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests. As Peter Riddell demonstrates below, his resignation is a further example of the battles of constitutional watchdogs to remain independent of the executive, and reflects the increasing presidentialism of the current administration, dismissing scrutiny not only by regulators but also by parliament, the courts and the media.

The immediate and pressing question raised by Lord (Christopher) Geidt’s resignation is whether the role of Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests is doable at present. This is only partly a matter of rules but more one of political culture and attitudes. That has been implicitly acknowledged in the response of a Downing Street spokesman that there will not be an immediate replacement and that the Prime Minister is ‘carefully considering’ the future of the role.

As often with resignations, the background and the run-up to the decision to go matter as much as the specific reason for departure. Lord Geidt’s frustrations have been increasingly clear in his correspondence with Boris Johnson, in his annual report last month (as I discussed on this blog last week) and in his evidence to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) on 7 June. Johnson and his team failed to supply relevant information over the decoration of the Downing Street flat when initially sought and the PM did not take account of his obligations under the Ministerial Code over the ‘partygate’ allegations, for which he received a fixed penalty notice. Lord Geidt felt that Johnson’s eventual comments still did not address criticisms by Sue Gray about his adherence to the Nolan principles of public life.

Nonetheless, despite ‘inconsistencies and deficiencies’, Lord Geidt said in his resignation letter that he ‘believed it was possible to continue credibly as Independent Adviser, albeit by a very small margin’. He apparently told Boris Johnson on Monday that he would be content to serve until the end of the year. This followed the government’s concession last month that the Adviser could initiate his own investigations but only after having consulted the Prime Minister and obtained his consent, and with greater transparency over a refusal. Lord Geidt has described this as a ‘low level of ambition’ and his discomfort over the ambiguities of his relationship with the Prime Minister was evident in some robust questioning by PACAC. He was clearly seen by the MPs as not truly independent, not least when he said he was one of the PM’s assets, and, in practice, inhibited from advising a Prime Minister on his own conduct and obligations under the Code.

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