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 rule of law: what is it, and why does it matter?

The rule of law is a fundamental principle underpinning the UK constitution. Its core principles include limits on state power, protection for fundamental rights and judicial independence. Lisa James and Jan van Zyl Smit argue that upholding the rule of law is a responsibility shared between politicians, officials and the public – with ministers and MPs having important roles to play.  

Background

The rule of law is frequently cited in political debate, and is a key topic monitored by those worried about democratic backsliding. But what is it, and why is it so important?

The rule of law is one of the fundamental principles underpinning constitutional democracies, and its importance is not seriously questioned in any modern democratic state. But like other constitutional principles, long-running debates exist about how it can most effectively be implemented.

This briefing explains the central concepts constituting the rule of law under three broad categories:

  1. Legality and legal certainty
  2. Legal equality and fundamental rights
  3. Judicial independence and access to justice

Why does the rule of law matter?

The rule of law prevents the abuse of state power, requires the law to be followed by all, and ensures that legal rights are fulfilled in practice. It also provides the means for various other core aspects of democracy to be safeguarded – for example, making certain that the laws made by parliament are enforced, and that fair conduct of elections can be guaranteed. More broadly, it underpins social functioning by providing fair and legitimate routes for disputes to be settled. And it supports stable economies and economic growth by upholding property rights, facilitating the elimination of corruption, and maintaining a business environment in which contracts are enforced, and international trade and investment can flourish. The rule of law alone is not sufficient to make a state democratic, but a state which does not observe it cannot be a healthy democracy.

As such, the rule of law has long been recognised as a fundamental part of the UK system. Many of its core aspects were established during the seventeenth century – particularly by the Bill of Rights 1689. Nineteenth-century scholar Albert Venn Dicey considered it, alongside parliamentary sovereignty, one of the ‘twin pillars’ of the constitution. More recently, Margaret Thatcher considered its observance central to Conservatism, arguing that ‘the institution of democracy alone is not enough. Liberty can only flourish under a rule of law’. And the 2001 Labour government recognised its importance as an existing principle in the Constitutional Reform Act 2005.

What does the rule of law cover?

Like other fundamental principles, the precise details of the rule of law are debated, but its central tenets are widely recognised. Lord (Tom) Bingham of Cornhill, a former Senior Law Lord, provided one well-known schema, on which the Venice Commission’s Rule of Law tools for assessing constitutional reforms are based. Another influential definition was given by then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who defined the rule of law as:

…a principle of governance in which all persons, institutions and entities, public and private, including the State itself, are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated, and which are consistent with international human rights norms and standards.

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The constitutional causes and consequences of the Truss-Kwarteng budget crisis

Within weeks, Liz Truss’s premiership was plunged into economic and political turmoil due to Kwasi Kwarteng’s ‘mini budget’. But this crisis, suggests Meg Russell, has distinctly constitutional roots. Building on Boris Johnson’s legacy, Truss chose to sideline expert officials and regulators, and shut out her own MPs. The consequences that have since befallen her are a compelling advertisement for respecting – and rebuilding – appropriate constitutional checks and balances.

The Conservative Party conference, indeed the entirety of Liz Truss’s new premiership, has been severely destabilised by the market reaction to Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s ‘mini budget’. Far from securing Truss her desired reputation for acting on the energy crisis and boosting the economy, and a positive bounce in the polls, Kwarteng’s 23 September ‘fiscal event’ saw the pound plunge, lenders withdraw mortgage products, and Labour achieve record poll leads. Faced with a mass rebellion by Conservative MPs, Kwarteng performed a U-turn on abolition of the top rate of income tax, while other parts of the package may face further such trouble ahead.

Fiscal policy is well beyond the usual scope of the Constitution Unit blog, or of this author. But the extent to which the unforced economic and political crisis built on foundations of poor constitutional and governance practice is striking. Boris Johnson played fast and loose with many constitutional norms, and Liz Truss seems quickly to have followed suit. But her now catastrophic position – with some Conservative MPs calling for the Prime Minister’s removal after less than a month in the job – demonstrates just how shortsighted and dangerous such behaviour can be.

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Constitutional standards matter: the new Prime Minister must not forget that voters care about the honesty and integrity of their leaders

Tomorrow, it is expected that the UK will have a new Prime Minister. Whoever is appointed will have a number of high priority issues competing for their attention. Peter Riddell argues that constitutional standards should be near the top of the new PM’s to do list. He calls for a new Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests to be appointed, and warns against interfering with the Privileges Committee investigation into Boris Johnson.

The new Prime Minister is going to have such a large in tray of urgent decisions that there is a danger that the ethical and constitutional issues that largely brought down Boris Johnson will be neglected. There is an even worse risk that the wrong lessons will be learned from these events and that the future standards regime will be weaker than before, particularly over the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests.

During the regional hustings meetings of the past few weeks, there have been hardly any references to the controversies over standards that so dramatically undermined Johnson’s position among Conservative MPs. As striking, and worrying, have been the recurrent attacks by Liz Truss’s supporters on unelected advisers and regulators, whether the civil service, the Bank of England, City and business regulators, or ethical watchdogs. In particular, while Rishi Sunak has said that he would quickly appoint a new Independent Adviser to fill the vacancy left by the resignation of Lord (Christopher) Geidt in mid-June, Truss has been more equivocal.

Truss has so far refused to commit to appointing an ethics adviser, arguing that she personally has ‘always acted with integrity’ and understands the difference between right and wrong. She has said that ‘one of the problems we have got in this country in the way we approach things is that we have numerous advisers and independent bodies, and rules and regulations’. While she would ‘ensure the correct apparatus is in place so that people are able to whistle-blow’, she believes that ‘ethics and responsibility cannot be out-sourced to an adviser’.

This view confuses the roles of advisers/regulators and ministers. In the case of the Independent Adviser, there is no outsourcing of ethics and responsibility. What the Adviser is being asked to do is to establish the facts about whether the Ministerial Code has been broken, while an elected politician, in this case the Prime Minister, decides whether a minister should be punished and what form any sanction should take. In that sense the Prime Minister is the guardian of the final judgement on ethics and responsibility. And there is now general agreement that there should be a range of sanctions, and not just resignation.

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Monitor 81. Johnson falls; what’s next for the constitution?

Today, the Unit published the 81st edition of Monitor, which provides analysis of the key constitutional news of the past four months. In this post, which also serves as the issue’s lead article, Meg Russell and Alan Renwick reflect on the collapse of Boris Johnson’s government, increasing concerns about ministerial and parliamentary standards, and continuing doubts about the future of the Union.

The preoccupying question in UK politics over recent months increasingly became when – rather than whether – the Prime Minister would be forced from office. In April, Boris Johnson was fined for breaching restrictions on social gatherings during lockdown, and the Commons referred him to its Privileges Committee for allegedly misleading parliament. In May, the Conservatives suffered steep losses in the local elections, and Sue Gray’s official report into ‘partygate’ was finally published, concluding that the ‘senior leadership at the centre, both political and official, must bear responsibility’ for the culture of disregard for the rules that had emerged. In June, Johnson survived a vote of no confidence among his MPs and the loss of two parliamentary by-elections, followed by the resignation of the Conservative Party Co-Chair, Oliver Dowden. But the resignation of Deputy Chief Whip Chris Pincher in early July, and Number 10’s bungled reaction to it, finally brought the Prime Minister down.

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