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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After an unsuccessful legal challenge by All the Citizens and the Good Law Project, where next on WhatsApp use in government?

Cassandra Somers-Joce and Joe Tomlinson discuss the use of instant messaging technologies within government, arguing that good government does not mean the eradication of such technology from government practice, but that it must be used in a way that is sensitive to the state’s duties to maintain a record.

The last few years have seen several prominent examples of instant messaging technologies – some with the capacity to auto-delete messages – being used within the UK government. Examples ranging from the articulation of the rationale behind the controversial prorogation of parliament to the securing of government medical device contracts during the COVID-19 pandemic have arisen in the press. Instant messaging technologies clearly play an important role in government communication and decision-making. These technologies are seemingly utilised daily across all levels; for instance, the BBC has reported that since November 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been sent a summary of his ‘red box’, containing prime ministerial business to attend to, via WhatsApp. These reports of high-profile usage have been followed by the emergence of a Cabinet Office policy that arguably encourages the use of self-deleting instant messaging, and research from the Institute for Government that shows divergent policies on this issue across government.

What should we make of these quickly evolving practices? Instant messaging technologies such as WhatsApp undoubtedly have their benefits for public officials, and the effective functioning of government overall. Perhaps most notably, they can enable officials to exchange messages and share information more easily than other systems. However, they create a range of complexities as regards the preservation of the public record, particularly where these technologies are used in place of documented meetings or official email communications. Not least amongst these complexities is that the use of these technologies engages a variety of public law norms related to governmental record-keeping and the disclosure of information. As practices have emerged, it has become increasingly clear that the use of WhatsApp by the UK government may be at risk of being in violation of these public law norms.

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The House of Lords amendment to the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill returns appropriate power to MPs: they should accept it

The House of Lords has amended the government’s Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill to require House of Commons approval for early general elections. Tom Fleming and Meg Russell explore what MPs should consider when the bill returns to the Commons. They argue that the Lords amendment deserves support, as it provides an important limit on Prime Ministers’ power to call early elections, and avoids drawing either the monarch or the courts into political controversy.

Background

The Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill seeks to change how early general elections are called in the UK. Specifically, it aims to restore the Prime Minister’s control of election timing, by repealing the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA).

Before 2011, general elections were required at least every five years. However, the Prime Minister could ask the monarch to dissolve parliament during that period, resulting in an earlier election. The FTPA removed this personalised power, and instead handed control to the House of Commons. Under its provisions, early elections would occur only if two-thirds of all MPs voted to support one, or if the Commons expressed ‘no confidence’ in the government and no government could regain confidence within two weeks. Subsequently, in 2019, the two-thirds majority was shown to be unenforceable, when Boris Johnson presented the Early Parliamentary General Election Bill. This temporarily overrode the FTPA requirement in order to stage the December general election, and both the Commons and the Lords supported it.

The government is now seeking to permanently reverse the FTPA with the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill. This bill passed through its Commons committee and remaining stages in little over two hours last autumn, with limited opportunity for detailed consideration, and was approved without amendment. However, it has since faced more extended scrutiny in the House of Lords.

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Post-truth – and post-conservative? How Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party poses a threat to the quality of our democracy

The Johnson government, and the Prime Minister himself, have been much criticised for their propensity for breaking rules, laws and conventions. Tim Bale argues that the government seems bent on freeing itself from the constraints that we used to take for granted, and has embraced populism in a reckless manner. He calls on ministers to reconsider their attitude to the rules of the constitutional system before it is too late.

I’m no expert on the constitution, the courts or the more arcane aspects of parliamentary procedure. But I can, I suppose, claim to know a bit about the Conservative Party. And I’m growing increasingly concerned.

The party has always been protean – shifting its shape, changing its colours like a chameleon to best suit the conditions in which it finds itself. But there have always been limits.

Margaret Thatcher may have been a disruptor, particularly when it came to undoing the post-war settlement to which her predecessors reluctantly agreed. Yet one always felt she had a basic respect for the conventions of representative democracy and the rule of law, even on those occasions where she and her governments pushed against them.

And the same went for her successors as Conservative premiers, John Major, David Cameron and Theresa May. But Boris Johnson? I’m not so sure.

Wherever you look now, you see a government seemingly bent on freeing itself from the constraints that we used to take for granted – and that, in some ways, our uncodified constitution and parliamentary conventions left us little choice but to take for granted.

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The anatomy of democratic backsliding: could it happen here?

The term ‘backsliding’ has been coined to describe the phenomenon by which leaders who come to office within a democratic framework, only to attack some of democracy’s core features when in office. Stephan Haggard and Robert R Kaufman outline some of the key features of ‘backsliding’, discuss how and why it can take hold, and whether there are warning signs that such a process could happen in the UK. 

During the presidency of Donald Trump, American democracy suffered the most serious challenge it has faced since the country’s Civil War. Trump and his administration inflamed divisions that jeopardise the rights of women and minorities; attacked the press; defied oversight; sought to stack the judiciary and law enforcement agencies with partisan loyalists; challenged the integrity of the electoral system, and ultimately stoked a violent challenge to the democratic transfer of power. These threats were different from conventional forms of democratic reversion, such as the coup d’etat. Instead, they reflected a more insidious process that has come to be known as ‘backsliding,’ in which illiberal leaders rise to power within a democratic framework and attack core features of democracy from within.

Because the United States occupies a unique position at the heart of the international system, backsliding there commanded worldwide attention. But the United States was hardly alone. In a new study, we identified at least 15 other countries in which duly-elected democratic governments recently moved along similar paths. Not all of these paths lead all the way to autocracy; in the United States, democracy survived the Trump era badly damaged but intact. But depending on the metric used, more than half of these cases slid into ‘competitive authoritarian rule’: systems in which elections persisted but were manifestly rigged. Notably, although many of the failed democracies we examined were weakly institutionalised at the outset (for example, Bolivia, Ukraine, and Zambia), others such as Hungary, Poland, and Venezuela were once considered relatively robust democratic regimes.

These cases raise the question of whether similar adverse developments could occur in other seemingly stable democracies. Could they perhaps even happen in the UK? 

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