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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How Sunak can restore integrity, professionalism and accountability

Meg Russell, Alan Renwick, Sophie Andrews-McCarroll and Lisa James argue that for Rishi Sunak to keep his promise to put integrity, professionalism and accountability at the heart of his government, he must strengthen the standards system, enhance parliamentary scrutiny, defend the rule of law, abide by constitutional norms and defend checks and balances.

In his first speech as Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak promised to put integrity, professionalism and accountability in government at the heart of his premiership. This promise is to be warmly welcomed – commentators and experts have raised consistent alarms about slipping constitutional standards in recent years, and research shows that the public care deeply about honesty and integrity in their politicians.

But what might such a pledge look like in reality? Against the backdrop of Boris Johnson’s resignation this summer, precipitated by concerns about his approach to standards, integrity and accountability, an earlier post on this blog issued five questions for the then leadership candidates to address on rebuilding constitutional standards and restoring integrity. The subsequent premiership of Liz Truss aptly demonstrated these questions’ continuing relevance. This new post returns to the five core tasks, links them to Sunak’s stated goals, and suggests what his government might do to meet them. It demonstrates close agreement with proposals by respected experts from other bodies in response to Sunak’s pledge.

1. Strengthening the standards system

The system for maintaining government and parliamentary standards was placed under great stress during the Johnson premiership. Successive Independent Advisers on Ministers’ Interests resigned, ministers unwisely attempted to derail a House of Commons Committee on Standards investigation, and a Privileges Committee inquiry into whether Johnson himself misled parliament is ongoing. Truss’s subsequent claim that her personal integrity was a sufficient bulwark against standards breaches fell far short of the serious commitment to institutional arrangements needed to safeguard integrity.

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Protecting constitutional principles: what are they and why do they matter?

Recent debates about the health of the UK political system have raised questions about the core principles underlying constitutional democracy. Meg Russell, Alan Renwick and Lisa James set out some of these principles, and argue that MPs have a particular responsibility for upholding them.

Recent years have seen much discussion of the health of UK democracy, and some concerns about the risk of ‘democratic backsliding’. But this raises the question ‘backsliding from what’?

Widely shared assumptions exist about the principles which underlie constitutional (or ‘liberal’) democracies – the features that distinguish them from autocracies and so-called ‘illiberal democracies’. Although the UK famously lacks a codified constitution, such values are deeply embedded in its constitutional traditions and arrangements.

This briefing identifies and explains five such core principles:

  1. Institutional checks and balances
  2. Representative government, and free and fair elections
  3. Rule of law
  4. Fundamental rights
  5. Integrity and standards
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Rebuilding constitutional standards: five questions for the next Conservative leader

Boris Johnson yesterday fired the starting gun on a Conservative leadership race which should make the winner Prime Minister. Meg Russell, Alan Renwick and Robert Hazell pose five key questions which Conservative MPs and others are encouraged to ask the party leadership candidates, based on recent public, parliamentary and expert concerns.

Boris Johnson’s premiership has been marked by ever-growing concerns about the maintenance of various constitutional standards, which in recent days have reached fever pitch. These were echoed repeatedly in ministerial resignation statements and calls for him to go. Recent opinion polls meanwhile show strong public support for constitutional standards of integrity and accountability.

Conservative MPs now have an opportunity to choose among candidates to take Johnson’s place, which also creates an important constitutional responsibility. A high priority when picking the next Conservative leader should be to restore the standards essential to UK democracy, in order both to rebuild integrity in politics, and to work towards rebuilding public trust.

This blogpost sets out five key questions for Conservative leadership candidates, reflecting concerns raised by the public, independent expert organisations, and MPs themselves. Conservative MPs and others are encouraged to prioritise these questions, and raise them with the candidates when the party is making its choice.

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