Ordinarily, Britain doesn’t do hung parliaments. For all the talk of legitimacy demanding the victors carry the support of more than half the electorate, an election yielding a government without the parliamentary might to quash the combined strength of all other parties is viewed as a failure.
British democracy has evolved a public desire for strong government. Britons have been content for it to be provided by the party gaining largest support, even one most of them did not support. Perhaps uniquely, our democratic system is based not on powerful masses tolerating a minority’s dissent, but on the dissenting masses tolerating the largest minority ruling.
That system may seem absurd, but it is built on noble characteristics: Trust in our rivals, a confidence that absolute legislative power will not corrupt them to the point of endangering the system. Mutual confidence in each other’s self-restraint and moral judgement has served us well; the system has survived massive government majorities, deep reforms never strayed into revolution. Ultimately an effective government without majority support has been preferable to an ineffective minority administration, or one claiming majority support on the spurious grounds of cobbled together policies plucked from the manifestos of numerous parties, whose combined programme was never submitted to the electorate.
Support for proportional representation is fashionable. They say first past the post is a relic, a hangover from the long gone era of two party politics. That is naive. Our system grants the people the power to determine who forms government. The price is sacrificing group interests to those of the country, namely stability and efficiency.
Other countries without our history of moderation and restraint cannot abide such a system, the potential for abuse of power is simply too great. PR is their safety net, guaranteeing moderation by forcing compromise. It works, but it also ensures elections merely give politicians bargaining chips to trade in negotiations for government; the voters do not choose the government themselves. PR transfers power from people to politicians.
Britain’s system is far from perfect, there is urgent need for change. Westminster does not provide the democratic legitimacy it should, but its shortcomings can be remedied while retaining its virtues. Open primaries would ensure local people choose the candidates, ending the complacency of MPs in safe seats. A Senate could deliver greater proportionality and hold strong governments to account. Direct prime ministerial election would grant everyone a meaningful say in who takes executive power. Separation of powers would free parliament of the corrupting influence of government patronage. By such means we could truly transform British democracy.
This election is inconclusive: The clear rejection of one government has not carried to the clear election of another. In this rare Hung Parliament the Liberal Democrats may barter for proportional representation. That is undemocratic, ensuring all elections repeat yesterday’s placing the power to form government in the hands of party leaders. Advanced democracy requires such power rest with the people, not the politicians. Proportional representation could entrench hung parliaments, strangling democracy.
By Mark McGeever