British politics has become presidential. Thursday’s leaders debate just underlined that. The problem, of course, is that we don’t have a constitution that can contain presidential power. In fact, we have one that takes presidential power and, provided the ruling party’s majority is large enough, turns it into an elected dictatorship. Put simply, our legislature no longer holds the executive to account in any meaningful way. Party whips enforce discipline, and anyone who wants to climb the greasy poll knows they have to toe the party line – if they don’t they’ll lose out on the luxuries that come with being a minister.
There are plenty of proposals to strengthen parliamentary democracy – beefing up select committees, for example – but while most of the usual suggestions would be an improvement on the status quo, I’m not sure they’d make all that much difference in the long run. Might it be time to admit that the horse has bolted, that Britain now has a presidential system, and that in the era of 24hr news media we’re not going to be able to row back from it? There is also some truth in the maxim that people get the politics they deserve. Has the British electorate become irredeemably attached to personality politics? Maybe so.
The question then becomes how to adapt our constitutional arrangements to deal with presidential politics. Sometimes I think the most sensible thing would be to separate the executive from the legislature, directly elect prime ministers, and ban members of the government from sitting in parliament. Apart from restoring the independence of parliament (which was always intended to stand up to the executive, not be its lackey), this could help improve the calibre of government ministers (they couldn’t exactly get worse, could they?). It would also mean letting the PM advise the Monarch on whether to grant the royal assent to legislation, creating an effective veto power.
Would a separation of powers do a better job of protecting liberty than our current arrangements? That’s the standard by which all constitutional amendments should be judged, in my opinion, and honestly, I’m not sure what the answer is in this case. But it’s an interesting thought for a Sunday morning.