Do we elect a dictator?

Part 3 of series looking at Britain’s democracy.


In a society where all men are regarded as being created equal in respect of their rights, and this equality is underpinned by laws, even exceptional men may not flout these agreed basic rules. Who is to guard the guardians?  In a modern democracy Juvenal’s question is answered:  All of us.  In a mature democracy no one, not even the leader, may ignore the law of the land.  Acknowledging this, if the crime is sufficiently grave, it must be possible to remove a leader if he has broken the law. 

The practical application of this principle is impeachment.  In the United States this was the method recently used (July 1974) to force the resignation of a president.  When president Nixon was charged with ‘high crimes and misdemeanours’ by ordering a burglary to obtain information on his political opponents, and, worse, seeking to cover up the crime, impeding the investigation, he was forced to quit.  He had broken his oath to ‘preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States’.  Nixon resigned when impeachment proceedings started.

More recently still, in 1998, president Clinton was impeached for perjury during a private civil case.  He was acquitted on the grounds that only crimes affecting the functioning of government itself could be considered impeachable.

The procedure of impeachment originated in Britain, and its clear democratic credentials appealed to the US founding fathers, who incorporated impeachment into their written constitution.  In Britain we have no written constitution to transgress, but that is not regarded as an excuse for criminality. Here we put our trust in the superior wisdom of our ancestors, and must go by precedents. One precedent for impeachment was established in 1628 when the House debated the impeachment of the Duke of Buckingham.  Rather than allow his placeman to be tried, King Charles 1 dissolved parliament.

The more powerful the individual, the more necessary it is that he act within the law.  If British democracy is to be brought nearer to the ideal, impeachment will be a necessary tool in holding leaders to account if they are suspected of a grave breach of the law. Instead of being regarded as an ancient legal resort, once useful when parliament was struggling against the arbitrary power of the king,[1] on the contrary impeachment of a leader or any of his deputies ought to be taken automatically, whenever even one member can bring forward solid grounds for believing that there is a case to answer.  A report produced for Adam Price M P A Case to Answer outlining the case for ‘impeachment of the Prime Minister for High Crimes and Misdemeanours in relation to the invasion of Iraq’ may be downloaded by visiting    Impeachment leads to a parliamentary debate, and is only the first step towards possible removal, though a prime minister could hardly survive an adverse vote.

An impeachment debate over the prime minister’s decision to go to war in Iraq would have been important for several reasons.  Firstly, it would have given an opportunity to settle the issue of whether the prime minister had misled parliament – surely a necessary clarification!   If there is no impeachment debate over such a grave issue as taking the nation to a dubious war, when would there ever be such a debate?   Secondly, the high principle involved, that in a democracy no one is above the law, is seen to be upheld.  The Commons is enabled to examine the actions of the leader and remove him if he is found guilty of serious misdemeanour.  This emphasises the power of the Commons, and so enhances democracy. Increased respect for the US democratic process was achieved worldwide by the successful impeachment of president Nixon.   

Thirdly, the precedent of a modern impeachment would surely cause future leaders to be more careful, share out responsibility and to put more trust in their colleagues.  Serious matters of foreign policy will be more readily referred for a frank discussion in the whole House before decisions are taken.  This will assuredly render foreign policy more transparent and benign.[2]

(Next month:  Who sets the parliamentary agenda?  The leader, of course.)

Harry Davis



[1] This was the line taken by Peter Hain, MP, and Leader of the House, when arguing that impeachment proceedings against the then prime minister, Tony Blair, were inappropriate. See  

[2] These remarks apply with even greater force to the leader of the United States, where the case to answer is even plainer than in Britain, and where the procedure of impeachment has been used so recently, and on comparatively trivial grounds. The fact that not a single congressman has moved to impeach president Bush for taking the country to a war declared illegal by the UN Secretary-General is puzzling.  However, we are concerned here only with Britain, and how our democracy might be upgraded.