Do We Elect a Dictator?

Part 6:  The Power of the Executive


The history of the Executive, that small select group of members of parliament appointed by the leader to form a Cabinet which sits to consider matters of administration, has been one of increasing power at the expense of the Commons.  In the original Athenian executive the officials did not determine decisions at all – to give decision-making power to elected officials was considered to take power from the people, effectively converting the system into an oligarchy.

An executive is clearly needed for the smooth functioning of practical administration. But what was once regarded merely as a practical necessity has gradually become a power in its own right that threatens the very working of parliament.  The democratic model had been designed as a tripartite system: the all-important legislative power was to be in the hands of the main body of the Commons, the Executive attended to practical matters, and the Judiciary ensured that the rule of law that had been established by the Commons was everywhere fairly applied. 

Executive function of the democratic body was originally meant to be analogous to the autonomic system of control that maintains the human body.  The system that maintains our vital functions operates outside consciousness. We don’t have to remember to send a message to the muscles of respiration every few seconds in order to keep breathing.  Our heartbeat, blood pressure maintenance, our digestion, our hormonal balance, all these essential systems run without reference to the conscious part of the brain (the Commons), leaving the thinking brain free for the more complex decisions. Thus the Executive leaves the Commons free to consider the proper legislative response of government to changing circumstances.  

Tom Paine considered that ‘the sovereign authority in any country is the power of making laws, and everything else is an official department’.  This view of how a democracy ought to operate was echoed later by Dicey, who thought that ‘a parliamentary executive [that is, the Ministry] must by the law of its nature follow, or tend to follow, the lead of the Parliament’.  A century of gradual change has inverted that proposition.  Lord Hailsham of St Marylebone, a former Lord Chancellor, said that the powers of government within Parliament are ‘now largely in the hands of the government machine, so that the government controls Parliament and not Parliament the Government’. He concluded:  ‘We live under an elective dictatorship, absolute in theory if hitherto thought tolerable in practice.’

            The problem of executive power overriding the Commons is not modern, but of long standing.  In 1886 the fiery Welsh MP Henry Richard moved a resolution stating that ‘in the opinion of this House, it is not just or expedient to embark in war . . . involving grave responsibilities for the nation, without the knowledge and consent of parliament’, backing up his resolution with a speech documenting the then-recent conflicts in Afghanistan, Burma, Syria, China, Persia, and South Africa for which there had been minimal input from the House, though in each case there had been ample time to discuss and consult with Parliament. This direct challenge from the floor of the House to the power of the executive was narrowly defeated by 115 votes to 109!

A similar attempt to limit executive power was made more recently in the United States.  In a strange provision of the Constitution reminiscent of feudal times, Article Two, Clause Two permits the president personally to make treaties with foreign states.  He may (and all presidents since Hoover have done so) also issue Executive Orders, which are decrees carrying the force of law that a president can make when he declares that a state of national emergency exists. The enormous power they give a president is arguably unconstitutional. Nevertheless, since the War and Emergency Powers Act of 1933, every president has been able and willing to bypass Congress, declare a national emergency, and become for the time a dictator, and in every case unnecessarily. 

Technology has now obviated the need that might have previously justified a quick presidential decision in an emergency. With the almost miraculous powers of communication available today, consultation is greatly facilitated. [1]  In the event of a national disaster of any conceivable kind, a majority decision could be arrived at almost instantly without the need for the physical presence of congressmen at a particular place.  Then any facilitating extraordinary power would have the authority of the full Congress.  If a hurricane or a flood causes terrible desolation and damage, is it likely that Senators would deny necessary measures to deal with the problem?   Remember that after the terrorist strike of September 11, 2001, president Bush did not make an appearance for several days.  If Congress were to be automatically recalled on any such emergency, the reaction to any such situation would probably be faster than relying on the president to issue an order.  It seems that an EO is more likely to be a device to boost executive power than to be a measure genuinely necessitated by sudden events.  They are probably a symptom of the tendency to drift towards dictatorship that is always present.

Just how far executives have gone towards being policy-deciders was demonstrated in Australia recently, when the prime minister instructed his parliament during the course of a debate that the decision to go to war in Iraq was an executive one.  Parliament would be informed, they could even have a debate on the issue, but the executive would decide, and their decision would be final.  The fact that Prime Minister Howard’s statement to the House was not regarded as contemptuous of parliament and provoked no kind of explosion shows how far the idea of an elected oligarchy is accepted today.

This concludes this rather incomplete review of the present weaknesses in our democratic process, which has been inspired by the way this country was taken unwillingly to an illegal war by its leader and his appointees.  A written constitution, setting legal limits, agreed by the people, to what our representatives can do, would be an obvious improvement, a necessary but insufficient aid towards a true democracy, but perhaps does not warrant a page in KPN.  After all, the USA has a written constitution, which has not prevented their rulers from exercising undemocratic power.  

Harry Davis 


[1] Conferences can be held these days by video-link.  The technology is now available for senators to discuss and vote upon an emergency issue instantaneously if necessary without their physical presence in Congress.