Do we elect a Dictator?

Part 4 of a monthly series looking at Britain’s democracy.

Who Sets the Parliamentary Agenda?

Executive control is firmly built-in to the modern British political system.   The major part of the legislative agenda for each parliamentary session is determined largely by the leader, and then announced to parliament by the Queen.  Much pomp and circumstance surrounds the 500-year-old ceremony, originally designed, so it is said, to impress foreign dignitaries, but its purpose is very practical – the setting of the legislative agenda for the coming parliamentary session.  Though the queen announces the measures that ‘my government’ proposes to enact, the script is of course written for her.  A cabinet committee decides on the content, but the prime minister has the final say.  The more autocratic the leader, the more completely he personally sets the great bulk of the legislative agenda. There is no careful referring back to the decisions and desires expressed and the issues voted on by the Party at the Party Conference, as might be expected in a democracy.  Instead, the slide towards authoritarian control is accelerating.  At this year’s Labour conference the leadership are to put forward constitutional amendments which will block delegates passing any resolutions on any policy questions.  That great instinctive democrat Tony Benn describes in his Diaries the attempt to reform the Labour Party in this respect, so that the leader could no longer ignore the manifesto ‘which the Party Leaders invariably controlled’.  He contested the Deputy Leadership largely on this issue, of accountability of the leadership to Conference decisions, and was narrowly defeated by Healey.

The media are in no doubt that the parliamentary agenda is the work of the prime minister himself.  At the start of the last year that Blair was at the helm of the ship of state, the announcement of the parliamentary agenda was greeted with:  ‘Tony Blair launches a hugely ambitious legislative programme’, declares the Daily Mail, ‘obviously anxious to establish his legacy as a radical reformer.’ ‘So this was the mixed bag of measures that Mr Blair hopes will set his legacy in stone,’ says the editorial in The Independent.   ‘The prime minister is desperately trying to throw off the lame duck tag.  That’s what the queen’s speech was all about,’ announces the Daily Telegraph. And so on. There is not even a passing comment that this fulsome power exerted by the leader is in any way undemocratic. 

The ominous point to note is the general acceptance by the media, and perhaps by most of us, that the prime minister in person is entitled to determine the direction the whole parliament will take for the duration of his leadership. 

In our eagerness to kneel before the Leader we do not notice we are crushing the tender flower of democracy.

Next month:  The huge excitement provoked by leadership contests, and what it tells us about ourselves.

Harry Davis