By Rupert Read
Last Saturday, I was in London, taking part in a big demonstration in Trafalgar Square in favour of changing on antiquated voting system in this country. Alongside Libdems, Greens, one or two Conservatives and UKIP-ites, and many people belong to no political party, I marched with Billy Bragg to where the Conservatives and LibDems were talking about a possible coalition. We chanted “No deal without PR [proportional representation]”, until eventually Nick Clegg felt obliged to come out and address us. I stood a few yards away from him, as he spoke with us and (sometimes) we chanted back friendlily to him. It felt like democracy alive.
Now, a week later (how long a week can be in politics!), Nick Clegg is actually Deputy Prime Minister, in a coalition with the Conservatives. And all the intervening worries about how we might end up with ‘an unelected Prime Minister’ (if we had ended up with Brown’s successor as Labour Leader, as Prime Minister) seem like ancient history.
But they are not. For the new coalition government, whatever its faults (and I suspect that they will be many), is promising some interesting political reforms. We may end up with a changed electoral system (not, sadly, PR, but at least AV, the ‘Alternative Vote’ system, in which you rank the candidates in order of your preference, and therefore no candidate can be elected without a majority of votes). We may end up with an elected second chamber. And we will probably end up with fixed-term-Parliaments.
Now, if we have fixed-term Parliaments, and if those Parliaments are hung (as they often will be, especially under AV voting), this makes it inevitable that there will sometimes be ‘unelected Prime Ministers’. For, if power changes hands during a fixed-term Parliament – if there is a rupture that forces a change in what the governing coalition is – then the Prime Minister will by definition be changing without a new election.
Some might say this is awful, having an ‘unelected Prime Minister’. But note the following three facts:
- We are not talking about a Prime Minister from the House of Lords. We are talking about a Prime Minister who has been elected just like any other MP, to our House of Commons. We have a Parliamentary system, not a Presidential system (the misleading format of the TV debates notwithstanding). MPs choose who the Prime Minister is, the people don’t choose the PM directly. We saw this in action a few days ago, when it was the balance of preferences among the MPs that ultimately determined that it was Cameron who would end up in number 10.
- Many countries on the Continent are well-used to this. Germany, for instance – and if you travel Germany’s railways, see Germany’s green infrastructure, etc., then you’ll know that Germany is often governed much better than Britain…
- Commentators have often pointed out recently that it is exactly 70 years since Churchill’s coalition government was formed. But they omit to mention that Churchill too was an ‘unelected Prime Minister’. He succeeded to power after Chamberlain resigned, without any intervening General Election. If being an ‘unelected PM’ was good enough for the man who is by popular acclaim the ‘greatest Briton ever’ (though actually Churchill wasn’t great in how he behaved toward the miners, Gandhi, etc. – but that’s a story for another occasion), then it should be good enough for us now.