BRITISH DEMOCRATIC REFORM: Voting, Information Control, Regionalism and the Case for Pessimism

April 2, 1996

by Howard Fienberg

for Politics 450: Democracy and Democratic Movements

The miserable and languishing condition of all places that depend upon a remote seat of government.

Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun, An Account of a Conversation

The preceding quote expresses one of the modern crises of democracy, that of centralization. One must examine the aspects of democracy and the need and possibility for reform in the UK as a means of better understanding the needs across the developed democratic world as a whole. These aspects are fourfold: electoral reform; information management; regionalism; and vested interests. Once these are explored one will have a clearer grasp of what is needed for democratic reform in more than just the UK.


The UK's first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system is the focus of much clamor for reform. The set-up continually favors the center parties, and penalizes others. Labour and the Conservatives both tend to gain a greater proportion of seats in the House of Commons than their proportion of the overall vote, whereas parties like the Liberal Democrats are drastically under-represented.

Reforms to the electoral system have focused on several methods of voting which are more proportional: the alternative vote (AV), the single transferable vote (STV), list PR, and the additional member system (AMS).

The alternative vote offers voters the chance to state their preferences of the proposed candidates. If no candidate has a majority of first-preference votes, the candidate with the least is eliminated, and the second choices of the eliminated candidate's voters are tallied. This continues until an overall majority is won by one candidate. The AV system is in use in the lower house of Australia's parliament.

The single transferable vote works similarly to the AV. However, once a candidate has received enough votes to be elected, that candidate's surplus votes are redistributed as well. The system is used in Ireland, as well as the upper house of Australia's parliament. List PR allocates seats to a party in proportion to its percentage of the total votes. These seats are filled from a list of candidates determined by the party, although sometimes voters are given the chance to choose the order of the list, and hence between candidates.

The additional member system is a mixture of the list PR and FPTP. Regular FPTP elections are held in each constituency, after which parties are given seats as per list PR, until their total number of seats is proportional to their share of the national vote.

The capacity for tactical voting, already prevalent in Britain, would be heightened particularly by the first two types, as consistent with social choice theory. The implications of this are discussed in David Miller's article "Deliberative Democracy and Social Choice" in his discussion of the theory.

Enid Lakeman asserts that there are four main purposes of elections: reflection of the main opinions in the electorate; establishing majority rule; election of personally suitable representatives; and strong and stable government. Certain aspects of PR might violate the third tenet on representative suitability, and does not automatically establish majority rule. It does, however, fulfill the first and last tenets.

The arguments between advocates of the FPTP and PR systems are varied. Proportional representation is generally hailed as more fair. Such a word as fair is loaded, of course, and subject to numerous interpretations, but it works in so far as fairness is deemed to be an equal proportion of seats to votes in an election.

However, the conventional wisdom of political scientists is that a government should better be more effective than accurately representative. (Lijphart 624) Traditional political theory waxes polemically about the FPTP system proving effective, and that PR was good for only greater representational accuracy. Modern theorists have changed their tack, and more now argue in favor of PR due to its greater effectiveness.

S. E. Finer argued that PR systems had a greater likelihood of yielding multi-party coalition cabinets, which were therefore more "likely to be located in the political center and to provide greater continuity and moderation in macro-economic planing." (624) The focus of Finer's critique is on the notion that single-party governments, as delivered by FPTP systems, are both strong and stable.

Strength is defined as threefold. First of all, strength is the ability to have the legislature pass the government's program. The argument here is that a coalition cabinet can pass its legislation just as easily as a single-party cabinet. Lijphart emphasizes, however, that even cabinets that have to negotiate bills through the legislature are good, because of the greater balance and occurrence of discourse, and that this does not necessarily have to result in "dead lock or immobilism," (627) like in the current US system. The simple passing of legislation, however, without proper debate, does not seem very democratic. The autocratic impulse of the executive is evident especially close to home: the Conservative government of Ontario makes little claim to discourse as democracy, but consistently refers to its majority win in the provincial election as providing a democratic mandate.

Second of all, strength is the ability to make unpopular decisions when necessary. Finer argues that coalition governments are less timid in such respects than single-party ones. This is because they tend to have much wider support, usually more than half of the electorate. As well, they are not so susceptible to the minute swings in voter opinion as the single-party governments. The British government is a sound example. Major's government has been unable to mobilize on certain issues for fear of losing their majority in Parliament, and look to simplistic gifts to the electorate in the hopes of surviving the next election.

Finally, strength is the ability to have the government's legislation obeyed once it is passed. The greater popular support and legitimacy which Finer finds in coalition governments seemingly make them more likely to have their legislation followed.

A coalition government would have been unlikely to even consider the Poll Tax in the UK. The Tory imposition of the tax brought on a torrent of grassroots resistance to government policy. This resistance ranged from non-payment campaigns, to violent rioting. The judicial system also proved opposed to the policy, refusing in most cases to prosecute legal violations involving the tax, much to the howling of the government. The whole affair led to the eventual removal of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister of the UK, but her presidential and autocratic style carried on without her. Stability to Finer reads as keeping a similar course over time beyond the length of any one regime. PR-elected governments tend to be unstable in the short-term, due to break-ups of coalitions, but their long-term policies will usually remain constant. This is because of the political centrality of policy. FPTP-elected governments are more likely to remain stable throughout their term, due to strong-arm measures like the party whip, and the seeming unity of their party. However, FPTP engenders greater long-term instability, because as the governments change, there is a greater ideological and policy shift, since the two-party system tends to polarize the two main parties.

This long-term instability is shown in Britain in the typical alternation between the Left and the Right, or the Labour and Conservative parties. This alternation might not be so drastic in the expected 1997 general election. This is because Tony Blair's Labour is much less leftish and radical than it once was, and has adopted many of the Tory platforms.

Ronald Rogowski pontificates on PR even further. Rogowski theorizes that the more an "economically advanced state relies on external trade, the more it will be drawn to the use of PR, a parliamentary system, and large districts." (206) This will provide for that state's three main needs: insulation, autonomy, and policy stability.

Insulation in this sense refers to insulation from protectionist forces who would wish to enact trade barriers with the outside world. These forces will tend to originate in "sectors or regions injured by changes in international markets." (207) Autonomy is needed from powerful private interests, pork-barrel politics, patronage, and monopolies. Policy stability is especially important. Rogowski claims that British industry is not necessarily looking for any specific program from governments, but simply wants a stable long-term policy. Such long-term stability provides a safe environment for industrial growth and investment. The lesser decisiveness of coalition governments is usually made up for in their greater long-term stability.

Lijphart's conclusion is that the case for PR need not depend on substantive proof that it is economically superior. It is good enough to show that they are no worse than FPTP. (Lijphart 636) His evidence lends credence to its highlight as at least as good (or bad) as FPTP.

Information Management

Democratization is often depicted as hinging on information. The reformers need to know certain information in order to know what and how to reform. Such reformers might not even be interested in such business, were it not for the regime's stifling of the free flow of information. Elite control of such information can either help the regime to hide it or aid the reformers.

As in most countries, democratic or not, the need for information control expressed by the government in the UK has always been justified by reference to 'national security'. The concept of 'national security' is meant to mean security from the nation's enemies. One might have difficulty with that conception, but even more so, the government has most often interpreted 'security' to be a domestic affair, a problem of internal subversion. Information control becomes easier to see in this light as part of a Gramscian-style hegemony.

It is often noted that the rise in the "culture of secrecy" appears to have coincided with the upsurge of mass democracy. (Morgan 536) "Fear of popular control" as opposed to the fear of the compromise of national security is argued to have been the "decisive factor" behind the legislation advocating greater official secrecy. (531) This fear can be analyzed from two perspectives. The first is that the elites wished to control the trickle of information to the masses in order to protect the masses. Following this argument, the elites decided that the masses could never understand and comprehend the majority of decisions being made by their leaders, nor the real circumstances of their own governance. This conceives of the masses as children needing guidance and discipline. The other perspective is that the elites decided to restrict the information flow in order to ensure their own status. This means that the elites fostered no fear of how the childish masses would understand the truth of how they were governed. On the contrary, the elites knew exactly how the truth would be construed, and also knew that their position would be threatened as a result. This more conspiratorial perspective comes across as radical and Marxist, but mixed with the first, one arrives at a rather plausible explanation.

To reiterate, one is not discussing necessarily the absence of information. This is indeed a problem, with innumerable documents being labeled classified and being locked away anywhere from thirty years, to infinity. Such censorship is not as important for this discussion, because it is blatant and obvious. What affects democracy more readily in Britain is the management and control of the information flow by the government.

The government releases information to Parliament through speeches and the like, as well as special reports and papers. Ministries also release information to the public on their own. However, it is all screened and biased. As well, there are periodic briefings of the media, but these are unattributable, rather like important hearsay. The reason for this is that Parliament is required to be informed first. (533) Under PM Thatcher, the Press Secretary became the government's information guru, coordinating and controlling all information coming out of the cabinet. Press Secretary Bernard Ingham's centralization of power, and indeed that of his patron PM, were symptomatic of the centralizing nature of the government as a whole. Control for the whole of the UK was being shifted to London, and to Number 10 Downing St., so it seemed only natural to centralize information control along with other powers.

Actions to rectify the situation have been slight. In 1984, the Data Protection Act and the Local Government (Access to Information Act) Act gave citizens the capacity to request computer records on themselves and to retrieve information from meetings and documents on local government. (537) The Official Secrets Act of 1989, designed to update the previous ones of 1911 and 1920, narrowed the parameters a little, but not much. (538) The future, at least under a Tory regime, is bleak on this subject.


In 1707, Scotland ceased to be an independent nation-state, and has not been one since it signed the Treaty of Union that year. While uniting Scotland with Wales and England, the Treaty of Union made various provisos especially for Scotland, exceptions to central control which mostly remain to this day, covering Scots law, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, and the system of local authorities (called the Royal Burghs then). Similar trade-offs were made when Ireland was united with Britain to make the UK. These differences, in law, not just society, which create the continued difficulty of running the UK as a unitary state.

Scottish difference is the most important for the discussion here. That is because it is not as blatant and publicized as that with Ireland. Scotland's differences lie in certain aspects of its law and society.

Part of the difference between Scottish and English law is in their origins. Scottish law is derived from Roman law, which is based on legal codes: statutes are passed, and judges find points within them to cover the cases they hear. The English is that of common law, in which judges look to precedents in order to find the correct ways to rule in cases brought before them. Scots law, as such, is more compatible with the rest of the EU, as Roman law is typical to most of continental Europe. English law finds more companionship in places such as North America. (Rasmussen 196)

This engenders one of the most pervasive reasons behind a separate polity, since different laws require different administration. The laws, and the interests in them, cannot be simply assimilated, and they contribute to the general separation across the borders, through the administrators and politicians who have to work with them.

Societally, Scotland's somewhat different evolution can be attributed to the Scottish Kirk. The kirk, autonomous from the Anglican Church, fostered different values and attitudes among the populace.

Governing diverse regions from the center has proven difficult. In response, the UK established certain special government apparatus in each region (Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland) in order to accommodate those differences.

The highest Scottish official in the UK is the Secretary of State for Scotland. The Secretary is supposed to be Scotland's representative to the Cabinet, and is the head of the Scottish Office, centered in Edinburgh (the old Scottish capital). When there is a specifically Scottish characteristic in a government function, it will tend to fall under the domain of the Scottish Office; otherwise, it remains the prerogative of a UK department. Of course, the division of functions between the Scottish Office and the center are all too ambiguous, and almost always favor Westminster.

Regional representation is not a rewarding position. Secretaries are usually not found to be prestigious ministers. Having to spend a fair amount of time in Edinburgh rather than in London, and on Scottish debates rather than interacting with English MPs in the House of Commons, eliminates most opportunities for making a good showing in Westminster and the possibility of achieving real popularity and advancement is nearly non-existent.

A peculiar danger for the Scottish Secretary is the breadth of his field. As with the his counterparts in N. Ireland and Wales, the Secretary is responsible for most functions in his region, and as such can easily overlook areas within his jurisdiction and responsibility if they do not tickle his fancy, or if he has little knowledge of them. The junior ministers in the Scottish Office take on as much responsibility as possible to aid the Secretary, but much policy is simply lost.

While the specifically Scottish Committees in the Parliament have elevated the status of Scottish MPs, they still carry little weight in the Commons as a whole. The committees on regional affairs are considered unimportant by those outside of those regions. This is especially true under the Conservative government, as they have so few MPs in the regions.

There is considerable regional rivalry within the Parliament, and English MPs will always prefer to avoid discussion of regional issues or to listen to regional MP speeches. London is the real center, they say, and England is of prime importance.

The discontinuity in support for the government across the country is an epic problem. The Scottish mandate (a majority of the Scottish votes) is held not by the Tories, but by Labour. This led to the coining of the 'Doomsday scenario' in which the Tories have a majority in England, but only a minuscule amount of electoral support in Wales or Scotland.

Some say that part or all of the unpopularity of the Tories in Scotland pertains to their Thatcherite policies, which go against Scotland's traditional consensual political culture. These commentators argue that the executive devolution of power to such quangoes as the Scottish Development Agency, and their success, signify the inherent consensualism in Scotland. Richard Finlay contends that, in fact, these institutions were "never democratically accountable" and that Scottish corporatism can be traced back to the 1930's, when the political elite circumvented the demands for "democratic devolution" by instituting "administrative devolution." Thus was there no empowerment of the citizenry. Government by committee became the aim, and the rise in power of administrative bureaucracies such as the Scottish Office fit this pattern without much exception. Finlay argues that Scotland has and continues to be ruled by bureaucratic elitism. (Finlay 110-1) As such, the rise of interest group politics is only natural as it is the only way for citizens to get onto the 'inside', which is the home of decision-making. "Interest groups acquire a special legitimacy in the absence of a parliament." (Paterson 112)

The Lord Advocate, Scotland's highest legal authority, though mostly a glorified lawyer nowadays, played a much larger role in the past. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, following the chaos of the Jacobite uprisings, and their final suppression in 1745, when the system of patronage was king in Scotland, Westminster simply 'managed' Scotland through the position of the Lord Advocate. Managers such as Henry Dundas, through patronage, controlled most of the Scottish MPs, and were able to steer their votes in whatever direction needed by the government. The "gravy train operated through Westminster," and meant that all hopeful Scots were driven to climb the English ladder to power and influence. (Dickson 360) This concept of "territorial management," has been a historic feature of the British political system as a whole, where the "periphery has been controlled through the collaboration of the local elites." (Midwinter 200)

The formal political system, that of the Scottish Office and Secretary, as well as the Scottish Committees in Parliament, were English elite reactions to Scottish resistance to their direct management from London. As proposed by Finlay, the devolved administration of Scotland was to create an illusion of consensual politics.

Although considered the party of unionism, Tories have been friendly to nationalist aspirations in the past. A majority of the moves to devolve power to Scotland have been under Tory regimes, and have always been supported by the party when in opposition. That support, of course, has tended to be more an "attempt to stifle demands" for greater devolution, than "to make such demands a reality." (Burch 192) Even so, the support was given and the attempts made. In all, devolution was not an important issue for the party, and once Thatcher, who carried a "personal antipathy to constitutional change in Scotland," had come to power, it was effectively buried. (Burch 194) The administrative devolution was cited as their gift to Scotland, a buy-off of Scottish opposition.

Labour has proven far more supportive of Scottish desires for autonomy. The party's position has not been without difficulty as long as it has remained a predominantly socialist party. Socialists have proven uncomfortable with nationalism, since it conflicts with the internationalism inherent in their philosophy. It presents what they call a 'false consciousness' and detracts from their greater concerns of bettering everyone regardless of differences. In the 1970's, following the lead of the Tories before them, Labour became publicly enamored with devolution. What this amounted to, most likely, was the reasoning by Harold Wilson that the offer of a Scottish parliament would "end the Scottish tantrum," and derail the SNP's meteoric rise to power. (Marr 122)

In November of 1977, a bill came before the House of Commons requiring an advisory referendum on Scottish and Welsh devolution for the second time. On Burns Night of 1978, the bill passed, but with a peculiar amendment. This amendment, added at the behest of staunch critics, required that a forty percent majority of the whole electorate would have to vote yes in order for it to be recognized. This addition was made against the wishes of more than 80% of the Scottish MPs, and most of the Welsh. The result of the referendum was just short of the required majority in Scotland, decidedly more so in Wales. But the shuffling away of the issue following the referendum caused great consternation.

Regional economic disparities are a constant difficulty as well. The Scottish Office has an enormous funding base, and Scots, on average, receive more government funds per capita than any other region, especially England. This can be explained away in part by the special funding required by the regions' unique cultures, as well as the support given to the Gaelic and Welsh languages.

The regions are not always seen as so economically dependent on England. In November of 1970, British Petroleum discovered oil in the North Sea off of Scotland, at Forties Field. London downplayed it on the Scottish scale, and propaganda from the South softened its impact on the political agenda. Jim Sillars bemoaned that "we were the only nation ever to discover oil and get poorer." (Sillars 105) "The surest way to kill the idea of democracy" in a multi-ethnic and divided state is identified by Sir Arthur Lewis as the adoption of a FPTP system. (Lewis 71) In order for democracy to operate under such circumstances, different ethnic groups required truer proportional access to power in the state. Excluding the losing groups in an election from "participation in decision-making clearly violates the primary meaning of democracy." (65)

This exclusion is evident in the regional issue in the UK. The Irish parties in Parliament, the Liberal Democrats, as well as the Scottish and Welsh Nationalist Parties (the SNP and Plaid Cymru) are all permanently excluded from power. The current electoral system puts the losers out in the cold for generally five or more years at a time, as long as the single party in power does not collapse, which it rarely does.

Vested Interests and Prospects for Change

Electoral reform in the UK is hindered by one most important factor: the Conservative party. In fact, reform across all the three aspects is impeded by the Tories, who have shown considerable opposition to real reform on any one of them. As long as the Conservatives are in power, there is little worry about reform, because it simply will not happen.

Why not is a question which must be answered. The best answer is die-hard pig-headedness. In terms of the regional devolution of power, a devolved Parliament would provide the Scottish opposition with at least some satisfaction and buy the Tories another term of office.

The Tories have focused on the question of overlapping authority in their critiques of the plans proposed for regional parliaments. The Scottish parliament, they say, would have power over most regional affairs, cutting those out of the Westminster Parliament's jurisdiction. however, Scots would still have the power to vote on purely English matters in the House of Commons. The answer to this problem is one which would make the whole scheme a boon to the Tories, which would be to cut down the number of Scottish seats in the House. On average, the Scottish constituencies are the smallest in the UK, and the Scots were guaranteed a certain amount by their Treaty of Union. By bringing down the number of seats at the Westminster Parliament, it would offset this inequality. As well, even though Labour might dominate a Scottish Parliament, the loss in total seats for Scotland in Westminster would diminish the electoral base for Labour, and make it much harder for them to scrape up a majority.

Fear tends to be the main reason for the Conservative approach to reform. Electoral reform would not benefit them. Reform of information management would bring out even more of their not-so-well-hidden disunity as a party. Regional devolution might cost a lot of money. All these taken together equate with a situation with which they are not comfortable.

One of the main fears of PR given by many people is that of extremism in politics. They cite cases such as the Weimar Republic, where extremist parties were given access to power. These fears can be allayed by the insertion of a 5% cut-off for parties, as in use in Germany, to keep extremists out. The objects of such fear are the British National Party and the Nationalist Front, but it has been suggested that one of PR's advantages might eliminate any of these fears. Those fearful beleive that strong government is the answer, hence their clinging to the 'manufactured majority' created by the current UK FPTP system. (Norris 66)

PR is said to encourage more participation from the electorate. Popular control may not be up for grabs, but participation may be buttressed by the feeling of actually having more say in the governing of affairs in the UK. The current situation makes citizens feel helpless, and makes their Schumpeterian chance for democracy seem pointless. Thus do they vote for fringe parties. If the opportunity was there for at least greater electoral input in elections, there would be even greater turnouts, as well as more votes for centrist parties. Another result would be more education and participation over the length of a government. Coalition governments, with the support of much of the electorate, keep the electorate's interest, and politics evolves out of the Schumpeterian model.

Public opinion on all these reforms is poorly informed. That is the reason for the unruly randomness of different polls given by Stuart Weir. (Weir 211) Therefore, the basic conclusion of this discussion must be that more public education on the issues at stake is required before any one government can make progress, although certainly, the Conservatives will be a hindrance to reform regardless. The Liberal Democrats, the party most in favor of across-the-board reform, will remain outside of power until such education increases.

Works Cited

Burch, Martin and Ian Halliday. "The Conservative Party and Constitutional Reform: the Case of Devolution." Parliamentary Affairs . v. 45 July 1992 (386-98)

Dickson, A. D. R. "The Peculiarities of the Scottish: National Culture and Political Action." Political Quarterly . vol. 59, July/Sept 1988. (358-68)

Finlay, Richard J. "Scotland in the Twentieth Century: In Defense of Oligarchy?" The Scottish Historical Review. Vol. 73, April 1994. (103-12)

Lakeman, Enid. How Democracies Vote . London: Faber and Faber Ltd., 1974.

Lewis, Sir Arthur. Politics in West Africa . London: George Allen and Unwin, 1965.

Lijphart, Arend. "On S. E. Finer's Electoral Theory." Government and Opposition . v. 29, 1994. (623-36)

Marr, Andrew. The Battle for Scotland . London: Penguin Group, 1992.

Midwinter, Arthur, Michael Keating and James Mitchell. Poltics and Public Policy in Scotland . London: MacMillan Education, Ltd., 1991.

Morgan, David. "Media-Government Relations." Parliamentary Affairs . v. 44, October 1991. (531-40)

Noris, Pippa. "The Politics of Electoral Reform in Britain." International Political Science review . vol. 16, no. 1, 1995. (65-78)

Paterson, Lindsay. The Autonomy of Modern Scotland . Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1994.

Rasmussen, Jorgen S. and Joel C. Moses. Major European Governments. vol. 9. Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1995.

Rogowski, Ronald. "Trade and the Variety of Democratic Institutions." International Organization . v. 41 no. 2 Spring 1987. (203-23)

Silars, Jim. Scotland: The Case for Optimism . Edinburgh: Polygon, 1986.

Weir, Stuart. "Waiting for Change: Public Opinion and Electoral Reform." Political Quarterly . v. 63 April/June 1992. (197-221)

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