Is the UK Prime Minister an “Elected Dictator”? An Essay
The power of politicians and world leaders is highly controversial. Generally the prime minister is the head of the executive but his or her role “[…] varies depending on the institutional context, the nature of party government, and the political circumstances in which a prime minister governs” (McLean and McMillan, 2009, p. 432).
The following essay will discuss whether the British prime minister in his or her political exercise is too powerful, equipped with dictatorial powers or if he or she is just an elected representative with limited control. Firstly an introduction about the domestic political role of the UK government provides a starting point to the topic. Secondly an analysis of the term “elected dictator” and a comparison between the UK and the US state systems offers a better understanding why the UK government might be seen as an all in all too powerful institution. Thirdly an analysis of interest groups gives an overview about its effects on policy makers. Finally the main points will be summarised with a conclusion whether the description “elected dictator” of the UK prime minister is a reasonable contemporary term or whether it is rather unjustified.
Today the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland commonly known as the UK consists of four different countries: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Although Scotland is politically represented with its own parliament and Wales and Northern Ireland have their own local assembly, the central political power is based in the UK capital London, namely in Westminster and Whitehall. Historically Scotland, for example, although it has its own educational system, “[…] government from the centre has been the rule” (Heffernan, 2011, p. 7). Therefore, the general power between the centre in London and the locality in Britain’s other countries is not institutionally divided and gives Westminster and Whitehall a much larger political influence and emphasis (Heffernan, 2011). Officially the UK is defined as a “Unitary parliamentary constitutional monarchy” formally depicted by the monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. While the monarch in the past had the absolute power of the state, nowadays its role is limited to predominantly ceremonial activities. The political power however, lies in the hands of the elected government, headed by the prime minister (the executive) acting “[…] only nominally in the monarch’s name” (Heffernan, 2011, p. 8). Though the political power is centralised and embedded in the executive and there is a non-separation of political power between the executive (prime minister) and the legislature (parliament) the British prime minister’s operational power to act can be quite limited if he or she as the head of a political party does not have the majority of seats in the parliament (House of Commons). This takes place when the prime minister as chairman of his or her party after an election does not have enough votes and only forms a majority government through a coalition with another party. In this particular case the prime minister faces a challenge because he or she does not have the parliamentary majority and forms a week government because coalition partners might oppose the prime minister’s decisions. Therefore a centralised and unitary state like the UK does not necessarily imply an authoritarian state, where the head of state owns absolute power (Heffernan, 2011). Furthermore the British government started to outsource and privatise public services like transportation to private corporations in recent years limiting itself in its decision and power process. Nevertheless this does not show that the British government wants to give up power voluntarily but that the political focus lies on other topics, like e. g. immigration in the 21st century.
The term “elected dictator” is partly a contradiction in the linguistic sense. In Western democracies elections take place based on a democratic understanding and a particular value, formally defined in a constitution. The definition of “Democracy” has its origin in the Greek language meaning “rule by the people”. “Since the people are rarely unanimous, democracy as a descriptive term is synonymous with majority rule” (McLean and McMillan, 2009, p. 139). In comparison the term “dictator” stands for an “[…] absolute rule unrestricted by law, constitutions, or other political or social factors within the state” (McLean and McMillan, 2009, p. 150). Generally the British prime minister governs through a possible majority of votes of his or her party. However, as mentioned in the previous paragraph, this is not always the case; a prime minister candidate without a majority in parliament can still form a government through the help of a coalition partner. Voters could interpret this as an undesirable result as they partly voted for a different political outcome. In this sense, the prime minister could be called “elected dictator” because he or she got the governmental power without the election majority of voters. Furthermore the existence of democratic values within a state and after all the usefulness of the checks and balances in UK politics can be called into question if an individual has the feeling that his or her vote does not really count. In comparison with the American president the British prime minister seems relatively powerful (The Open University, 2010). The focus of the UK legislature (parliament) is to supply the UK executive (prime minister). While the US executive (president) is elected directly by the voters, the UK executive is elected indirectly and is chosen by the elected legislature (parliament), commonly known as the House of Commons (Heffernan, 2011). The result is that in the UK the executive and the legislative are strongly intertwined and form a “unity” in the exercise of power. However the prime minister is the leading figure who owns the power and right to appoint and dismiss ministers, strongly interfere and supervise all government business and can create, merge and even abolish government departments. Therefore he or she has authority within the executive and also has control over the legislature, the House of Commons (The Open University, 2010). Nevertheless unlike the American president, the UK prime minister can be removed by a single vote of the legislature when e. g. the coalition partner does not want to cooperate anymore and therefore the government does not have the necessary majority to continue governing. The American president for instance can only be removed through a legislative majority which didn’t take place till present. The only president ever forced to resign was president Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal shortly before the impeachment proceedings started against him in 1974. In this sense the UK prime minister is under a more severe risk to be ousted at any time.
In the 21st century interest groups play a much larger role in Western democracies than in the past. A distinction is made between direct lobby groups and external pressure groups. Both groups try to fulfil and to “[…] secure the advantage of their members or their cause” (Heffernan, 2011, p. 113). The main aim of both groups is to address one or more issues publicly and to influence politicians and their institutions to make a change in their themed problem areas Insider groups, such as the British Medical Association have a relatively high influence because they are able to operate from the “inside” and can hence hit their targets quicker and easier by their extended networks with policy makers. In contrast outsider groups, such as Greenpeace work much more independent and have partly much less connections to government officials. Nevertheless, both interest groups have the opportunity with the support of the modern media to promote their goals faster than before. This helps politicians to identify problems and the political climate with the professional help of group members more targeted and the most vulnerable might find their needs more represented through organised group channels. Representatives of interest groups are known in the media partly under the term “lobbyists”. Lobbyists try to gain influence by maintaining close contacts to the executive and legislative. However due to the UK’s central role in the exercise of politics, “[…] lobbyists, while growing in influence, remain relatively unimportant compared to those in the US” (Heffernan, 2011, p. 122). In this case the USA, offer an easier access to lobbyists due to their different federal and presidential system than the UK.
The British prime minster (executive) and the parliament (legislature) form the centralised government in London. Though there is normally no separation between the two institutions, the prime minister’s legitimacy to rule can be quite limited if he or she does not have the majority of seats in parliament and has to form a government with a coalition partner. In this case the British government could be seen as an illegitimate (elected dictator) by voters because the government was not formed through the majority of votes but through negotiation with another party. Due to the strong interdependence between the executive and the legislative and the prime minister’s nomination by the parliament, the British prime minister appears very powerful in comparison with the American president who is elected directly by voters. However the prime minister can be removed by a single vote while the American president can only be ousted through a legislative majority. Nowadays in the UK lobby and external pressure groups have a bigger impact on policy makers than before but in America lobbyists have easier access to government officials in order to promote their interests. The British prime minister is indeed quite powerful due to its centralized power but the term “elected dictator” is not an accurate assessment of the checks and balances on the UK government because his or her role with a coalition partner can be quite limited with the danger of being removed if the coalition fails.
Heffernan, R. (2011) ‘Governing at the centre: the politics of the parliamentary state’ in Heffernan, R. and Thompson, G. (eds) Politics and Power in the UK, Milton Keynes, The Open University.
Heffernan, R. (2011) ‘Interest groups and interest representation in UK politics’ in Heffernan, R. and Thompson, G. (eds) Politics and Power in the UK, Milton Keynes, The Open University.
McLean, I. and McMillan, A. (2009), Oxford Concise Dictionary of Politics, Oxford University Press.
The Open University (2010) ‘Audio Feature 4: Explaining the prime minister’, DD203 Week 10 [online]. Available at https://learn2.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=601407§ion=10 (Accessed 28 February 2015).