Has power in Britain shifted significantly into the hands of unelected individuals in recent years?
One of the key areas of British politics where it has been argued that power has shifted significantly is in the relations between the legislature and executive. Whilst it can be argued that this analysis is meaningless since the Cabinet is generally comprised of elected Members of Parliament (MPs), I intend to define the Cabinet of the United Kingdom as a group of unelected individuals since they are not directly elected by the public to these elevated positions of authority. Rather, they are selected by the Prime Minister, whose only real elected authority is as that of a MP. My definition of a truly elected individual as someone who is elected by the general public leads to the conclusion that the only true elected body is the House of Commons. The idea that the executives power is growing is a concept alluded to by Foster (Flinders, 2002, p.28) in 1997 who argued that “The House of Commons must not become the Prime Minister's poodle”. However, in reality the balance of power between the Cabinet and The House of Commons has always been significantly in the hands of Cabinet members. This is an argument which gains credibility from the fact that the issue was raised as early as 1921 by James Bryce (1921, p.370) who debated that the party system in Britain had led to a strengthening of the executive against the assembly. Therefore this should not be seen as a modern phenomenon, however it is something which has been exacerbated in recent years, as Kavanagh (1996, p.283) argues, the expansion in the significance of party whips has led to MPs now voting in the way their party wishes them to. As a consequence those at the head of a political party, who are not elected by the public to these positions, are increasing in their power as they are beginning to dictate how MP’s vote. In a true democracy, the MP’s preferences should be determined by their constituents, not by their party leaders.
The power of the theoretically unelected party leaders and Cabinet over the House of Commons is one that has clear similarities with the neo-elitist two dimensional view of power propounded by Bachrach and Baratz which focuses on agenda setting (1962). The power of the Cabinet over the House of Commons is centred around the fact that whilst the House of Commons can debate and pass laws, essentially it is only the Cabinet which has the power to decide these laws. This is something which has always been part of British politics and so should not be seen as a recent significant shift. Rather, the opposite should be viewed as a consequence of the rise of the internet and popular news channels. This abundance of this type of media has hindered the agenda setting ability of the Cabinet by making their decisions more accountable to the wider public. Therefore the Cabinet’s possible power of preference shaping, which Lukes highlights (1974), is minimised since the public are increasingly aware of the actions of the executive, and are thus less likely to be victims of a false consciousness. Therefore, in this case the power of the unelected Cabinet should be seen to have declined in recent years, rather than increased. Overall then in terms of relations between the elected legislature and the unelected executive, the balance of power should be seen to have roughly stayed constant in recent years, with the rise in the influence of party leaders being counteracted by the rise in the media.
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One issue linked to the changing nature of the party system in Britain which has led to a shift in power to unelected individuals is the growing influence of the civil service and advisory bodies. This should be seen as a shift in power because parties have become increasingly reliant on unelected individuals. As Beetham (2011, p.9) shows, government spending on consultance more than quadrupled under the Blair government. Whilst it could be argued that these advisory bodies have no actual power in deciding policies, the fact that they have close interaction with the those who do decide policies means we should not underestimate the power they hold. This is what Harold Wilson has described as a “more politically aware…extra pair of hands, eyes and ears” (Jones, 2002, p. 64). Regardless of the political awareness or ability of the advisers, this should still be seen as an undemocratic move as they are getting the opportunity to influence government policy which in a democracy should be decided by the people. Therefore in the case of advisory bodies power has shifted towards unelected individuals.
Aside from the legislature and the executive, the final key part within the tripartite British political system which needs to be assessed is the increasing role of the judiciary. This is an issue which has been addressed by Waltman (1991, pp. 33-52) who argues that since the 1980s, courts in the United Kingdom are displaying growing activism in checking the government. This is an argument which has strength as is shown by the creation of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom in 2009. This has already displayed its power to overturn government legislation. One example is the case of five terror suspects who had their assets frozen by government demand and then went on to successfully overturn the law through the Supreme Court (BBC, 2010). This increased checking has drawn power away from elected individuals by asserting that the government’s decision is not final. Whilst it can be argued these kind of checking measures have long been prominent in Britain with the House of Lords, the creation of the Supreme Court has taken this to a new level. This independence of the judiciary is particularly dangerous as Locke argues (Weir & Beetham, 1999, p.447 ) “it may be too great a temptation to human frailty…for the same persons who have the power of making laws to have also in their hands the power to execute them”. As has been shown, in the case of the judiciary, power has dangerously shifted towards unelected individuals in recent years.
Whilst the role of courts within the United Kingdom have been shown to shift power away from elected individuals in recent years, this is an issue which seems almost insignificant when assessed alongside the powers that the courts of the European Union have. The creation of the European Communities Act in 1972 is one example of a significant shift in power into the hands of unelected individuals. By giving precedence to European Union law over the law of the United Kingdom this act has taken power from elected individuals in the United Kingdom not least because it means that European Union regulations and laws instantly apply to the United Kingdom without the permission of Parliament. The weakness of elected individuals in Britain in comparison to the unelected judges of the European Union is displayed most notably in 1990 when a law was passed by the British Parliament to prevent the practice of ‘quota-hopping’ by Spanish fishermen. The blocking of this law by the European Union due to the fact it went against their legislation shows the significant extent to which power has shifted in recent years away from Britains elected representatives and towards unelected European judges. This is a clear example of power being exhibited in line with Dahl’s view (1957) where the European Union is getting something Britain to do that it would not otherwise do.
Aside from the the law making process, it is also important to analyse how the growth of large companies and big business in recent years has shifted power in Britain towards unelected individuals. One of the key issues surrounding big businesses and their ability to hold political power is their key function they hold in the economy. As Lindblom argues (1977, p.175), it is because of their central role that “businessmen cannot be left knocking at the doors of the political system, they must be invited in”. This is an issue, which similar to the rise of judicial powers, as well as the changing of the party system has roots in the 1980s which shows how these power shifts are a moderately recent phenomenon. As Beetham states “key systemic changes in the international economy since the 1980s have significantly reduced the capacity of governments in relation to business, and greatly increased their level of dependency when negotiating with it”. This is largely due to the fact that in the free market system the freedom of multinational corporations can penalise the British government by moving their business elsewhere if British laws are hindering their revenue. Hirst and Thompson (1996) argue this has been exaggerated and that governments still hold significant power against big business opponents. However, in reality if the government wants the income that is generated from taxation or donations of such businesses then they must act in accordance with demands from the business leaders. This need for funding from the private sector is made greater not only in government as a whole, but also for specific parties since, as Beetham (2011, p.12) argues, “ the parties’ operational expenditures are estimated to have risen threefold since the 1970s”. Therefore whilst it is true the big businesses hold no actual power to force the governments hand, their financial appeal is one that is too big to ignore, so their persuasive power should not be underestimated. As Peston states (Beetham, 2011, p.4) “the voices of the super-wealthy are heard by politicians well above the babble of the crowd”. This power to effect government policy is another example of power in Britain shifting significantly in recent years towards unelected individuals.
The rise of unelected outside actors to effect government policy is displayed again in the case of the media. The Marxist view of power that the mass media is a tool which may be used to create a false reality is an approach that I believe has now been made redundant. This is due to the multiple media sources with different agendas and perspectives to choose from in the age of the internet. As a consequence, to state that the media as a whole has one aim is a far too simplistic explanation. Rather than having the power to shape beliefs, the medias power should be seen as a check on government policy. This is what Foucault (1975) labels disciplinary power, where power is exerted merely by observation. In this case the media is acting as the panopticon which is seen by Foucault (Owen, 1994, p.177) as a "machine for dissociating the see/being seen dyad”. In the modern day with the boundaries between privacy and public interest being increasingly blurred the unelected power of the media has increased significantly by policing the acts of Parliament through what Foucault would see as a process of normalisation. By creating an idealized norm of conduct the media has ensured that any Parliament acts that fall outside of this are seen as deviant. This is what Foucault labels disciplinary power, with the media acting as the panopticon. This can possibly explain the modern phenomenon of demonising MPs who fail to act in accordance with what is seen as the norm, in events such as the expenses scandal. The power the media holds is in forcing those elected in government to act in a certain way by treating them as prisoners accountable to the interest of the public. As Foucault (Owen, 1994, p.177) comments, "This optical relation makes the exercise of power automatic in that the prisoner, because he cannot be sure as to whether he is being observed, becomes his own supervisor, he becomes the principle of his own subjection". It could be seen that the media has long been a part of British society and so its political influence should not be seen as a significant recent shift in unelected power. However, it is better viewed in light of the medias expanding breadth and depth of involvement in politics in recent years through the age of the internet which defines the rising power of the unelected media. This power of the media should be seen as a significant shift towards power being held by unelected individuals due to the fact that, as Curran and Seaton argue (2003 p.392) “the media…absorbs over thirty hours a week in the average person’s life” which is in contrast to the past where more political information was government controlled.
In all theoretical senses of power, in almost all areas power has shifted significantly
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