Has power in Britain shifted significantly into the hands of unelected individuals in recent years?

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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 ...

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