By James Reid
Nearly five years ago, as the UK voted to leave the European Union, one of the arguments in favour argued that doing so would free us all from “unelected EU bureaucrats”. Indeed, whether you supported Brexit or not, it is clear that the EU has issues with its democratic deficit. Working out just exactly how the likes of Ursula von der Leyen and Jean-Claude Junker came to hold such powerful roles is understandably confusing for the average citizen.
It proved to be a convincing argument and in this new post-Brexit world that we live in, surely the government have wasted no time in ensuring democratic accountability pervades Whitehall. Right?
Well yes, but actually no. While the UK’s departure from the EU has indeed left the supposedly tyrannical powers of the EU’s unelected bureaucrats, the notion that the UK is now a democratic idyll is somewhat wide of the mark.
The most recent example of this has been the appointment of Lord Frost to the cabinet to head up the UK’s post-Brexit relations. Frost is a member of the House of Lords and is thus unelected yet sits in a cabinet made up primarily of elected MPs. Peers in the cabinet is nothing new in British politics, not least to the current government which is also home to former MPs turned peers, Nicky Morgan and Zac Goldsmith. It is completely within the rules of the game, too. After all, peers are members of the legislature just like MPs are.
Yet Lord Frost’s appointment raises important questions about how democratic the UK really is. Leaving the EU was supposed to free us all from unelected bureaucrats and yet here we are, with unelected members of our very own at the heart of the governing process.
Aside from peers in the cabinet, there have also been questions raised about the role of special advisers, namely a Mr D Cummings, and their role within a democracy too. When Cummings was in government, it appeared at times that he was the one running the show, with Boris Johnson merely the frontman to keep up the democratic façade. Yet nobody had elected Cummings and had likely only tacitly endorsed his presence in government by voting Conservatives, if they even knew who he was at all.
The question, then, is how democratic actually are we?
The reality is that we are not as democratic as we perhaps like to think we are.
As much as we like to believe that we, as the electorate, are able to hold the government to account, the truth is that we actually have very little sway. This is perhaps most grotesquely demonstrated by Zac Goldsmith’s swift return to the cabinet via the House of Lords despite being voted out of office in the 2019 election by the voters in Richmond Park. The electorate said no to Goldsmith, but Boris Johnson said yes and just like that the former London mayoral candidate was back in the legislature and back in government.
Further, Dominic Cummings remained in post despite his illicit foray up to the North East, despite large swathes of the public believing he should have gone. Thus, the reality is that the British public has little influence over exactly who is in government, no matter how much we might like to think to the contrary.
There is of course the potential force of public opinion that can at times force a government’s hand, but this is no doubt weakened by the fact that it is only put to the test once every five years. Who will be thinking of Dominic Cummings as they stand in the polling booths in 2024?
Thus, while the appointment of Lord Frost to the cabinet is certainly uncomfortable, the reality is that it only underlines Britain’s own democratic deficit. Indeed, how much less accountable is a Lord than an MP in a safe seat, unlikely to ever lose an election?
The electorate has few direct means of democratic accountability between elections, which are far apart enough that many issues rise up and fall into insignificance to the extent that the art of resigning now appears to be dead. The reality is that as voters, we’re not as powerful as we might like to think we are, and we never really have been.