Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Is British democracy vulnerable?

king of the demagogues, Donald Trump

Britain’s structures protect us from a demagogue sweeping to power in a winner-takes-all election – but there are other vulnerabilities in the system, warns Jordan Kyle

In his magnum opus, the Republic, Plato predicts that a democratic political system contains the seeds of its own destruction. Democratic systems, he contended, will eventually give rise to a demagogue, someone who will represent himself as the saviour of the people while stoking fear and nationalism to build support. Part of their appeal is providing easy answers to complex challenges: demagogues promise to protect, restore, and save the country from crisis without asking citizens to serve, sacrifice, or strive. Relying on popular will, demagogues can ruthlessly undermine opponents, demanding absolute obedience. Thus, demagoguery can easily slip into despotism.

Plato would no doubt be surprised at how long many of today’s democracies have endured without falling to tyrannical demagogues. In part, democratic systems owe their survival to the fact that democracy’s modern architects read Plato and designed institutions to protect democracy from demagoguery. These include checks and balances on the powers of any one branch of government, complex bureaucracies that hold authority over rulemaking, and laws that protect the rights of all to participate equally in democratic processes. They also include rules and institutions specifically designed to check the will of the people should popular will support a demagogue, such as the electoral college in the United States or the appointments of prime ministers by parliaments rather than via direct elections.

Yet, the events of 2016 show that democracies check the will of the people at their peril. In both the United Kingdom and the US, voters delivered a repudiation of the status quo, in part driven by a sense that political parties and democratic institutions no longer represented them. Fear and anger became the overriding themes in UK and US politics, two of the oldest and most enduring democracies in the world.

Thus, democracies, if left with no institutional protections, are imperilled by the possible rise of demagogues. Yet, if they are left with too many institutional barriers between the will of the people and policy outcomes, they are imperilled by the explosion of fear and anger into politics, forces which only increase the appeal of demagogues. Britain’s 2016 vote to leave the European Union made plain the fact that the country is deeply divided and in search of answers for complex social and political challenges, conditions that make the country ripe for the rise of demagogues.

Yet, despite the valid concerns about the future of British politics given its deeply divided society, the institutional landscape in the UK makes it more resilient to the takeover of demagogues than other democracies. Specifically, its parliamentary system and its relatively large number of members in the House of Commons improves the quality of political representation in the UK compared to winner-take‑all, presidential systems, which makes it less likely that a demagogue could rise to power.

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Parliamentary systems are less susceptible to demagoguery compared to presidential systems. In presidential systems, the executive and the legislature are both directly, and independently, elected. This can lead to configurations of power in which the presidency and the legislature are controlled by different parties, resulting in gridlock and dysfunction. Compromise can be costly for opposition parties: if parties that hold the legislature work with presidents from an opposing party to deliver legislation, they can end up aiding the president in re-election. This in part explains Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s strategy to block any legislation during the Barack Obama administration, even if compromise should have been possible ideologically.

Direct elections promote personalisation of politics, especially in an age when new forms of media allow for direct and personal connections between politicians and followers. Citizens can long for ‘great men’ as leaders, who promise to seize control of a dysfunctional system and bypass executive constraints wherever necessary. These messianic candidates are almost always political outsiders, who offer the most credible promise of disruption. Once in office, save impeachment, there is no means of removing a president from office until their term is over, even if the public and the legislature lose confidence in them, giving presidents time and scope to erode democratic norms.

In the US, where there are direct presidential elections, Donald Trump was able to attain the presidency in his first run for public office, a feat that took him less than 17 months to accomplish (from announcing his candidacy in June 2015 to winning the presidential election in November 2016). A populist can win in a presidential system with a combination of charisma, a frustrated and disaffected electorate, and a weak opposition candidate. Run-off systems, like the one used in France, can curb the rise of extremists in presidential systems, as we saw with the failed candidacy of Marine Le Pen in 2017.

Contrast this to parliamentary systems, where populist parties typically have to win many elections, across many electoral cycles, across many years to ever rise to the position of the nation’s chief executive. Even if a populist party wins the largest share of seats, they still have to form a coalition government, which means that they need to be able to find other parties willing to work with them. These forces have kept the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders from rising to the prime ministership. Once in office, prime ministers are subject to no-confidence votes, providing a check against extreme actions.

The resilience of parliamentary systems can be seen in the fact that, although populist parties have doubled their vote share in Europe since 2000, few have assumed governmental responsibility across western Europe compared to in eastern Europe’s semi‑presidential systems.

Leader of the French far-right, Marine Le Pen
Leader of the French far-right, Marine Le Pen

The UK’s relatively good representation ratio, compared to many other advanced democracies, also protects it from extremist candidates. In the UK, each House of Commons member represents about 100,000 people. Compare this to the US, where each member of Congress represents, on average, 747,000 people. Constituents in larger districts have worse perceptions of their representatives; and, representatives from larger districts feel more freedom to take political stances that depart from what their constituents support. Smaller districts help representatives to maintain closer connections to their constituents, improving the quality of political representation.

Although the chances of a demagogue rising to the highest office may be relatively lower in the UK compared to winner-takes-all presidential systems with poorer representation, the UK is vulnerable to demagoguery in a different way. Demagogues can operate from outside the party system, popularising political issues and questions that have been cast aside by mainstream parties. As populist parties increase their vote share, mainstream parties can end up co-opting their policy agenda in order to stay in power.

Political scientist Cas Mudde argues that this is fuelling a populist zeitgeist, in which populists set the agenda for public debate, even in countries where they are not in power. This can be seen with the United Kingdom Independence party and the Brexit vote: despite winning only 13 per cent of the vote share in 2015 and gaining a single seat in parliament, they were able to push the referendum on leaving the EU to the national agenda. In short, plenty of damage can be done even with small vote shares.

If populist parties can grow over time to become a country’s second – or third-largest party, it will also become increasingly difficult for mainstream parties to form ‘cordons sanitaire’ to keep them out of power. And the more they do, the more it will look to supporters like an establishment conspiracy to keep them out of power at all costs, further fuelling political backlash.

If the question is whether a demagogue could rise to power in the UK and put liberal democracy in peril, then I think that its parliamentary system and relatively strong representation ratios in the House of Commons put it in a stronger position than other advanced democracies facing similar waves of polarisation, backlash, and anger in politics. However, if the question is whether a demagogue can damage UK politics, diminish trust in its institutions, and drive policy, then the answer is clearly yes.


Jordan Kyle is a political scientist and senior research fellow at Tony Blair Institute for Global Change


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