Has the Constitution become more democratic?
Professor Vernon Bogdanor, one of the leading experts on the British Constitution, has argued that the effect of recent constitutional reforms has been to distribute power between elites rather than send it downwards to the people. Power has moved from the Government, with its majority in Parliament, to the political elites in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, through devolution, to the appointed members of the House of Lords, because they have felt that the body is more legitimate since hereditary peers left, and to the Judiciary, through the Human Rights Act.
The greater involvement of the public has been limited, though not insignificant. Some constitutional issues, but not all, have been decided by referenda. People can now sign a petition to Parliament electronically and it can be debated if there are 100,000 signatures, though it has to have the support of an MP and the Backbench Committee has to allocate time. However no action has to be taken by the Government as a result of the debate. MPs can be subjected to recall by the voters in a by-election if 10% of voters sign a petition, but only if the Commons Standards Committee has already censored them.
Further European integration has shifted power from Westminster to the European Parliament and the elections for the latter do not have anything like the same turnout and are not actually fought on European policies. It has also given the courts more power to overrule Parliament by applying EU legislation.
Devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has meant that the people of these areas now have decisions taken closer to where they live. The Scottish Parliament, in particular, has tried to develop a less confrontational style than Westminster and involve the public and interest groups more. The Northern Ireland settlements have involved the Catholic/nationalist populations that were previously excluded from power.
In contrast with devolution, the Labour and the Coalition Governments have continued the centralisation of power in relation to local authorities that began in the late 1970s. The introduction of elected mayors was meant to be more democratic as it was argued that voters would identify with the personalities standing for office but voter turnout has not been significantly higher than for other local elections. The Localism agenda of the Coalition is meant to bypass local authorities and allow people in very local areas to be more involved with such areas as the provision of services and planning decisions but there has been a debate about how successful this has been.
The Freedom of Information Act has allowed people to access much more information about public decisions and journalists have been able to use it to reveal what government has been doing. There are arguments, though, that public bodies can use to restrict information and the powers of the independent Information Commissioner are weak.
The Lords are now a more effective check on the Commons but reform of the House of Lords has not been carried out despite the argument that those with the power to change the law should always be elected.
The Human Rights Act has given more power to the Judiciary to protect the rights of individuals, including particular groups such as those people with a disability. However increased judicial activism takes power away from the Commons. which embodies representative government, to unelected judges.
There have been some reforms to Parliament but it is the Executive that is still powerful and not the individual MP that the voters chose.
A more proportional voting system has been adopted for elections in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, London, mayoral elections and Scottish local government but not for Westminster. With falling voter turnout and a wider range of political parties, a Government, with all the power that the Executive has in Britain, can be put into office by about 25% of voters.
Despite a whole programme of constitutional reform, dissatisfaction with the political class and with Members of Parliament is greater now than ever. The public are not necessarily satisfied with the key institutions themselves though.