The United Kingdom, the mother of all democracies, is about to change its political system in fundamental ways -- changes that will spell disaster for the nation and for its politics. For those who love Britain, the news of these impending alterations can only cause angst and distress.
As a result of the inability of either the Conservatives or Labor to win a majority in Parliament in the recent elections, both parties had to bid for support from the Liberal/Social Democratic Party. The price the Conservatives ultimately paid was to agree to some of these changes and to refer others to the electorate for a referendum.
The changes that the parties have agreed to will transform the British government from a decisive decision-making machine into a morass of compromise, half-measures and deadlock. Gridlock will be exported across the ocean to the United Kingdom.
Right now, the prime minister can dissolve Parliament anytime he wants, forcing new elections. He is also obliged to order new elections if he loses a vote of confidence. This power holds the members of his parliamentary majority in check and restrains them from turning on their leaders since, should they succeed in a vote of no confidence, it would plunge them into the uncertainty of a new election, which would imperil their own seats.
The new rules would bar the prime minister from dissolving Parliament during its five-year term and vest that right in a two-thirds majority of parliament. In other words, Parliament would have to vote itself out of office -- something likely never to happen.
So, under the new rules, if a government loses a vote over a major legislative item -- or fails to survive a no-confidence motion -- it must resign, but there need not be new elections. Instead, Parliament can refuse to order new elections and just re-form a new government out of the old Parliament.
The effect of this rule change is likely to be that governments will rise and fall all the time since they may do so without forcing members to face new elections. Like in Italy, the new governments will just be formed by reshuffling the current parliamentary deck into new combinations and coalitions.
Whereas now, if a government falls, there is an election to decide the issue, under the new procedure, the deadlock could just go on and on without resolution.
More dangerous is the proposed new voting system that must be approved by a popular referendum. Rather than vote for one candidate for Parliament in each district, voters will be obliged to rank the candidates in their order of preference. If nobody gets a majority of first-place rankings, the candidate with the least votes drops off and his second place votes are distributed among the other remaining candidates. The Liberal/Social Democrats are pushing this change in the hopes that there may never again be a parliamentary majority for the Conservatives or Labor and that they will always hold the balance of power in a hung parliament.
And they are likely to achieve their objective if the new voting system passes. Most districts in the United Kingdom, as in the U.S., tend either to the left or to the right.
In a leftist district, for example, the Labor Party usually finishes first, the Liberal/Social Democrats second and the Conservatives third. If the Labor candidate did not win a majority of first place votes on Election Day -- and they frequently don't -- the Conservative candidate will drop off and his second-place votes will determine the winner. But what Conservative voter is going to name Labor as his second choice in the polarized politics of the U.K.? Most will name the Liberal/Social Dems as their second choice, and that candidate will win the seat. In right-wing districts, the same process will happen in reverse, again to the benefit of the Liberal/Social Dems.
That means more hung parliaments, less decisive election results and more mush compromise. Together, these changes will tend to paralyze the British government, substituting muddled, mushy compromise for decisive and bold action. We will miss the old United Kingdom.