Can the UK still claim to be a democracy?


Q In which country can the leader be elected by party members, without a chance for the population to vote?

A The UK

Q Which governing body is packed with party donors, personal friends and even relatives appointed by the leader?

A The House of Lords

Q In which country can a disgraced leader, forced from office for lying, still appoint whoever he likes to Parliament?

A The UK

The United Kingdom defines itself as a democracy – and yet, under the current Government it has departed from many of the conventions of one person one vote. 

Only about 170,000 UK citizens – largely male and over 50 – will be eligible to vote for the next PM, out of an electorate of about 47.6 million adults. This sounds like a scenario we might associate with the Communist Party of China. And yet, we are supposed to accept this as democratic.  At the same time, the House of Lords has become increasingly unregulated, and there are concerns that Boris Johnson has plans to add even more peers – without scrutiny. 

This is the first time a UK PM will have been elected by party members. 

The media is reporting what journalists call ‘every cough and spit’ of the leadership ‘election’ for the UK’s next Prime Minister. But, with rare exceptions, it does not question the extraordinary and undemocratic nature of the contest. The media presents this as a traditional approach. In fact, it is new. If it actually goes to a vote, this will be the first time a PM has been elected by the party members. 

In the past, the leader of the ruling party was selected by MPs. They themselves are elected and can thus claim some democratic legitimacy. They would select someone, often behind closed doors, and that person would formally offer to form a government. 

In 1998, William Hague changed the rules to include a vote by Conservative members. The Conservatives were out of power from 1997 to 2011. Since then, they have changed leader while in power twice. When Theresa May stood to be Prime Minister, her nearest rival Andrea Leadsom stood down so there was no actual members’ vote. 

When the Labour Party changed leader from Tony Blair to Gordon Brown in 2007, Brown was endorsed by Labour MPs. The only time the Labour Party changed leaders in office with more than one candidate was when James Callaghan succeeded Harold Wilson in 1976 – Callaghan was selected by a ballot of MPs.

Tone of the contest illustrated by Liz Truss’ promise to ignore Scotland

Liz Truss won cheers from Tory voters at a husting by vowing to ignore Scotland, showing that the continued undermining of the devolution settlement will continue and worsen.  Policies like further limiting the right to strike, are guaranteed to win Conservative party votes and to ensure Truss becomes the next Prime Minister of the UK. But they are far removed from the electoral priorities of Scotland. 

The current contest for the votes of a tiny minority is filling the airwaves with discussion of very right-wing policies. The “Overton Window’  is a concept familiar to broadcasters. It means the range of ideas that is regarded as mainstream and acceptable. What we are seeing is the Overton Window of UK public life being pushed further to the right.

Lord Lebedev of Siberia has a pet wolf named Boris

Meanwhile, disgraced PM Boris Johnson is still the UK”s Prime Minister. On coming to power, he found himself in possession of a half-reformed House of Lords and proceeded to hand out dozens of titles – it will be more than 100 by the time he leaves office. He has ennobled among others: his brother Jo; a Conservative donor called Peter Cruddas who the Lords committee said was not fit to hold public office; and Evgeny Lebedev, whose entry into London society was financed by his father, KGB officer Alexander Lebedev.  Lebedev, who named his pet wolf Boris, is now  Baron Lebedev, of Hampton and Siberia. The UK government while talking tough over Ukraine, has dragged its feet on sanctioning Russia. Lebedev has more right under the UK Consitution to debate and amend laws affecting Scotland than Nicola Sturgeon has. 

The House of Lords has never been democratic but in recent years it has been made subject to the PM’s personal patronage, with little in the way of checks and balances. With the 1999 Reform Act, the Labour Party under Tony Blair abolished the rights of 600 hereditary peers to sit in the Upper House, What was touted as a democratic reform was seen by some as a political move to enable Blair to create more Labour Peers. It left a baggy, over-sized Lords blowing in the political wind, with no effective regulation in place.  At around 800, the House of Lords is almost the largest governing body in the world, second only to the Chinese People’s Congress.

Boris Johnson may be poised to appoint dozens more peers

The Guardian reported recently on a draft plan by which Johnson will add 39 to 50 new Tory peers when he finally leaves office. Former PM Gordon Brown revealed he had seen an extraordinary document which includes a requirement that each new peer sign away their right to make their own judgment on legislation that comes before them. They have to give, the paper says, a written undertaking to attend and vote with the Government.

The draft plan recommends Johnson to appoint political nominees who will vote for the Tory government, especially its bill to disown the international treaty it has itself signed over Northern Ireland.


The UK prides itself on being democratic, with Westminster often described as the mother of all parliaments (despite The Althing of Iceland being by far the oldest). But it has turned out that there were few checks and balances to prevent abuse of power. The current contest for the UK”s highest elected office, accepted as normal by a supine and ineffective media, is absurd and undemocratic. 

Only with independence can Scotland escape the dangerous charade of the UK’s failing democracy. 





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