If you pick up any book on the British political system it is sure to mention, at some stage, that Britain has a ‘strong executive’ or a ‘strong government’. Indeed, we are constantly told that our political system produces ‘strong government’, even by politicians. Depending on whom you are, this is either an advantage or a disadvantage. The Conservative peer Lord Hailsham described the British political system as an ‘elective dictatorship’ in 1976. On paper the British system is one of ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ where parliament is king. In reality however parliament is dominated by the government of the day, because the government of the day, by its very nature, controls a majority of seats.
The principle of collective cabinet responsibility means that every member of the government has to back government policy, from the Prime Minister down to the lowly PPS (as of the time of writing there are more than ninety MPs in the government). Any government member contravening government policy will be booted out (though in practice members of the government wishing to contravene government policy generally resign with a flourish). This means about one seventh of MPs are bound to vote how the government says.
At the same there is the whip system, through which parties (and governments) maintain discipline, parties maintain a strict control of their MPs. To rebel against the whip is to damage your chances of re-election, career advancement or even risk being booted out of the party.
During the Labour years large governing majorities meant that the real action was going on in Downing Street and in party headquarters, but while the Coalition has a majority of 77, on paper, parliament has been a bit more active. The tuition fees rebellion, in particular, was huge on the Lib Dem side, but there were also rebellious MPs in the Tories too. Members of both parties have also shown a willingness to criticise the government.
This is partially the result of the nature of coalition itself. Neither party’s MPs are enjoying a full single party government implementing their manifestos. Lib Dem frustration over cuts, tuition fees, and others is long established, but Conservative MPs are also upset. Right-wingers cynical of the Cameron project believe that their core beliefs have been compromised in the name of electoral gain, and that they have not made the electoral gain they feel they were promised. Having to cooperate with another party is even more galling, especially when it looks like some of the leadership like it. To some extent then the government benches can be said to divide into three parts, a core of MPs in the government, or who have aspirations to join it, or who are simply naturally pro-coalition, the Tory right, and the Lib Dem left.
On the other hand elections are increasingly localised. More and more people vote for a MP rather than a party leader or a party. This is especially true of the Lib Dems, who have pioneered techniques of local campaigning. As such it has become clear that there are increased electoral benefits in being seen as a ‘maverick’ figure who doesn’t tow the party line and marking one’s self out as an individual. At the same time patterns of electoral shift in the UK mean that there is an increasing number of safe seats (essentially the Conservative vote is going up in Conservative constituencies and the Labour vote is going up in Labour constituencies) meaning that MPs have less to fear from their parties.
The supposed golden age of where parliament was king has certain mythic qualities. Yes, parliament exercised more power than the executive once but MPs also relied largely on patronage to keep their seats, and government was much less stable. Like many myths its strengths as a concept are exaggerated, but one needs only look at the tuition fees vote to see the potential benefits of more parliamentary power.
The government knew the vote was at risk and in response it ran around softening the policy in an attempt to bring just a few MPs over. Maybe it is not the policy its opponents would have wanted, but anyone watching the announcements about the policy as time went on can’t help but having noticed a pattern of slight softening, most notably the ‘national scholarship scheme’ for the poorest. This shows that the government believed it had to compromise with backbench MPs, and adjusted the policy appropriately. It is hard to think of a time when backbenchers have had such a clear effect on government policy. It remains to be seen whether other policies will be treated similarly but I do believe this is a trend that will continue, and continue beyond this parliament. Yet this parliament is probably the most powerful in more than a decade. Even if it’s just temporary parliamentary power may well be back.