As an entrenched democracy with widespread and relatively open political and social institutions, the United Kingdom might not immediately come to mind for a state that is backsliding away from democracy. Indeed, Freedom House ranks the UK as one of the freest and most democratic countries on a global scale while Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) shows no significant autocratizing within the state (Freedom House 2023; Varieties of Democracy Institute 2023). However, simply because there is no present democratic erosion does not mean that states are invulnerable to its effects. The institutions within the United Kingdom seem in many ways prime to be exploited by populists or other would-be autocrats. Current policies and dysfunction within the Government and Parliament, alongside the previous case of Brexit demonstrate this. To better understand and prevent democratic erosion, the UK is a helpful case to analyze how institutions can possibly be used undermined democracy in the future.
There is no better place to start for this than the 2016 Brexit referendum over whether the UK should leave the European Union. Although on its face a popular referendum would seem to be the epitome of democratic expression, in this case it drove division and the partial normalization of populist rhetoric thereby turning into a microcosm of the flaws within many Western democracies. For example, a major impetus for the referendum was the growing, if still small, electoral influences of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), a right-wing populist party which gained seats in Parliament and a majority of seats for the UK’s European Parliament delegation by capitalizing on longstanding Euroscepticism within the country (Shaw, Smith, and Scully 2017; Webb and Bale 2014). UKIP displayed the hallmarks of populism with opposition against liberal elites and an “Us” versus “Them” rhetoric strategy (Müller 2016).
With the mainstream Conservative Party facing voting losses from its right flank, it was necessary for them to respond in some way. As indicated by Berman (2021), in this scenario parties are faced with strategies of being either dismissive, adversarial, and accommodating towards successful populist parties. In this case, the decision by the Conservative government to co-opt Euroscepticism culminated in the decision to hold a Brexit referendum despite a lack of clear support amongst the political establishment (Shaw, Smith, and Scully 2017). Although this halted the electoral successes of UKIP and clear-cut populism, the success of the referendum meant the resignation of the Prime Minister and an eventual exit from the EU. These events showed the vulnerability of the party system towards resisting populist policies and tactics. In the years following, populist rhetoric has not necessarily abated. Conservative leaders used similar rhetoric to implement Brexit and have continued to espouse sometimes controversial anti-immigration views.
There are other structural problems that are worrying for the United Kingdom in the age of democratic backsliding. In particular systemic issues relating to the majoritarian nature of Parliament and the plurality voting system. When put in light of other examples of democratic erosion in countries like Poland and Hungary whose ruling parties faced obstacles to erosion, there is relatively little in the way to stop the same within the UK.
Other countries must reckon with constitutional restraints and supermajority rules. Meanwhile, the UK lacks a codified constitution, running on majoritarianism and the strength of democratic norms instead. Essentially, as long as a majority party maintains cohesion they could theoretically repeal or pass any laws they wish. Additionally, the court system would likely not be a large impediment or a major target by a party eroding democracy. Without a constitution and under principles of parliamentary sovereignty, court rulings are limited to procedural and law interpretation issues (Casciani 2019; Greene 2020).
Another avenue oft used in backsliding countries is to manipulate the electoral system. As the United Kingdom uses plurality single member districts to vote, they are vulnerable to the effects of gerrymandering. Strategies to undermine opposition parties in this way have been particularly effective in Hungary where that ruling Fidesz party has redrawn districts and received a disproportionate number of seats in return (Scheppele 2022). These tactics undermine necessary democratic values inherent within free and fair elections diluting the ability for citizens to have their voices heard (Levitsky and Way 2002). If citizens begin losing confidence in the electoral system, it is not too far before the legitimacy and effectiveness of democracy begins to be lost (Linz 1978).
So where do these factors leave the UK’s ability to resist democratic erosion? Clearly the UK is still a strong democracy. The very fact that democratic norms have held despite institutional gaps would seem to indicate a strong democratic state. However, that should not obstinate a very real worry: though thus far neither major party in UK has shown obvious authoritarian tendencies there are few institutional guardrails against it.
The US has a strong constitution and court system yet has still seen a dysfunction of democratic and civil norms precipitated by the Trump presidency (Crandall, Miller, and White 2018; Gills, Patomäki, and Morgan 2019). Erosion is not a process limited to the newer democracies in places like Eastern Europe; longstanding democracies are also facing issues in this regard. And regardless of democratic erosion, the UK political system is going through some level of dysfunction already. The Conservative Party has been in power for over a decade and in just the previous six years have gone through five prime ministers. And with support shifting strongly away from the party, elections still probably remain a year away (Courea 2023; Gregory 2022). In addition, economic hardship and changing cultural norms have become major political issues, a worrying development as they can encourage further populism (Inglehart and Norris 2017). Such volatilities could spell trouble if not dealt with in an equitable way and might destabilize trust in institutions even further than Brexit. The response by major parties to these crises during the upcoming election could be a major indicator of current attitudes towards populism and democratic norms.
That being said, we should not be overly negative about the position the UK finds itself in. Despite the divisiveness and populist rhetoric during Brexit, the exit eventually happened through negotiations by the government following a decisive election victory. The ability for institutions to survive these challenges and the possibility of elections to continue in a free and fair manner may bode well into the future if other issues can be overcome. For a system supremely reliant on democratic norms and responsible majoritarianism, the UK’s core institutions seem to be resilient in this moment.
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