Introduction: British Parliamentary Democracy

  • Robert Blackburn


L. S. Amery once described the British system of democracy as one of, ‘Government of the people, for the people, with, but not by, the people.’1 Ideas about what democracy means, and what it involves, are as manifold as the innumerable interpretations that have been placed by different philosophers at different times upon the associated concepts of freedom and equality.2 Aristotle, writing over 2000 years ago, expressed the basic principle that in a democracy the people are sovereign.3 Yet the difficulties and complexities that have confronted democratic theory and practice, particularly in modern times, have mostly related to problems of political representation, and to how best the aspirations and wishes of ‘the people’ can be translated into governmental and legislative action. Few societies, apart from, for example, the ancient Greek city-states, have ever been small enough to be able to practise any form of direct personal democracy, in which all citizens have participated in the governmental decision-making of the community. In the democracies of the contemporary Western world, such as the United Kingdom with over 55 million inhabitants, systems of political representation have evolved over hundreds of years, under which political élites are elected to office in order to make decisions concerning government and to make law on the people’s behalf. The crucial democratic link between politicians and people — or government and the governed — is the electoral system.


Political Party Prime Minister Electoral System Liberal Democrat Party Party Leader 
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Notes and References

  1. 1.
    Thoughts on the Constitution (1947), pp. 20–1.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    See C. B. Macpherson, The Life and Times of Liberal Democracy (1977); A. H. Birch, Representative and Responsible Government (1964); J. Lively, Democracy (1975); R. Barker, Political Ideas in Modern Britain (1978).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    The Politics (translated by Ernest Barker, 1948), p. 128.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Generally, see M. J. C. Vile, Constitutionalism and the Separation of Powers (1967).Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    See R. Brazier, Constitutional Practice (1988), ch. 4, especially pp. 49–50.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Contained within the preamble to the Parliament Act 1911. Generally on the constitutional working of the House of Lords, see Sir I. Jennings, Parliament (2nd edn, 1970), ch. XII; J. A. G. Griffith and M. Ryle, Parliament (1989), ch. 12; D. Shell, The House of Lords (2nd edn, 1992).Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    As at 11 June 1994.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Under the terms of the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949. On passage of the War Crimes Bill, see D. Shell, The House of Lords pp. 251–2.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    See Sir I. Jennings, Cabinet Government (3rd edn, 1959), ch. XII; R. Brazier, Constitutional Practice (1989), ch. 8.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    See A. V. Dicey, The Law of the Constitution (1959), ch. 1; A. W. Bradley and K.D. Ewing, Constitutional and Adminstrative Law (11th edn, 1993), ch. 5.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    See B. Crick, The Reform of Parliament (1964), p. 19; and on proportional representation, Chapter 8 below.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    See P. Norton, The Constitution in Flux (1982), ch. 11; V. Bogdanor, The People and the Party System (1981), pts I & II.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Quoted in S. D. Bailey (ed.), The British Party System (2nd edn, 1953) at p. v. On the political work and functions of parties, see Sir I. Jennings, Party Politics (3 vols, 1960, 1961, 1962); R. Rose, The Problem of Party Government (1974), and Do Parties Make a Difference? (1980); S. E. Finer, The Changing British Party System 1945–79 (1980); S. Ingle, The British Party System (1987).Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    Report of the Committee on Financial Aid to Political Parties (1976), Cmd 6601, p. 53. This report is commonly known, and referred to elsewhere in this book, as the ‘Houghton Report’ (after the Committee’s chairman, Lord Houghton).Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    See Robert Blackburn, ‘Margaret Thatcher’s Resignation as Prime Minister’, in Robert Blackburn (ed.), Constitutional Studies (1992), ch. 3.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    See below, Appendix A.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    The Dilemma of Democracy (1978), p. 37.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    See below, pp. 283f.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    The main parties do, however, publish voluntarily some annual information about their finances: see below, pp. 313f.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    See below, pp. 36–7.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    Article 4, The Constitution of the Fifth French Republic.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    Article 21, Basic Law; and, for example, especially the Law on Political Parties 1967.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    On the history of these parties, see H. Pelting, A Short History of the Labour Party (3rd edn, 1968); R. Blake, The Conservative Party from Peel to Thatcher (1985); C. Cook, A Short History of the Liberal Party 1900–1987 (1989).Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    On the structure of the Conservative Party, see P. Norton and A. Aughey, Conservatives and Conservatism (1981); Conservative Party, Rules and Standing Orders of the National Union of Conservative and Unionist Associations.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    Clause IV, Party Objects (1), contained within the party’s constitution. On the structure of the Labour Party, see S. Barker, How the Labour Party Works (1971); Labour Party, Constitution and Standing Orders of the Labour Party, and the annually produced Rule Book.Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    Constitution of the Social and Liberal Democrats (1988).Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    D. Butler and D. Kavanagh, The British General Election of 1979 (1980), p. 199.Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    Generally, see R. M. Punnett, Front-Bench Opposition (1973); J. A. G. Griffith and M. Ryle, Parliament (1989), ch. 9.Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    Sir I. Jennings, Parliament (2nd edn, 1957), p. 168.Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    Sources: House of Commons Information Office; F. W. Craig (ed.), British Electoral Facts 1832–1987 (5th edn, 1989); and D. and G. Butler (eds), British Political Facts 1900–1985 (6th edn, 1986).Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    Parliamentary Government in England (1938), p. 15. See further, W.J.M. Mackenzie, Free Elections (1958); S. E. Finer, Comparative Government (1970), esp. ch. 9; D. Butler, H. R. Penniman and A. Rannay, Democracy at the Polls (1981).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Robert Blackburn 1995

Authors and Affiliations

  • Robert Blackburn
    • 1
  1. 1.King’s CollegeUniversity of LondonUSA

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