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Principle: Responsible Government

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Responsible government is one of the core principles that have developed as part of the UK constitution. It requires disucssion of the idea that a Government is representative of the people in a democracy.

History of Democracy in the UK

Many would assume that democracy underpins the UK constitution but it is not a requirement of the traditional doctrine of Parliamentary Sovereignty. In fact, mass democracy came relatively late to the UK, not until the mid nineteenth century. The unelected House of Lords retaining significant powers throughout the century, universal male suffrage was only granted in 1918, 50 years after the US and France and women did not gain the vote until 1928.

Representation and Democracy

Democracy can be seen as a development from the political decision to extend suffrage rather than a constitutional principle.

CB Macpherson argues the political and societal changes were a key influence in creating a more democratic state. In Real World of Democracy (1966) he stated ...the electorate did not need to be a democratic one, and as a general rule was not; all that was needed was an electorate consisting of the men of substance, so that the government would be responsive to their choices...

Through the Reform Acts of 1832, 1867 and 1884, and the Representation of the People Acts 1918 and 1928, Parliament gradually increased the democratic element. However, Parliament retained legal supremacy. Dicey acknowledged Parliament was responsible to the electorate stating it was ... true that in a political sense the electors are.. actually the sovereign power, since their will is under the present constitution sure to obtain ultimate obedience...

The role of non legal rules, termed by Dicey as constitutional conventions were seen as political practice not legally enforceable. Dicey reasoned the purpose of conventions were to encourage .. obedience by all persons to the deliberately expressed will of the House of Commons in the first instance, and ultimately to the will of the nation as expressed through Parliament....

Democratic Theory

Democratic theories can provide a framework for constitutional interpretation.

  • FF Ridley

    Ridley sets out his ideas in the commonly referenced journal article There is no British Constitution: a Dangerous Case of the Emperor’s New Clothes (1988) published in Parliamentary Affairs.

    Ridley contrasts constitutions in order to highlight the fact that the UK constitution does not provide for the people being an ultimate authority in constitutional change. He argues .. Britain never developed this idea of popular sovereignty in constitutional terms, even if we sometimes talk of the sovereignty of the electorate in political terms... . He continues .. if we ask where that power comes from, the answer is broadly that Parliament claimed it and the courts recognised it. The people never came into the picture....

    Ridley's contention can be compared to the use of referendum in some constitutional decisions, for example, remaining in the EC in 1975, devolution in 1997 and the Alternative Vote in 2011.

  • David Beetham

    Beetham sets out his ideas in Defining and Measuring Democracy (1994) and Assessing the Quality of Democracy (2008).

    Beetham believes it is possible to carry out a democratic audit to assess how democratic a country is and that the two principles of .. popular control and political equality, form the guiding thread... because a democracy embraces both principles. He states ... Democracy is a political concept, concerning the collectively binding decisions about the rules and policies of a group, association or society. Such decision making can be said to be democratic to the extent that it is subject to the controlling influence of all members of the collectivity considered as equals...

    He defines the four ... interrelated segments.. of popular control as requiring the popular election of the legislature and the head of the government, open and accountable government, guaranteed political liberties and civil society. Civil society is described as .. the nexus of associations through which people organize independently to manage their own affairs, and which can also act as a channel of influence upon government and a check on its powers....

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