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A brief note on constitutional insanity

18 August 2014


We know that, barring something truly extraordinary, there will be a UK general election on 7th May 2015. That election will consume much of the attention of politics watchers over the next few months, and of course there will be discussion of various aspects of it here on Elections in Wales.

We don’t yet know what will be the result of the general election. But if the result is a clear Labour win – a result that has come to seem less likely over the past twelve months, but remains far from implausible – then there will be change of Prime Minister and installation of the new government the following day, Friday May 8th. If there is not a clear win for either of the two largest parties – a result that has come to look rather more likely over the last year – then there will be pressure from both the media and other politicians to move very quickly either to the formation of a minority government or for the successful conclusion of negotiations over a coalition government.

The rapid change-over between governments in the UK has been termed Removal Van democracy: symbolised for those of us of a certain age by Ken Clarke, the hitherto Chancellor of the Exchequer, driving a rental van the day after the 1997 general election, in which to load his and his wife’s possessions from No. 11 Downing Street.

Do many people in the UK realise just how unusual this way of doing things is? In most countries there is some sort of transition period between an election and the installation of a new government or administration. In the United States, the election is held at the beginning of November, but the President is not inaugurated until late-January (it used to be March!). This is an unusually long hiatus. But in most places there is some transition period. In 2012 in France, for instance, the second round of the Presidential election was held on 6th May, and Francois Hollande was sworn-in on 15th May. In Ireland – which like the UK has a parliamentary system of government, the 2011 general election was held on 25th February; the Dail approved Enda Kenny as Prime Minster on 9th March 2011, and he took office later that day.

The immediacy of the change-over in Downing Street is also unusual even within the UK. Within the devolved administrations, the newly-elected chambers meet some days after the election and appoint a First Minister (and a Deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland). For instance, when the SNP replaced Labour as the largest party in the Scottish Parliament in 2007, Alex Salmond was elected by the Scottish Parliament to replace Jack McConnell as First Minister on 16th May, and sworn in on 17th May, which was some 14 days after the Scottish Parliament election.

I believe that this sort of situation used to be the case in London as well. I understand – although it is surprisingly difficult to find definitive information on the matter, and I’d be grateful if any blog readers can point me in the right direction – that in the 19th century it was the convention was for any new government not to take office until the new parliament met – even in a situation where the sitting government had very clearly been defeated at the general election.

This is one instance where other countries definitely do, and the UK in the past did, things better than the UK does today. Why do I say that? Well, let us consider the situation that political leaders are in immediately after a general election. They have been through a very draining and stressful general election campaign for the previous month (or more). They have then, very probably, been awake more or less all night after the close of the polls, following the national results coming in and attending their own constituency declarations.

Is that really the ideal situation in which to have party leaders and other senior politicians moving immediately into government, forming a cabinet and beginning to take other major decisions? Or, in the event on an inconclusive election outcome, are these the ideal circumstances in which to have leaders moving straight into coalition negotiations, and to be confronted with substantial media pressure for a near-immediate resolution of those negotiations? (On the latter point, recall the indignant tone from much of the press about Gordon Brown ‘squatting’ in No. 10, and their increasing impatience and even fury as the coalition negotiations dragged on for a whole five days).

Personally, I definitely do not think at my clearest, or tend to make my best decisions, when I am exhausted, sleep-deprived, or have just been through highly emotional and draining events (such as an election campaign and election night must surely be for leading politicians.) I very much doubt that many people do tend to think clearly, or are most likely to make good decisions, in these circumstances. (And I’m fairly sure that there is a welter of evidence from physiology and cognitive psychology that supports me here). The mental, physical and emotional state that party leaders and their close colleagues will likely be in immediately after an election is just about the worst possible condition in which to be making major political decisions. We should not be surprised if things go wrong in these circumstances; it’s more remarkable that just about anything ever goes right! It is utter insanity to expect our governments to be formed in such circumstances. Current UK practice is not merely unusual in global terms; it is also profoundly pathological.

I would propose a minor amendment in governing practice. As now, there should be a period of more than a week between a general election and the first meeting of the newly-elected parliament (in 2010 the election was held on 6th May; the new parliament met on 18th May. For most parliaments the gap has been slightly shorter than that). A new Prime Minister and government should take office on that day. The new Prime Minister could go and meet the Monarch after an affirmative vote in the new parliament. Or the new PM could ‘kiss hands’ in the morning before parliament meets for the first time in the afternoon. It doesn’t really matter.

What matters is that there should be a 10-12 day interim period after the election. This would allow some time for an orderly transition when there is a clear change of government from one party to another (as in 1997). At the moment when the new government then took office, all new ministerial appointments could be ‘ready and waiting’; rather than us having the present situation where the filling of junior posts can drag on through the first week or two (or even longer) of a government’s life.

In the event of a non-conclusive election, as we had in 2010, one might be able to have slightly less frantic coalition negotiations – the mandatory 10-12 day transition period would impose a natural timetable on events, and allow a bit more time for discussions to be conducted and reach some sort of conclusion.

In either case, it would give everyone just a little more time to play with. Most importantly of all, it might allow leading politicians more scope to do what is probably the single most important thing for them to do in the weekend following an election: get some sleep.


1 comment
  1. Harry Hayfield

    I could not agree more. Where there is a clear change in power (1997 for instance), then the standard 24 hour change over goes ahead as normal. With majorities of less than 50, there should be a week of transition and in the case of a hung parliament, Her Majesty the Queen should issue a statement announcing that the previous Prime Minister, the leader of the Opposition and the leader of the third party will form a temporary “government of national unity” until the formation of a government which would not start until the MONDAY after a general election (thus enabling a) all MP’s to have been elected and b) at least 24 hours full sleep)

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