Peter Bye

Governing the UK

In September 2017, I posted a blog called ‘The rise of the kakistocracy’. Kakistocracy means government by the worst[1]: the most incompetent people are in power. When I wrote the piece, there was no shortage of candidate kakistocracies; Venezuela and Zimbabwe provided two rather extreme examples out of many. But what about the western democracies? In this piece, I’d like to take a look at the current state of the UK.

One measure of the state of governance is Transparency International’s corruption index[2]. The UK’s position in 2018 is 11th out of 180, along with Germany. It was 8th out of 180 in 2017, so it has slipped back three places since then[3]. Venezuela and Zimbabwe are 168th and 160th respectively. So the UK is by no stretch of imagination a kakistocracy on that scale. But the Brexit process is revealing flaws in the way the UK is governed, which could damage its democracy. Indeed, Edward Luce, in a piece in the Financial Times on 7th February 2019, suggests that the UK is heading towards kakistocracy[4].

The entire Brexit process has been a shambles. Let’s take a quick look at how it has unfolded. The June 2016 referendum result came as a big surprise to the Conservative government. No contingency planning had been done for a leave vote. David Cameron resigned and Theresa May became Prime Minister. Her Brexit strategy was stated as ‘Brexit means Brexit’ – true, but not very constructive. She waited until March 2017 to invoke Article 50, but nothing much appeared to be done in the interim to prepare a position for negotiation with the EU. Several weeks more were lost for a general election on 8th June 2017, which misfired completely as the Conservatives lost their majority. An exit agreement was finally agreed with the EU in November 2018. Unfortunately, the level of disagreement in the Conservative Party, and for that matter in the Labour opposition, has made it impossible to get the agreement ratified by Parliament. The gaps between the various factions appear unbridgeable. So, at the time of writing this piece, we are stuck just a few weeks from the scheduled departure.

A succession of mistakes has contributed to the current mess. First, David Cameron called the referendum in an attempt to shut up the obsessive Europhobes in the Conservative Party, and to counter the threat posed by UKIP. He failed. Secondly, having called the vote, he opted for a simple majority – 50% plus 1 of those who voted – rather than a super-majority, for example at least 50% or the electorate: just 37% of the electorate voted leave. Thirdly, the vote was treated as binding rather than advisory. And finally, the government has displayed an alarming level of incompetence in handling Brexit. For example, David Davies, the longest-serving UK Brexit Secretary, stated in November 2018 ‘If we need to leave with no deal and negotiate a free trade agreement during the transition period, so be it’. He missed the point that there would be no transition period in the event of no deal[5].

But, in my view, a significant cause of the current problems, and hence the threat to democracy, lies in having a referendum in the first place. The UK is a representative democracy, not a direct one based on plebiscites. On issues affecting the nation, Members of Parliament are there to do what they believe best for all of their constituents and the nation as a whole. They act as trustees of their constituents’ interests, not delegates who do what they are told. Democracy is served by being able to throw the government out at a free and fair general election if it has under-performed.

If MPs act as delegates doing what they believe their own constituents want, the major parties would struggle to form a coherent set of policies, as there are likely to be significant differences between constituencies. Brexit is the obvious example. Constituencies across the UK with MPs from the same party delivered widely different results in the referendum, and continue to hold different – and incompatible – views. What policy should the party follow? Achieving a single position on Brexit means that some constituencies are bound to be disappointed.

The UK is now at a point of political gridlock and public disillusionment. What can be done to improve the situation if we are to avoid sliding into populism, with its temptingly simple-minded solutions to complex problems? I’d like to make three points. First, treat referendums as advisory only, if you must have them; certainly don’t have binding votes on anything irreversible. Secondly, understand that people are generally not well-informed, so getting their views requires a special approach. Thirdly, recognise that there are likely to be significant differences of opinion. Avoid extremes by moving towards the centre ground and make progress incrementally.

The first two points are related. The problem with referendums and other forms of opinion poll is that people vote without a sufficient understanding of the issues involved, especially in something as complicated as Brexit. It is however essential for those seeking to govern to understand what people are thinking. An approach that has proved effective is deliberative democracy, or citizens’ assemblies[6], which have been successfully used in Ireland, among other places. The idea derives from the observation that juries are remarkably effective. Twelve randomly selected people, presented with evidence in a serious atmosphere and given time to discuss, with technical assistance on law if needed, consistently arrive at well-reasoned verdicts.

Deliberative democracy takes the idea of randomly selected groups of perhaps 30 or 40 people. The groups, divided into teams, meet on one or more occasions for a couple of days each to discuss specific topics. Experts are on hand to provide factual information. Facilitated discussions are held within the teams, to help them to arrive at conclusions. Random selection is important as asking for volunteers can lead to bias: the Usual Suspects volunteer. Facilitated discussions are needed to ensure everyone has a chance to contribute, without anyone dominating. Interestingly, it has been found that many people frequently modify their views as a result of discussion and access to facts.

My final point concerns moving to the centre ground. If societies polarise into extremes, it is hard to get anything done. The risk then is a winner takes all attitude, where alternative views are ignored, resulting in authoritarian government. To avoid this requires a consensus to move towards the centre. An incremental approach helps, where policies are introduced carefully, based on evidence. If the implementation of a policy is not working as expected, a change of direction can be made before the changes become hard to reverse. In other words, this is a scientific approach: perhaps more of that is needed in government.

Notes and sources

[1] See

[2] See

[3] Worryingly, Transparency International reports a deterioration generally. The USA, for instance, has slipped to 22nd compared with 18th in the 2016 figures.

[4]Only the UK leads America in its rush to kakistocracy. Two nations appear to be in competition over which has the least competent leadership’

[5] He made the statement in a piece on the Conservative Home website: see

For comment on the piece, see also

[6] Matthew Taylor, the Chief Executive of the RSA (Royal Society of Arts), gave the 2018 Chief Executive’s lecture on the subject. A video of the complete lecture can be found at See also–you-wont-anywhere-else The Electoral Reform Society has a piece on citizens’ assemblies:

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