Forget the EU: what about the UK’s democratic deficit?


Flickr (Creative Commons)

A common argument being made at the moment against remaining in the EU is that it controls as much or more of the law-making power in the UK as the Government does. In turn, the argument goes, much of that power is held by unelected officials – the EU’s so-called democratic deficit.

Before dealing with the second point, let’s look at what fact-checking agency Full Fact says about the first. In their briefing on the key claims in the EU argument, it says that the EU ‘has an influence’ on 13% of law designated as UK-only. However, when you count all the laws that apply in the UK, that figure rises to above 60%.

So, there’s clearly a lot of room between those two statistics for the EU’s critics and supporters to differently interpret its level of control on British law, depending on the specific area they’re looking at. The Full Fact briefing points out that some key policy areas have significantly greater levels of EU influence – financial services and trade – compared to others which don’t such as defence and direct taxation.

What about the ‘democratic deficit’ then – how unelected is the EU? Well, the European Parliament is elected directly by the peoples of the EU, the European Council consists of the heads of its elected national governments, and the Council of Ministers is made up of other representatives from those governments depending on the policy issues at hand.

That leaves the European Commission, the executive branch of the EU, which is unelected. However, as Professor John McCormick of the University of Indianapolis points out here, the final decisions on the laws the Commission drafts and proposes are taken by the Council of Ministers and/or the European Parliament.

Nevertheless, the Commission is unelected and undeniably powerful and influential. But if the problem people are concerned with is power being held by an unelected body then it seems a little unfair to level so much criticism at the EU when the exercise of unelected power is an integral part of the the UK’s own political system.

The House of Lords, for example, is unelected and arguably has more power to dictate how people live in the UK than any instrument of the EU. It recently demonstrated that power by blocking the Chancellor’s tax credits reform – a flagship pledge of the new Government.


Tony Blair. Image via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Not only are peers not elected, but the Lords’ red benches have become bloated during the last 20 years as Governments crammed them full of newly appointed life peers in attempts to balance the Lords in their favour. Tony Blair created 357 peers, with Gordon Brown adding another 34. David Cameron appointed 236 peers during the last Government and will doubtless soon create more.

Reform of the Lords is a recurring political question, and the Strathcldye review may well attempt to curb their power in the future, but for now peers continue to exert huge power on how far the Government is able to enact its agenda. That power may well be displayed again when the Trade Union Bill reaches the Lords.

Then there is the power of unelected civil servants. The Government creates and dictates policy, but it is the job of Whitehall bureaucrats to interpret and implement it, as well as quietly veto policies seen as entirely unworkable.

Not only that, but the top levels of the civil service are in a unique position to exert influence on the decisions of the Prime Minister and the rest of Cabinet. A minor scandal erupted in 2012 when head of the civil service Sir Jeremy Heywood was rumoured to be rather too close to the proposed merger between defence giant BAE and European aviation firm EADS. The merger failed, but the gossip suggesting it had only come as far as it did because of Heywood’s influence did not die down quickly.

And next week, the City will likely find out who is to be Sir Nick Macpherson’s successor as Permanent Secretary of the Treasury. The capital’s financial elite will watch with interest, as whoever is elected will have no mandate and yet more say on how taxpayers’ money is spent during the next decade than all but the highest members of Government.

There is also the Court of Appeal, the High Court and the Supreme Court. All are capable of overruling the Government by declaring the laws it passes as illegal. Not one of the judges on these exalted bodies of law is elected by either a local or general election. They are chosen instead by an appointment committee.

Indeed, a friend whose father is a top QC tells me that promotion to these select legal bodies still often comes via a discreet tap on the shoulder followed by a whispered conversation and the precise suggestion of when and how to apply in the knowledge that acceptance will follow.

All the institutions I’ve mentioned have a profound influence on how taxpayer money is spent and what people in the UK are allowed to do or say and none of them – none – have ever been elected.

So, if people are worried that about the democratic mandate of the people who govern this country, then I can see their point – but they have far bigger problems than the EU to worry about.


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