Who really governs Britain? (Hint: It's not politicians)

Britain's government is often helpless to intervene now big banks call the shots, writes Anthony King.

Story highlights

  • Politicians' capacity to affect even their own domestic environment is constrained by forces beyond their control, writes Anthony King
  • King: In the case of Britain, the once-powerful centralized governments of that country are now multiply constrained

A Canadian by birth, Anthony King has been Professor of Government at the University of Essex since the 1960s. He was a founder member of Britain's Committee on Standards in Public Life and served on the Blair government's Royal Commission on the Reform of the House of Lords. His latest book is "Who Governs Britain?" The views expressed in this commentary are entirely those of the author.

(CNN)A national election is always pending in some significant democracy: the United Kingdom this May, Turkey in June, Spain later this year, the U.S. in 2016, France and Germany in 2017, Italy sometime during the year after that, if not before. And so it goes on. All democratically elected leaders run scared of their electorates. As they conduct international negotiations, they are constantly looking over their shoulders.

Anthony King
Once upon a time, national elections were -- or seemed to be -- overwhelmingly domestic affairs, affecting only the peoples of the countries taking part in them. If that was ever true, it is so no longer. Angela Merkel negotiates with Greece's government with Germany's voters looming in the background. David Cameron currently fights an election campaign in the UK holding fast to the belief that a false move on his part regarding Britain's relationship with the EU could cost his Conservative Party seats, votes and possibly the entire election.
    Britain provides a good illustration of a general proposition. It used to be claimed, plausibly, that "all politics is local." In 2015, electoral politics may still be mostly local, but the post-electoral business of government is anything but local. There is a misfit between the two. Voters are mainly swayed by domestic issues. Vote-seeking politicians campaign accordingly. But those politicians lucky enough to win discover -- if they did not know already -- that their capacity to affect even their own domestic environment is constrained by forces beyond their control.
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    Anyone viewing the UK election campaign from afar could be forgiven for thinking that British voters and politicians alike imagined they were living on some kind of self-sufficient sea-girt island. The opinion polls indicate that a large majority of voters are preoccupied -- politically as well as in other ways -- with their own financial situation, tax rates, welfare spending and the future of the National Health Service. Immigration is an issue for many voters, but mostly in domestic terms (and often as a surrogate for generalized discontent with Britain's political class). The fact that migrants from Eastern Europe and elsewhere make a positive net contribution to both the UK's economy and its social services scarcely features in the campaign.
    Britain's campaigning politicians are at least as parochial. Until Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, unexpectedly -- and belatedly -- held forth in a lengthy speech devoted to foreign affairs, none of the major party leaders had troubled to alert voters to the multiple external challenges facing the UK and the rest of Europe: the various challenges from Putin's Russia, the expansionist ambitions of ISIS in the Middle East and Africa, the knock-on consequences of the chaos in Libya and China's apparent determination to expand its power in Southeast Asia. Even serious debate over Britain's future inside the EU (or possibly outside it) has effectively been parked until after polling day.
    After polling day, all that will change -- probably to millions of voters' dismay. One American presidential candidate famously said that politicians campaign in poetry, but govern in prose. Politicians in democracies, not just in Britain, campaign as though they can move mountains, then find that most mountains are hard or impossible to move.
    In the case of Britain, the once-powerful centralized governments of that country are now multiply constrained. As the power of Britain in international affairs has declined, so has the British government's power within its own domain. Membership of the European Union constrains British governments' ability to determine everything from the quantities of fish British fishermen can legally catch to the amount in fees that British universities can charge students from other EU countries.
    Not least, the EU's insistence on the free movement of labor caused the Conservative-dominated coalition that came to power in 2010 to renege on the Tories' spectacularly ill-judged pledge to reduce to "tens of thousands a year" the number of migrants coming to Britain. The number admitted in 2014 alone was nearer 300,000.
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    The UK's courts are also far more active than they were. The British parliament in 1998 incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into British domestic law, and British judges have determinedly enforced those rights. During the 1970s, they had already been handed responsibility for enforcing the full range of EU law within the UK.
    Also, Britain's judges have, on their own initiative, exercised increasingly frequently their long-standing power of "judicial review," invalidating ministerial decisions that violated due process or seemed to them to be wholly unreasonable. Devolution of substantial powers to semi-independent governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has also meant that the jurisdiction of many so-called UK government ministers is effectively confined to the purely English component part.
    On top of all that, British governments -- even more than those of some other predominantly capitalist economies -- are open to being buffeted by market forces, whose winds can acquire gale force. In a world of substantially free trade, imports and exports of goods and services are largely beyond any government's control, and the Bank of England's influence over the external value of sterling is negligible. During the present election campaign, HSBC, one of the world's largest banks, indicated that it was contemplating shifting its headquarters from the City of London to Hong Kong. For good or ill, Britain's government was, and is, effectively helpless to intervene.
    The heirs of Gladstone, Disraeli, Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, Britain's political leaders are understandably still tempted to talk big. But their effective real-world influence is small. No wonder a lot of voters in Britain feel they are being conned.