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The Rules: democracy in Britain

The Rules: democracy in Britain

Every day more cracks emerge in the political system that guarantees the freedoms Britons hold dear. How do we stop it shattering?

Date commissioned
16 May 2022

Date published
6 June 2022


Why this story?

There could hardly be a better moment to assess the health of democracy in Britain – as a matter of civic urgency. Since becoming prime minister, Boris Johnson has seemed consistently determined to liberate those in power from the checks and balances that are meant to keep them accountable: suspending parliament unlawfully, criminalising protest, declaring his readiness to break international law and menacing the independence of the judiciary. Worst of all, he has nurtured a sense of “us” and “them”: imposing restrictive lockdown rules during the pandemic, even as Number 10 partied its way to becoming the top law-breaking address in the country. How did we get here? And what can we do? That’s what Tortoise editor Matthew d’Ancona and political reporter Lara Spirit are asking in this week’s Slow Newscast, returning to The Rules project which was suspended by Covid. To inform our renewed inquiries and to get a deeper sense of the electorate’s views and anxieties, Tortoise has commissioned a 10,000-person opinion poll and two focus groups. With the help of legendary pollster Peter Kellner, we are now unpacking the results. We’re going to tell you a story about a nation, its people and the state of its democracy. Jasper Corbett, editor

Transcript

“Sue Gray catalogues a series of late drunken nights while Covid laws banned the country from anything of the sort.”

Channel 4 News

“A three-day hunt for a Tory MP seen watching pornography in the commons chamber.”

Sky news

“And you’re content to back a law breaker in office?”
“I certainly am and I think the Prime Minister’s many achievements…”

Channel 4 News

Matthew d’Ancona, narrating: Do you ever get the feeling that the pandemic never happened? Or – more precisely – that we learned nothing from it?

Three years ago, Tortoise launched an investigation that we called The Rules. 

Our starting position – informed by, but not limited to the mayhem around Brexit in Parliament – was that democracy just wasn’t working.

We listened to experts and members at ThinkIns – our live, unscripted events – all over the country. And we concluded that the old system of incremental change, conventions and “good chaps” doing the right thing… Well, all that was well and truly broken.

As a starter for ten, we called for a codified constitution: a single document in which the rules of democratic, governmental and judicial process would be defined once and for all.

And we looked further afield for more granular problems and solutions. 

Why was trust in the system so desperately low? Would greater devolution of power and public finance make a difference? What about the much-vaunted citizen assemblies that have been used in some countries to help develop policy with community stakeholders?

And how far were the super-charged networks of the digital era replacing institutions as the key vectors of power?

And then – well, then, a virus took hold of these islands and everything ground to a halt.

I’m Matt d’Ancona.

Lara Spirit, narrating: And I’m Lara Spirit. In this Slow Newscast we will be picking up where Tortoise left off in 2020… telling a story, as we always do, but in this case a story about a nation, its people and the state of its democracy. 

We’re already back on the road, hearing from people across the country.

“The community around me has no voice whatsoever, through the BBC, or through local politics or central government.”

Tortoise ThinkIn Newcastle, May 2022

“You’re talking about democracy, but what’s democracy? Coming out and casting a vote? If you then are operating the whole rest of your life within a society that is set up to make some people healthy and wealthy and well and other people unhealthy and poor no wonder they’re not interested in coming out to stick a vote in a ballot box.”

Tortoise ThinkIn Newcastle, May 2022

Lara Spirit, narrating: But to get an even deeper sense of the British electorate’s mood, views and anxieties, we commissioned a large-scale opinion poll – it had 10,000 respondents, that’s ten times the normal number in polls you see reported in the press. And we also commissioned two focus groups, all conducted by DeltaPoll in April.

Matthew d’Ancona, narrating: To make sense of the results and to kickstart our audit, Lara and I spoke to the poll’s mastermind, Peter Kellner, a hugely respected pollster and political commentator.

Matthew d’Ancona: So Peter Kellner, you’ve been conducting and masterminding polls for a great many years, and I’m fascinated to know what you were hoping to find out in this poll. What kind of things were you looking for? 

Peter Kellner: Matt, what we were looking for was a sense as to whether voters out there think our democratic system is working or not working.

And when I say democratic system, I don’t mean this government, this prime minister. I don’t mean Ukraine or inflation. It’s something much more fundamental about whether the architecture of British democracy is holding up or do people think it’s crumbling. And I have to say I was surprised and disappointed at how critical so many voters are of the basis of our democratic institutions.

Matthew d’Ancona: When you talk about the democratic system, did you find that respondents to the poll understood that to mean institutions or something much more broad? 

Peter Kellner: One of the questions we asked, which I think is quite telling about the way people view our whole system, was we gave them a list of ten – or a dozen – possible aspects of what it’s like to be in a free society. And we asked them what three or four they most associated with freedom. And the theme that came top was the National Health Service. It wasn’t, as it were, democracy in any conventional sense at all, but what they want to get out of the system.

Matthew d’Ancona: So looking at the whole survey, what were the things that leapt out at you?

Peter Kellner: Three findings, which together tell I think a rather worrying story. 

When we ask people, “do they think Britain is a democratic society?”, only half the sample think Britain is either very or fairly democratic. 

The second thing is that they have a very, very low opinion of MPs. And here we do have some historic data. And if you go back, say, to the post-war era – late 1940s, 1950s – it’s not that MPs were wildly popular, but a substantial number, a majority of voters, broadly thought that Parliament worked well, that MPs broadly were public spirited, not simply out for themselves. 

And then the third thing we found, which I found the most terrifying of all, is when we asked people to choose between a society led by a strong leader who could take quick decisions and not have to worry about Parliament and the process of parliamentary scrutiny and legislation or a system in which we kept parliamentary scrutiny, the parliamentary process, even if that slowed things down, 30 per cent – one person in three – would prefer to have a strong leader that could ride roughshod over our conventional systems for keeping an executive in check.

Matt d’Ancona: Let’s take all three of those in turn because they’re so interesting. So, Peter, let’s start with the question facing the democratic system. Why is that figure so comparatively low and what do you think people understand by the words: “A democratic system”?

Peter Kellner: It’s clear that a great many people view freedom or democracy, whether it’s functioning or not, in broadly functional and instrumental terms. Are their lives being made better, more secure, more prosperous as a consequence of the political processes? And my sense is a lot of the criticism of our democratic system of MPs is to do with a sense that the system isn’t delivering.

Now, the thing that’s harder to tell is whether this is a reaction to what, 14–15 years when for most people there’s not been a rise in living standards, when public services have been under strain, when there hasn’t been what we had… with a few exceptions… pretty steady growth from the 1950s to around 2007, a general secular rise in prosperity, more money being spent on public services, higher take home pay, better jobs and so on. That seems to have come to an end for the time being.

Lara Spirit: Can I ask you as well this question of personal political agency, because Conservatives in that question were much more likely to think that the country was democratic than Labour voters were. And, similarly, older voters were much more likely to think the country was democratic than younger voters were. So is it saying something more than just material conditions, for example, and might speak to political power as well in that question? 

Peter Kellner: There’s always going to be an element of this, that if we get a Labour-led government after the next election, and we were to repeat these questions in say four years time, I suspect that Conservative faith in democracy will be down a bit and Labour voters’ faith in democracy will be up a bit.

There is something going on, which is obviously partly influenced by whether you’re a fan of the present governments or a critic of the present government, but I don’t think it explains all that much.

I think the last few months have made a difference.

I guess I’m the only one in this room who remembers actively the 1970s when inflation was at one point reached, I think, 26 per cent, and for something like 15 years was only briefly below 10 per cent. The return to inflation has come as a much bigger shock, I think, to your generation than it has to mine.

I also think that partygate has had an effect. People are bothered that they were obeying the rules and they couldn’t say farewell to loved ones who are dying. That has cut through. But I think the bigger effect has been the sense that we have a prime minister who doesn’t tell the truth. I mean the figures for the perception of Boris Johnson telling lies… I mean, these figures are extraordinary. You get 70–80 per cent, which includes, therefore, a very substantial number of Conservative voters who think their prime minister doesn’t tell the truth.

Matthew d’Ancona: Is that a statement of recognition though, Peter, or a statement of disapproval? People, I would imagine, would have said Boris Johnson was a liar before the 2019 election in which he won a 80-seat majority. So the question I would ask is: “Ok, they know he’s a liar, but are they bothered?”

Peter Kellner: Well some people aren’t bothered. But I think a lot of people are. And I think the difference is that those of us who followed Boris Johnson’s career are perhaps not being greatly surprised by his behaviour and what he’s said in Parliament.

But until Partygate, people in the Dog and Duck were not in general, I suspect, talking about Johnson’s history of dishonesty. Now they are. And it’s cut through. I think what’s happened over partygate, a large part of it is that it’s a character judgement about Johnson.

Matthew d’Ancona: So let’s look at the second question you highlighted, the second finding, Peter, which is the way in which MPs are perceived. And it seems to me there’s a very interesting history in this, one imagines, that perhaps stretches back to the Nolan report and to Standards in Public Life in 1995. And what’s happened since. And I just wonder why it is that we have as a society formed this rather poor view of MPs as a group?

Peter Kellner: Classic example of beware the unintended consequences.

And it seems to me two things have happened. The first is the behaviour of MPs, certainly in terms of money, let’s put sex to one side. Certainly in terms of money has improved a lot over the last 30 years. But, secondly, the reputation of MPs has got a lot worse, most notably during the expenses scandal around 2009, I think it was.

Now I once got into trouble when, on a live Radio 4 interview, I mentioned that Winston Churchill’s own financial arrangements in the 1920s and 1930s, and indeed when he was prime minister, would not stand up to scrutiny by today’s standards. 

Now I should have made clearer than I did that I wasn’t saying Churchill was corrupt. What I was meaning to say was the standards of those times were different.

There were stories of him when he was prime minister pressurising the inland revenue to be lenient about his tax affairs. Look, I’m not going to pretend to know all the details, but the point I’m making is that what you’ve got is the required standards are much higher now than they were 50 or 100 years ago.

And this has done two things. 

It’s dragged MPs’ behaviour up because they can’t afford to be seen to fall too far below the standards. But the transparency that we now have means that, financial peccadilloes that would have been ignored or not known about half century or a century ago are known about.

We probably have one of the cleanest political systems in terms of MPs’ financial behaviour of any country in the world.

Matthew d’Ancona: Going back to the polling, what was it about MPs’ behaviour that the respondents didn’t like?

Peter Kellner: A general feeling they’re out for themselves, not for the public interest. I don’t recall either in this or other surveys recently people saying MPs are financially corrupt. They simply feel that MPs, once they get to Westminster, live in their own culture, their own world, have their own ambitions and this takes them away from the public. 

And one of the questions we asked, which I found quite disturbing, is what I call the Edmund Burke question… Edmund Burke, you remember, an 18th century Conservative politician who said that MPs should not be told what to do by their constituents, they’re elected to use their judgements to come to Westminster to debate and use their judgement as to what to do.

So we asked the representative versus delegates question. Do you think your MP should use their judgement when voting, or should they do what their constituents want, even if the MP thinks that is a bad outcome for the country? And by a clear majority, voters want MPs to be delegates.

One of the reasons in principle why I much prefer the representative system is that you can then hold MPs responsible for the outcome of what happens.

Matthew d’Ancona: Take us onto the third thing you drew out of the polling, Peter. The alarming extent to which the respondents like the idea of strongman leadership as opposed to parliamentary democracy. I mean this really draws one up.

Peter Kellner: Let me read out what 30 per cent support: “Britain these days needs a strong leader who can take and implement big decisions quickly without having to consult Parliament.”

Among Conservatives it’s 43 per cent who hold that view. Among Labour and Liberal Democrats in both cases: 26 per cent. If you are a Leaver in the Brexit debate, you’re more likely to want it than Remainers. But the figures are all within a span. So whichever demographic or political group you look at, there will be somewhere between sort of 25 and 40 per cent, somewhere in that realm.

Britain – we’ve been incredibly lucky over the last century in avoiding the spasms of extremism. Not just obviously the 1920s and 1930s, but you look at Marine Le Pen getting more than 40 per cent in the recent French elections, or for a while the AfD in Germany being the main opposition force before the last election. So the way I look at it is that we shouldn’t assume that British people are fundamentally different from people in other countries. 

If the circumstances arise, when the polity of a country is in really serious trouble, much more trouble than Britain’s has been in recent years… and if you then get a plausible leader emerging, who can say: “We’ll sort this out, but we need a period when we need to take tough measures to the country. We can’t shilly-shally around. We can’t allow our crisis to be continued because of a talking shop.” I think what I’d say is I wouldn’t guarantee that Britain would be immune to that.

Matthew d’Ancona: Did you find in the polling, Peter, any direction of travel that voters would like to see on institutional reform?

Peter Kellner: We didn’t ask that question directly. We did ask what people regarded as the best and worst features of British democracy.

The one that came out best was everyone having an equal say in the future through the right to vote. And the one that came out worst was rich and powerful people having more power and influence than ordinary voters. So you get a sense there that the idea of equality and the operation of inequality is what concerns people.

When we asked about trust, MPs do very badly, but so do tabloid newspapers as we used to call them, so do business leaders. So I think one of the things that comes out to me is that Westminster is at the heart of a web of whether you call it “the system” or “the elite” or whatever you want to call it, which includes businesses, civil servants, the media. And there is a very, very widespread sense that this whole sort of apparatus at the top of modern Britain is simply letting people down.

Lara Spirit: We also asked people how they feel about democracy, didn’t we? What were the top words that people use when they described how they felt about it?

Peter Kellner: What we did, we gave people a list of eight adjectives, four positive, four negative. So the positive ones were “hopeful”, “confident”, “happy”, “proud”. We were asking them which of those words – and they could choose as many or as few as they like – describe their feelings about how democracy works in Britain. And the top three were all negative.

The biggest was: “uneasy” – four in 10; “disgusted” – a quarter; “angry” – just a bit under a quarter. And then the three that came last were positive: “proud” – just 8 per cent; “happy” – 8 per cent; “confident” – 10 per cent.

Lara Spirit: So what would you do?

Peter Kellner: Oh my goodness… Lara, forgive me [for acting] like a politician and answer a slightly different question. But at least I’m explicit about answering a slightly different question. Supposing in 20 years time, this poll was repeated, and we got much better scores for our democratic system, what would have changed?

And I think two things would have changed. Firstly, we would have resumed steady growth, rising living standards, improvements in public services, so that people felt they really did have a stake in society and society was more or less working for them. And secondly, I think there’ll have been a change in the culture of politicians at Westminster.

When I was a young journalist in the 1970s, the people at the top of British politics had, on the whole, been people who had been through the Second World War. Many of them had fought in it. People like Willie Whitelaw had got the Military Cross. Dennis Healey from Labour had been a beachmaster at Anzio [in] the invasion of Italy. Roy Jenkins had been a codebreaker at Bletchley. 

And they had, in my sense, a different view of politics. Firstly, they were profoundly grateful that democracy had survived the Second World War. They treated it with a seriousness and a reverence that I don’t think today’s young aspiring politicians have. And secondly, they had more respect for each other. You still got pretty rumbustious party knockabouts; you will never get rid of that. But they knew the limits of that. And I thought political debate was simply more serious. Now I’m not suggesting we have another world war in order to improve the culture of British politics. It’d be a pretty high price to pay. 

Lara Spirit: If you’re reflecting on your polling and you think you could change one thing about how people feel about democracy to improve it, what do you think that would be?

Peter Kellner: What would improve people’s view would be if they felt the politicians were honest and acting in the public interest, because those are the two properties that people are most sceptical, critical, about.

The answer in the end, the solution, is with MPs themselves. 

Almost anybody who’s spent their life closely observing and talking to politicians and spending time in Parliament, you find that when you get away from the microphone and the chamber, in my experience from all parties, they are honest; they are public spirited. If voters could see them, as we see them, in small gatherings, over lunch, at conferences abroad, and so on, I think they’d have a much higher opinion.

And so the oddity is that the way politicians appear to the public is when you get snatches in parliamentary debates or Prime Minister’s Questions, or when they’re being interviewed on the radio and they’re up against somebody else. They turn far too often into unpleasant contestants in a Manichean struggle.

And insofar as climbing politicians, backbenchers, want to make progress, they come to the notice of the whips or the people who have the future in their hands by being as rude as possible about the other side.

I know what I want to get to – and I know that actually politicians on the whole are people who, if the public could see them as they really are, [they] would be a lot more impressed. I can’t work out how we arrange things, so the politicians behave like that in Westminster or in the studio, which is where people tend to see them.

Matthew d’Ancona: So we know the light, we just don’t know how to shape the tunnel.

Peter Kellner: Exactly.

Matthew d’Ancona, narrating: Peter Kellner there with a plea for a less polarised and divisive politics. So, Lara, here we are a few days later – let’s unpick some of what we heard from him.

Lara Spirit, narrating: So Peter Kellner thought two things would have to change to improve people’s faith in democracy: people’s standard of living and their perception of MPs’ behaviour. Let’s take the first of these and talk about the economy.  

So one of the most interesting things for me was just the huge dominance that this theory of economic powerlessness and a change in economic fortunes has had in influencing people’s perceptions of democracy. And it made me think a bit about some of the things that you’ve written in the past, Matt, because I have the suspicion that you might disagree with some of the more economically deterministic areas of his thought. Is that right?

Matthew d’Ancona: Well, yes. I mean, I think Peter is absolutely right to say that austerity and economic anxiety underpin a lot of the problems of trust that we’ve seen, not only in the UK, but around the world. Where I differ from him, I think, is that I do agree with the proposition now that culture is upstream from politics – and that politics isn’t just a subset of economics.

And I don’t think the solutions to failures of trust are purely economic. I think that Brexit was a very good case study in that. Because there were plenty of polls at the time in 2016 that showed that people were willing to sacrifice a measure of their standard of living for the taking back of control, or return of sovereignty, or whatever phrase you prefer, that they saw embedded in the Brexit ideal.

And that in turn, I think, shows you quite how important questions of culture and identity have become. And I think that any discussion of the rules that govern a society have to take account of that significant shift in the way that society is now ordered, a lot of which is accounted for by technology of course.

Lara Spirit, narrating: Yeah, I’m quite keen to talk about technology, because we touched on it in the discussion with Peter, not as a form of solution, but perhaps as an indication for how much the world has changed. We’ve had these discussions before about the great potential that technology would have to, from my perspective, increase the number of young people who might be able to turn out to vote. I think, unfortunately, when we talk about it, it seems to stray quite quickly into the damage that technology is doing to democracy.

Matthew d’Ancona, narrating: I think that’s right. I think any consideration of the future of democracy and the rules has to take account of the way in which digital networks are probably more important than old fashioned institutions. And I think that’s a neutral fact. It ought not to be seen entirely as a pathology, as you say. 

For example, the Trump phenomenon was far more a digital phenomenon than it was an institutional phenomenon. And I think that there’s a problem that’s often reached, a kind of dead end, where we try and solve the problems of 2022 using the toolkit of the 1980s, frankly. Because there’s been a debate about constitutional reform going on since then, which usually alights upon electoral reform, voting rights, the House of Lords reform, and so on. And all of these things are worthy subjects. But they are not the end of the story, and I think that people’s understanding of how society works is more and more dominated by what comes through their smartphone than what they understand their MP is up to – and knitting the two together is a job of work.

Lara Spirit, narrating: We have to, in a sense, rely on the institutions in order to fix the problems or the consequences of these digital networks. A key example, I think, being when we listened to the focus groups, people talking about how uneasy they felt, the kind of confusion people have with our democratic processes and the consequences of them. And there were a number of comments after the Queen’s Speech recently about how confused, arguably, the government’s platform of legislation was.

And one of the most confused aspects concerned the way in which our democracy understands technology, because it was, on the one hand, the online harms legislation, on the other hand, the freedom of speech legislation – two pieces of policy which don’t wed well together at all, right? And that, I think, is part of the conversation we have around how we make the consequences of our democracy seem more coherent to people.

Matthew d’Ancona, narrating: Yes, government always lags behind technology. That’s a historical truth. But it’s lagging behind this technological revolution more seriously than any in history, I think. And whilst it’s a kind of glib answer to a lot of discussions about the meaning of the digital revolution, to say we need digital literacy and that this should be brought about in schools tomorrow, I think what we really do need is parliamentarians who understand this. So it’s been quite shocking to me. I’ve appeared before a couple of select committees dealing with digital democracy and the level of knowledge – with a few conspicuous exceptions, like Damian Collins, the Conservative MP who has been very involved in this – is really shocking. People, MPs, who say: “What’s an app?” 

And I think that’s an unforgivable gap – and MPs have a duty to understand at least the basics of digital culture, as part of their political responsibilities, their basic political responsibilities. Because they’re not going to be able to serve their constituents and the broader polity unless they understand how this stuff works. And at the moment they don’t.

Lara Spirit, narrating: Just on this point of the actual MPs themselves. One of the things that I am remembering quite clearly from our discussion with Peter was just how much the character of MPs, and the reputational damage of the past few years, has had on people’s perception of them and their trust in them – just how corrosive if that’s been for the health of democracy. And I wonder if, when we’re thinking about solutions, we might think about institutional or non-institutional improvements to the way people trust and engage with their representatives.

Matthew d’Ancona, narrating: I think that was one of the strongest points Peter made, really, which is that it’s very easy to yield to despair when presented with the sheer scale of this problem – and actually there are some things that can be done immediately to improve and enhance the standing of MPs. The consequences of these changes wouldn’t be immediate, but the changes could be made immediately.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life recommended a series of reforms in November 2021, such as that the ministerial code be put on a statutory footing, that the independent advisor to the prime minister for ministerial standards be given the power to initiate investigations themselves. Lord Geidt, who is holder of that office at the moment, requested this right too in the aftermath of all the fuss about Boris Johnson’s wallpaper. 

Now the government has turned down both of those requests, and in fact has turned the clock back. Whilst we were reporting this Newscast, Boris Johnson has changed the rules on when an MP or a minister has to resign, replacing the duty to resign if you’ve been found to have breached the code to a sliding scale from a mild reprimand – a slap on the wrist – to full resignation. So actually the direction of travel at the minute is in the wrong way. 

However, a reforming government could make these reforms, and they would be a good start, because they would take the principles of transparency and accountability, and so on, that were first outlined by Lord Nolan in 1995. And they would really start to give them some proper teeth – and they would lead to consequences that people could see. At the moment those consequences are all too absent. 

This is incredibly dangerous, but there can be things done to address it.

Lara Spirit, narrating: The changes to the ministerial code – there’s a sliding scale, and some commentators have said that it is quite a helpful sliding scale, because it isn’t just to concern Johnson, there has been level of ambiguity around this code for some time about what different levels of severity will mean in terms of punishment.

And it does still leave it as a clear finding that you should resign if you are a Prime Minister and you have lied to Parliament. 

But the question has always been further than that, which is would Boris Johnson do it? And I think short of being on a statutory footing the answer is perhaps no. And that’s where this codification question becomes interesting, because it concerns personal characters and the implication of different personal characters on our democratic norms and standards.

Matthew d’Ancona, narrating: I’m fairly hardline on this, in that I support not only the code being put on a statutory footing, but more controversially the right to appeal decisions under judicial review. Now Parliament would go crazy about that because it would definitely dilute parliamentary sovereignty, but I actually think that’s no bad thing. The idea that in very, very, few – but certain – extreme circumstances, a failure to follow through on the code could be taken to a judge is not a bad one.

Matthew d’Ancona, narrating: Where does this leave us? Well, the case for a codified constitution is still strong but we need to acknowledge that the house is on fire and that the fire needs to be extinguished first. 

So I think Peter Kellner is right that nothing will improve until voters have a better opinion of MPs and initial steps are taken to make the digital space fit for civic discourse. 

Until voters and politicians alike gain some sort of agency over the algorithms that dominate their lives, politics will remain polarised, adversarial and performative. And democracy will continue its decline – and its vulnerability to strong man autocracy.

Lara Spirit, narrating: So we don’t have a new set of Rules just yet. Indeed how could we? But we do have the beginnings of a road-map.

Matthew d’Ancona, narrating: The question is where it will take us. What we can be sure of is that the terrain is changing all the time, that the old ways are no longer fit for purpose, and that the solutions to the colossal problems besetting democracy in the 2020s are likely – strike that, certain – to take unexpected forms.

How we got here

The colossal impact of the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and the cost-of-living crisis has understandably focused attention on the challenges at hand. But it is worth remembering that Boris Johnson’s premiership began with an almighty constitutional controversy. Seeking to curtail democratic scrutiny of his Brexit plans, the prime minister unlawfully asked the Queen to suspend Parliament. That extraordinary crisis in 2019 crystallised for Tortoise an argument towards which we were already drawn: namely, that the unwritten rules and conventions governing our democracy no longer work. As a starting point, we called for a codified constitution – a single document that would define the rules of democratic, governmental and judicial process. We also launched a series of ThinkIns up and down the country to ask people: what grievances, anxieties and hopes should these new rules address? How do voters perceive the institutions that are meant to work for them and the health of democracy in the new technological landscape? Then Covid intervened. Now, two-and-a-half years later, as we face a host of new and serious challenges to our democratic structures, national identity and basic sense of fairness, we are picking up where we left off. In this Slow Newscast, we ask why people are so dissatisfied with modern British democracy – and we ask how we can start to fix it. Matthew d’Ancona, editor, and Lara Spirit, reporter


Further reading

  • The Rules began with the idea of the UK having a written – or codified – constitution, partly in response to the unprecedented confusion around Brexit in 2019. Last year, the FT published an essay also calling for one.
  • Peter Kellner, who commissioned our poll on British democracy, wrote a piece for the think tank Carnegie last month on the threat that Boris Johnson poses to British democracy as prime minister.
  • Last year, as the Owen Paterson scandal dominated the headlines, Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland wrote about the prime minister’s habit of ignoring the rules that are meant to hold him in check – and the damage this does to our democracy.

Past reporting

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