Thursday, July 1, 2010

Did they share, or shaft?

Well done to Liberal Burblings for pointing out an amazing historical fact that I kind-of-knew but had never really crystallised in my mind - that Winston Churchill served two terms as Prime Minister without ever receiving a proper popular mandate. He in fact fought three general elections as Tory leader and on each and every occasion was defeated in the popular vote by Labour. His first term of office during wartime was made possible by the Tory majority he inherited from Chamberlain (and indeed which Chamberlain had earlier inherited from Baldwin), while he had the quirks of the electoral system to thank for his 'win' in the 1951 election.

Does any of this detract from the fact that Churchill was arguably Britain's most popular ever Prime Minister? Of course not. Such apparent contradictions are part and parcel of a parliamentary system in which the people elect a parliament, and the majority in parliament chooses the Prime Minister. Come to think of it, it's quite surprising that Labour didn't make more of the Churchill precedent when Gordon Brown was being taunted for being 'unelected', and when Cameron was cooking up his crazy (and thankfully now quietly dropped) plan to legislate to ensure that Prime Ministers cannot be removed mid-term without triggering an election.

By all means, if people want an elected executive, let's have one. But until that point, let's stop acting like we already have one when we don't. And, yes, I'm thinking of those 'Prime Ministerial Debates' that were no such thing. At the very least, we should have been informed in advance that the debates were going to function like the group stage of the Champions' League - ie. whoever finished third dropped down to a lower-tier competition and was then competing to become Deputy Prime Minister instead. Or maybe it was more like the notorious Robert Kilroy-Silk gameshow Shafted, in the sense that any two of the contestants could choose to gang up together and 'shaft' the other one. Either way - those debates didn't do what they said on the tin.

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