Bryan Caplan  

British Democracy and the Death Penalty

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William Feerick emailed me some interesting thoughts on an old EconLog post, reprinted below with his permission.


Hello Bryan,
 
I recently came across an article you wrote some time ago on your EconLog blog, where you mentioned Tim Besley's counter-examples to your 'you get the Government you deserve' argument in the UK. It was a while ago, but I thought you might be interested in an explanation I have developed on the topic.
 
I think the key element is the way in which politicians are appointed to positions within political parties. Unlike the United States, primaries are totally 'closed'. In the Conservative Party the leader is elected by MPs alone, and in the Labour Party the leader is elected by a mixture of MPs, trade union members and rank-and-file party members. As leaders have a strong say in MP candidates for the next election, this leads to quite strong homogeneity amongst the political elite. 
 
This manifests itself especially in educational background, probably due to a mixture of ability bias and previous relationships - 69% of the current Cabinet attended either Oxford or Cambridge University; 5 out of the 22 previous Prime Ministers and 10% of the current Cabinet attended Eton, a school of just 1300 pupils. I believe this creates a political consensus on certain issues that is not shared by the public. Of course, politicians gravitate towards public opinion on the important issues like in any democracy, but crucially not on other, less important issues. Instead, they rely on the party consensus, which is more strongly influenced by the less populist debate and ideas within universities such as Oxford and Cambridge.
 
For example, capital punishment is widely supported in public opinion polls, but barely a handful of MPs support it. In your article, you mentioned that perhaps the British public feared becoming an EU pariah, but given the strong Euroscepticism that most polls indicate, I don't think this is on the mark. I suggest that as capital punishment is hardly an important issue on the minds of the British electorate, whereas to take a non-consensus position within the party would threaten their future advancement, politicians stick with the party consensus. This consensus is mainly driven by the influence of more intellectual debate within the nation's top universities. This could be extended to the EU, where public policy does not seem to reflect the widespread distaste with the union.
 
In short, populism on more fringe issues in the UK is somewhat restrained by the primary structure of the major  political parties. However, on important issues, the external political value of populism outweighs the need to stay within the political consensus - for example, Margaret Thatcher's major change to the position of the Conservative Party.



COMMENTS (2 to date)
Salem writes:

Although I agree with the overall point your correspondent makes, there are some unfortunate factual mistakes.

1. The leader of the Conservative Party is not elected by MPs alone. Instead, the two candidates getting the most votes among the MPs go forward to a postal ballot of all members of the party.

2. The leaders do not necessarily have a strong say in MP selection. In fact, in the Conservative Party in particular, the leader's say is famously weak.

It's also worth pointing out that although the primaries are formally "closed," membership of either party is available to anyone who wants it, for a fairly nominal fee. People aren't prevented from choosing party leaders by the system, it's our old friend political apathy.

Will writes:

The first point you make was only true of the last couple of Conservative leadership elections. The second point is true, but the leader does at least have some influence (Cameron's A-list, for example). Your last point about apathy is very true - the Labour candidate in the Rotherham by-election was chosen by only 13 voters.

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