A Crisis of Legitimacy – Parliamentary Democracy in Historical Perspective


In December 2018, the British Army took control over a large area of common land in Cumbria. According to the Financial Times, this was the first ‘enclosure’ of commons in England for more than a century. But it happened a long way from London, where the media were already obsessed with the Brexit-related goings on at Westminster. So it was not widely reported, and left almost no imprint on the national consciousness.

That was a shame. The enclosure of common land was one of the major events of English history, and its recurrence in present-day Cumbria should have triggered deep historical resonances. It went unremarked at the very moment at which, if properly understood, it had the potential to shine a light on an important fact of contemporary British politics.

A conventional explanation for the UK’s current political turbulence, much favoured by political commentators, is that it arises from a clash between two types of democratic ‘method’ – representative democracy (through Parliament) and direct democracy (in the form of referendums). Igor Judge, a former Lord Chief Justice, writing in Prospect, says that the current Brexit impasse is simply the outcome of this conflict – ‘when both systems are employed simultaneously to resolve the same problem, the risk of accident is obvious‘.

On this view, the UK’s current crisis is one of constitutional mechanics. The mistake was for David Cameron to have employed the essentially alien mechanism of a referendum, which sits ill with the British tradition of parliamentary democracy. This led to a grinding of the constitutional gears which can only be resolved either by Parliament reasserting control or via a second referendum. Had Cameron avoided the unnecessary innovation of the first referendum, none of this would have happened.

This would, if correct, be comforting. Mechanical problems can be fixed by technicians. A constitutional problem caused by politicians can also be resolved by them. But in truth, the crisis is deeper, wider and more fundamental. It is a crisis of legitimacy, going at its heart to the question of public trust in the UK’s democratic institutions, and indeed to the matter of their essential trustworthiness. It is here that a very brief history of the English enclosures offers a pointer to the source of the malaise.

The English Enclosures

Before enclosure, large tracts of the English landscape were once ‘common land’. They supported a rural society and economy very different from the one that now exists.

At the heart of this society were the small tenant farmers, notionally farming small strips of land, but whose plots in practice were collectively managed in a system of ‘open field’ village agriculture, allowing them to be turned to productive arable use.

By themselves these smallholdings, even co-operatively farmed in village communities, would have been unsustainable. But most tenancies also came with rights of pasture or extraction over extensive areas of common land – a landscape of fields, woods, meadows, streams, fenland, lakes and heath; diverse ecosytems with rich and accessible resources. These commons provided the grazing, food, fuel, wood, water, thatching, and so on that made viable a social economy of tenant farmers whose plots would otherwise have been insufficient for subsistence.

Even at its best, this made for an economically marginal existence. It was, in its history, structure and outlook, a product of feudalism. But it also had features rooted in that old social order which contemporary society requires but has lost the ability to recreate – the centrality of community, the careful stewardship of nature, localism, self-regulation, fair access to natural resources, environmental sustainability, mutual aid.

In two great waves – the first occurring in the 16th and 17th Centuries, the second and more consequential during the 18th and early 19th – the major landowners and wealthy merchants ‘enclosed’ most of the open fields and commons of England; literally fencing off the land to bring it under their own control for personal gain.

Within 150 years after Winstanley declared ‘The Earth was made a common treasury for all‘, the richest and most powerful had delivered their definitive response – by privatising those parts of it that actually were.

This was, in substance, an act of theft which destroyed much of the existing social and economic fabric of the English countryside. It was, nonetheless, entirely lawful.

When, during the second wave of enclosures, the major landowners could not enclose the land through the many and vigorous means of ‘persuasion’ at their disposal, they petitioned Parliament which gave them what they wanted under colour of law. Over the period of more than half a century starting in the 1760s, Parliament passed on average around 50 private Acts each year authorising enclosures across England, until the whole process was eventually systematised under the general legislation of 1801. These Acts applied a stamp of legal validity to the theft by the rich of property belonging to the poor.

During the 18th and 19th Centuries as a whole, it can be estimated that at least 18 million acres of open-field and common land – more than half of the entire land mass of England – were subject to enclosure for the benefit of a small landowning elite.

A classic post-enclosure English landscape. ‘And birds and trees and flowers without a name, All sighed when lawless law’s enclosure came‘ – John Clare

The Consequences

The Parliamentary enclosures were hugely consequential in English history. They forced many smallholders to join the migration from the countryside to the rapidly expanding cities of the north and midlands, where they and their children both worked and died in squalid conditions. The poverty of their short lives supplied the human fuel that powered the industrial revolution.

Those who remained in the countryside had no choice but to convert themselves into hired hands, working for low wages on land they once farmed as of right. The village-centred, open field agriculture and extensive commons of the previous era was replaced with the now familiar English landscape of walls and hedges, patchwork fields, fenced-off woodlands, private property and ‘no trespassing’ signs.

Meanwhile, the big landowners began intensively farming their newly-enclosed estates. This produced agricultural surpluses that made them hugely wealthy – money that was recycled into investments in the latest technology (factories, railways, steamships) and imperial schemes in Africa, India and the West Indies. In an important sense, the full 18th and 19th Century excesses of the British Empire were made possible only because England’s poorest people were first treated in the manner of colonial subjects.

With rare exceptions, such as the labourer and poet John Clare who wrote movingly of his sense of loss and dislocation, the victims of the Parliamentary enclosures were and remain voiceless. Indeed Karl Marx – who devoted a whole chapter of Das Kapital to the expropriation of common land, so well did these events serve his theory – observed how, as early as 1867, the rural poor had been dispossessed not only of their rights but of their historical memory: ‘In the 19th Century the very memory of the connection between the agricultural labourer and the communal property has vanished‘.

For the most part, the English are possessed by deep (if selective) historical amnesia. But ignorance of the enclosures is so profound that it cannot be a matter of mere neglect. The landowners who dictated the law also wrote the narrative, and succeeded in editing their crime out of history.

Even so, memory is more easily erased than trauma. If the society based on the common land was England’s prelapsarian world, the enclosures were its original sin; their malign effects rippling forward through history.

The unnatural severing from the land which led to the industrial revolution leaves its traces everywhere in English social and cultural life – in its profound nostalgia for a half-understood rural past, its deeply unequal economic structures, the shoddy planning of its cities and their disastrous relationship between public and private space, the environmental degradation of its rural landscape. In consequence, the first nation in the world to urbanise in the modern sense remains one of the more poorly-adapted to living in post-industrial cities.

Representative Democracy

The enclosures caused widespread immiseration. They were ‘a plain enough case of class robbery‘ (EP Thompson), ‘a revolution of the rich against the poor…upsetting the social order, breaking down ancient law and custom‘ (Polanyi), ‘one of the most violent transformations in human history‘ (Varoufakis), ‘a major process of world economic significance‘ (Linebaugh).

Why was Parliament – the representative assembly in a property-owning democracy that professed above all other things a commitment to the maintenance of stable government and preserving rights in land – persuaded to enact laws which caused a social revolution, extinguished those rights for a large number of its citizens, and promoted so much avoidable human misery?

The tragedy of the enclosures could occur only because the majority of MPs in the 18th and 19th Centuries belonged to a class, and represented a class interest, that owed no allegiance to the interests of the majority of ordinary English citizens.

This was, of course, perfectly clear to everyone at the time. In the period before the Great Reform Act of 1832, only the top tier of property owners had the right to vote, and the electoral system was famously rotten. The House of Commons in the 18th Century was an assembly of landowners, constituted under a system of patronage and corruption. It nominally represented the inhabitants of the entire country, but this fooled no-one – its very name a mere irony in the context of the enclosures. There was little doubting whose interests were truly represented within its walls.

The Palace of Westminster.  ‘When the gap between ideal and real becomes too wide, the system breaks down‘ – Barbara Tuchman

The Modern House of Commons

But that was a long time ago. It may have taken almost a century after the Great Reform Act before universal suffrage for men and women was finally introduced by the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928, but from that point in time the House of Commons surely became a truly representative assembly, and the UK (at last) a true democracy?

Such thinking is the very foundation of the complacency that leads to crisis.

In the 19th Century it was still possible to speak honestly about the nature of democracy in both its quantitative and qualitative aspects – how much there was or should be, and of what type. But in the later 20th Century it would become a matter of mere assumption in public discourse that the UK was an effectively functioning modern democracy. Job done. Nothing more to see. For the most part it was only nationalism in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – and largely for its own secessionist ends – that continued to hold a partial and fractured mirror up to the defects in the UK’s democratic practice.

But the basic lesson that can be derived from the history of the enclosures is simply this – there is a world of difference between the nominal representation of a constituency by its elected MP, and an MP representing his or her constituents in the sense of possessing a genuine sympathy with, allegiance to, and commitment to the advancement of their legitimate interests and aspirations.

In the UK, the parliamentary electoral system of ‘first-past-the-post’ voting produces a small number of strong political parties, which are apt to be captured by strong, largely metropolitan, economic interests. Members of Parliament in their turn depend for their privileges and advancement on the party system thus captured. In a sense that was not always true, many MPs have become their party’s representative in the constituency to a much greater extent than they are their constituents’ representative in Westminster.

The consequence of this development over time has been a growing lacuna between the interests and sympathies of MPs and those of the people they nominally represent.

The Parties and the People

This trend has had a measurable impact on the composition of the House of Commons.

Without question, over the last 40 years, the Commons has become more diverse in ways which are hugely important to the effective representation of the UK population; inching its way towards much greater balance in characteristics such as sexuality, ethnicity and gender. These developments have been necessary, are desirable, and remain incomplete.

But while Parliament has been progressively diversifying in markers of identity, it has been going backwards rapidly in its representation of socio-economic class.

In Clement Attlee’s Parliamentary Labour Party, immediately after the end of the Second World War, nearly 200 MPs came from a manufacturing or mining background. The 2017 election, in contrast, returned just a single Conservative, one SNP and four Labour members (a mere 0.9% of the House of Commons) who had a manual job before entering Parliament. Manual work across the economy has been in decline, but not to that extent. MPs with a manufacturing or similar background are, literally, a dying breed.

While some professions represented in Parliament have held steady over time – perhaps unsurprisingly in a law-making assembly, there are about as many lawyers now as there were in 1979 – others have mushroomed. As the acknowledged general election ‘bible’ (the British General Election of 2017, Cowley and Kavanagh) puts it: ‘Routes into politics have changed significantly over the last century. Traditional ‘brokerage occupations’ (such as law or education, which provide skills relevant for a political career but are not overtly political) have declined…while more narrowly political ‘instrumental’ tracks have become more prominent’.

What is meant here by ‘instrumental’ jobs are those which are overtly political in nature – local councillors, party officials, political researchers, lobbyists, special advisers, trade unionists, political journalists. At the 2017 election, around 40% of elected MPs (including 49% of Labour members) held one of these roles before they entered Parliament.

Moreover, since the recruitment pool for jobs of this type is largely composed of university graduates, this has led to another trend. By the time of the 2017 election, 82% of elected MPs had graduated from university – up from around 60% as recently as the 1980s (source: Social Background of MPs 1979 – 2017, House of Commons Library), and considerably higher than the proportion of graduates in the general UK population.

Put simply, the role of Member of Parliament is decreasingly one accessible to ordinary working people emerging from the constituencies they serve, and increasingly becoming the preserve of a narrow and exclusionary class of professional politicians whose route into Parliament is along a well-worn path from university, via paid political operative, to MP.

Inevitably, the social, cultural and economic instincts and interests of this class of MPs are not those of the people they formally represent. As Cowley and Kavanagh put it with their usual academic understatement: ‘This has led to significant criticism about the rise of the professional politicians…’. When populist parties caricature the political class as a remote elite, this works in the same way that all caricature does – because it is merely an exaggeration of an observable reality.

The Consequences

Aside from being grist to the mill for new populist parties, does this really matter? A single example should suffice to show that it does.

In purely electoral terms, one way in which the House of Commons is undoubtedly ‘representative’ is in the matter of the geographic distribution of MPs. The UK is divided into electoral constituencies from which each Member of Parliament is elected, each of them broadly equivalent in population size to the next.

Barring disputes about the need to redraw the boundaries over time to accommodate demographic changes, no-one could say that the whole population of the UK is not fairly represented in this sense of electoral equality.

Yet, in spite of this, the UK is now ‘the most regionally unequal country in the developed world‘, a nation which is ‘unique in the severity of its regional divides‘ (source: IPPR North, November 2019). Over more than half a century of de-industrialisation, these regional inequalities have become so entrenched that academic researchers can now measure the long-term impact at a genetic level (Genetic correlates of social stratification in Great Britain, Abdellaoui et al).

But while governments of all political colours thus presided over an exercise in regional policy eugenics, where were the MPs representing the constituencies being left behind, whose collective voting power was, if used, more than sufficient to achieve a decisive change in direction? They were, naturally, toeing the party line.

It is self-evident that another (but related) way in which the instincts and interests of MPs differ markedly from those of the wider population is in respect of attitudes towards the EU. The political class on the whole strongly favours EU membership, while the public is deeply divided.

This then brings us full circle. What pushed Cameron into his Brexit referendum was not a sudden desire for constitutional innovation, but a clear-sighted understanding – forced upon him by the growing threat posed to Conservative seats posed by Nigel Farage – that an appreciable section of the UK population no longer regarded the Westminster political system as capable of representing their interests or accommodating their views on the subject of Europe.

The referendum, which Cameron complacently assumed he could win, was supposed to act as a lightning rod to channel this discontent into a safe place and so diffuse the risk to his party. It backfired spectacularly. But even assuming the outcome had gone the other way, as indeed it yet could if there is a second referendum, it would have done nothing to address the underlying problem.

In a representative democracy, Parliament is supposed to be the venue for our national conversation – a place in which vigorous differences can be expressed, and compromise solutions negotiated. But this only works if Parliament is, and can be seen by everyone to be, a place in which the interests of the UK population are represented in more than the merely formal sense.

Once the gap between the theory of representative democracy and its practical reality – the gap, that is, between the ideal and the real – becomes too wide, the system breaks down.

The mere existence of the requirement for the Brexit referendum, as it was perceived by Cameron, was stark evidence of this underlying breakdown. The referendum result, and the painful struggle of the majority of MPs to either deliver or overturn an outcome they do not believe in, is merely piling up the proof of a seriously defective system.

In current UK politics, no-one is really interested in exploring deep underlying causes. The political class has too much vested in the continuity of the status quo. But the crisis facing the country is far from being a matter of constitutional mechanics. In the end, it is about the legitimacy of Parliament as an institution, and the most important question of the day is whether it is capable of reform to more truly reflect the interests of those it is supposed to represent.

When the instincts and interests of MPs become significantly misaligned with the general interests of the population, nothing good is likely to occur. Brexit is merely symptom and not cause. It is Parliament that needs to be fixed if the UK is ever to overcome its current constitutional malaise.