A phrase that AS level students are likely to see and use with frequency is ‘a strong and stable government’ – this could refer to a strength of first past the post, an evaluation of democracy in the UK or the benefit of a two party system amongst many other uses.Traditionally, this is a term that applies to governments formed in UK general elections and refers to the idea that an election usually returns a single party government with a clear majority in the House of Commons. This amounts to them having a clear mandate and being able to legitimately carry out their manifesto.
However, in the living memory of most of our students, this term can be questioned in it’s relevance to UK politics – 2010 returned a Coalition and the current Conservative government only have a 12 seat majority – less than John Major in 1992! This is hugely important. Firstly, within the HoC, a small rebellion could undermine the government substantially – in the example given above the SNP and a small Conservative rebellion of around 20 MPs could bring down government proposals to relax legislation on Sunday trading hours. This could be used to suggest a reduction in the de facto ‘sovereignty’ of the executive and a return of sovereignty to Parliament.
It is equally important that a government seen to have a weaker mandate is more vulnerable to other challenges from the Supreme Court (Theresa May lost a landmark case there in September – http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/humiliating-defeat-for-theresa-may-in-supreme-court-appeal-over-stateless-former-terror-suspect-8868951.html) or from the House of Lords (see recent blog posts on George Osbourne’s tax credit cuts). The willingness of these branches to challenge the government has been heightened by this perceived weakness.
The caveat is of course, as ever, that Parliament does remain sovereign, and in reality this often means the executive are sovereign provided they have a working majority. The number of defeats faced by a government may have increased but are still comparatively few. It could in fact be argued that what has happened is an increase in effective scrutiny. Either way, the term ‘strong and stable government’ to describe the UK should definitely be one that students are able to question and debate for a wide variety of topics in the exam.