It was another hot summer day in 1976 – we had a lot of those that year – when someone in the office where I was working heard the news that prompted him to get out a little-used transistor radio (this was a long time ago) and tune in to BBC Radio 4, where we heard that Prime Minister Harold Wilson, the great Labour survivor, had unexpectedly resigned from office.
Wislon, as Private Eye called him, was replaced by Jim Callaghan, who did not go to the country until the last moment – May 1979, almost three years later. But few complained that he was “unelected”: after all, the Parliamentary system doesn’t elect a Prime Minister, although this is customarily the leader of the winning party. It was the same with John Major.
After Margaret Thatcher had been removed by her own party, there was no General Election for another eighteen months. No calls of “unelected” were made. Neither, I suspect, were there any such calls when Alec Douglas-Home replaced Harold Macmillan in 1963, or when Macmillan replaced Anthony Eden after the Suez debacle. Or when Neville Chamberlain replaced Stanley Baldwin in 1937.
No, the use – in a generally pejorative way – of the U-Word is a very recent phenomenon, being deployed firstly after Tone gave way to Pa Broon. Since then, the why-oh-why part of the Fourth Estate has taken to using it against civil servants, judges, senior law officers, local Government managers, hospital managers, or indeed anyone in public service to whom they take a dislike.
Those who most eagerly call out politicians and others they don’t like as “unelected”, though, do not pause to think things through, Peter Hitchens in the Mail being a prime example. The ranting is cranked up to a level fit for the most discerning rant connoisseur – “grey dictators ... civilian juntas ... snuffing-out of national sovereignty ... putsches” and of course it’s all down to the “Left-wing elite”.
Excuse me, Pete, but you and your fellow ranters still haven’t addressed my question, which is not a difficult one to grasp: just how many elections have so far been cancelled, postponed or delayed in whichever country you’re ranting about right now? Thus far, the answer is none. And don’t spin me that “Italian cabinet unelected” line. Their decisions still have to pass the (elected) Parliament.
The clearly pre-ordered line in the Mail has seen the roping in of MEP and occasional Tory Dan, Dan the Oratory Man, who has never faced the electorate in his own right, but rather has won his place in Brussels by being top of his party’s list. He would no doubt claim that he still has democratic legitimacy, while arguing that others have lost it.
It’s the way you tell ‘em.
Probably like you, I find the “unelected” debate rather tedious. I’ve lost count the number of times during Brown’s tenure in Number 10 where I had to explain how our electoral system works, that voters in this country have never voted for the leader but for the MP (or, more realistically, the party) of their choice, and they if they really wanted to vote for the leader of the country then they are essentially calling for an overhaul of our constitution which would see the creation of the office of president and consequently involve some very serious thinking about the future role of the monarchy. If that’s what you are calling for, fine, let’s talk about that (I might even support such a move) but most of the time they weren’t, it was just another excuse to attack the then Government.
I also despair of the “unelected” description when applied to civil servants (of all stripes, Whitehall, local government, police commissioners etc). Again, the alternative is to dramatically change our constitution and have elections for every senior position within the state apparatus. Do we really want to live in a world where we have elections that frequently, with all the cost and hoopla that goes with elections, and for jobs most people don’t care/think about?
Then there is the EU issue. The alternative to being “dictated” to by unelected EU officials is to make it more democratic and open up more positions to elections, but that would necessarily involve ceding more power to Brussels, which would be anathema to those same people deriding the undemocratic nature of the European Union.
Sorry, I don’t really have a point to make here other than whinging. Should probably try and see if I can get a job on the Daily Mail.
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