Where does power lie in the UK? Consequently, where should it lie? (An analysis of ‘Power: A Radical View’)

Power, in Lukes’ book ‘Power: A Radical View’, is in its most basic understanding the notion that ‘A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do’ (A.R. Dahl 1957, p.202-203). In the UK, power lies in two key areas: Parliament and the media. The ‘Westminster Model’ of the UK ensures that Parliament alone acts as the sovereign body of the UK, dominant in its position over decision-making (Hailsham 1976). Though this may be true, one must also acknowledge the power held by the media as they not only hold influence over government policy but also the thoughts and opinions of the electorate. However, this essay will argue that power should lie amongst the people/electorate as they hold influence in all three dimensions described in ‘Power: A Radical View’ and provide the foundation of power and legitimacy to both Parliament and the media.

Parliamentary sovereignty and the power of cabinet

It was Dicey who in writing about the British constitution argued that “the doctrine of the legislative supremacy of Parliament is the very keystone of the law of the constitution” (Dicey 1886, p.70). When looking at Parliament, one can identify many of the hallmarks of what Lukes described as ‘First Dimensional Power’ (Lukes 2005, p.20-25). Ultimately, this power focuses on behavioural aspects, culminating in observable conflict in various forms such as PMQ’s, select committees and the House of Lords. Each one of these instruments of conflict allows for the subjective interests of the two opposing groups (the opposition and the government) to eventually result in policy decisions. This therefore satisfies the criteria set by Dahl who argues that a true display of first dimensional power should involve “actual disagreement in preferences among two or more groups” (Dahl 1957, p.467). These decisions, Polsby writes, demonstrate “the capacity of one actor to do something affecting another actor” (Polsby 1963, p.3-4). The notion of Parliamentary sovereignty gives not only government actors but also actors in the opposition the ability to influence all aspects of British society through the implementation of legislation. In order to exert this power over the population, opportunities for consultation and debate must exist. It must be clear why Parliament is making the decision it has arrived at as this is more likely to create trust and ultimately lead to the obedience of the population, legitimising Parliament’s power over the UK.

However, it can also be said that the cabinet of the UK holds significant power also, especially in regard to cabinet committees. It was Bagehot who famously said that “the efficient secret of the British constitution may be described as the, close union, nearly complete fusion of the executive and legislative powers” (Bagehot 1867, p.12). The ‘Westminster Model’ of the UK Parliament centralises this fusion of power within the cabinet, largely as a result of their ability to command a majority in the house through the whips system. This system in turn gives the cabinet control over the political narrative, the ability to control the political agenda. This is what Lukes described as the ‘second dimension of power’, a more subtle influence not over direct decisions but the agenda itself (Lukes 2005, p. 20-25). This view of power is more discreet in nature as its source is much more difficult to pin-point in one group or individual. There can be many influences over the agenda from elected MP’s to more unknown features of Parliament like cabinet committees. According to Bachrach and Baratz’s work, he who can manipulate the ‘rules of the game’ to the “benefit of certain persons and groups at the expense of others” (Bachrach and Baratz 1970, p. 43-44) holds power. It can be argued that by this definition it is cabinet committees that yield power as, in the words of the Former Chancellor Nigel Lawson, Cabinet is simply a rubber stamp on decisions ‘already taken elsewhere’ (Beetham, Weir and Boyle 1999, p. 121). More contemporary examples of this power can be seen with Tony Blair’s chairing of 15 of the 44 committees in 2005 in an attempt to push through his domestic agenda and personally oversee policy formulation, showing his understanding of the value of this more discreet form of power (Russell, B. and Morris, N, 2005). This demonstrates the value of the cabinet and cabinet committees as the two instruments of power work in an almost symbiotic relationship. Whilst decisions are made behind the closed doors of these committees (a form of second dimensional power), it is the government’s ability to command a majority which eventually allows these decisions to become law and therefore tangible power (a form of first dimensional power).

The influence of media sources in the UK

Whilst it can be said that Parliament holds power in the public sphere of society, a much more subversive and elusive form of power can be seen to be held by the media in the private sphere. It is the media that arguably possess what Lukes described as the ‘third dimension’ of power (Lukes 2005, p.25-29). This dimension of power is similar to the Marxist theory of ‘dominant ideology’, the notion that the people can be convinced of what is ‘right’ to allow for greater acceptance of biased decisions from sources like the media without question (Castle 2004, p.4). In the public sphere of government, this is usually undertaken in the form of propaganda, spin and carefully worded speeches to influence media perception and subsequently the public of what is ideologically ‘right’. In the private sphere, it is “the media…[who have] escaped demands for accountability” (O’Neill 2002) and are thus able to shape public perception in their own image.

A seeming lack of accountability has given the media significant power in the UK as the stances they take politically, which eventually shape public perception, are not scrutinised to the extent that parliamentary decisions are. This lack of scrutiny has given rise to the politicisation of the media, with sources of news often being affiliated with the views of the owners of said sources. A key example of this can be seen in the Rupert Murdoch-owned Sun and the Times, Lord Rothermere’s Daily Mail and the Barclay brothers’ Telegraph, all of which supported the Conservatives in the 2015 general election (Martinson, j, 2015). Lukes argued that the ‘third dimension’ fostered both subjective and ‘real interests’ (Lukes 2005, p. 29). In the case of the 2015 general election, it was subjectively in the interests of the government to not regulate and breakup these media empires as they had the media’s support in upcoming elections and would thus benefit politically. However, it was objectively in the interests of the people to have an unbiased source of information in the form of the media during election campaigns and subsequently the government should cater to that in a representative democracy like the UK. However, Lukes fails to identify how these ‘real interests’ are recognised. Whilst it may be easy to argue that the people would objectively benefit from factual and unbiased information, who is to say that this is what the people truly desire? Overall though, the media has essentially made themselves immune to regulation and thus restrictions on their power insofar as they remain supportive of the government of the day. This can be further witnessed with the shift in party affiliation seen by Murdoch’s news sources as it became clear of Blair’s imminent victory in the 1997 general election (The Sun, 1997). This was a calculated move by Murdoch to remain relevant in the eyes of the government and therefore to have continued influence over government policy as far as it related to their own interests.

The media also appears to have mastered the ‘third dimension’ of power insofar as they are able to influence both real and latent conflict (Lukes 2005, p. 29). According to Raschke, “a movement that does not make it into the media is non-existent” (quoted in Rucht, 2004). This displays the power of the media in setting the agenda of the day, giving them power over areas of conflict that may or may not be visible at the time. In modern media, the continuous need to portray news in a 24-hour cycle has provided the ability to essentially ‘bury’ certain movements under the shear flow of new information. For Gitlin, media has “undermined the viability and even changed the organisational coherence of movements” (Gitlin, 1981), therefore giving media the ability to exercise power over developing latent conflicts (i.e. soon to be real conflict) and prevent their narrative from spreading to the wider public. An example of this minimisation of certain movements from the mainstream narrative can be seen with the ‘Paradise Papers’ controversy. Although seemingly as bad as the ‘Panama Papers’ two years prior, the impact of the leak of financial information in 2017 received minimal uproar from society. White argues that with larger, more influential stories elsewhere including Brexit, surging alt-right nationalism and the election of Donald Trump the impact felt from the ‘Paradise Papers’ was ultimately minimised (White 2017). This consequently displays the level of apathy in the UK in regards to seemingly massive news stories as those in control of the UK media are simply able to bury these types of stories under a constant stream of information, eventually removing the story from the public memory.

The need for electorate power

Regardless of where power currently lies, arguably the true reins of power should be held and operated by the people as they are ultimately the ones affected by all three dimensions of power. It can be said that the electorate currently hold significant ‘first dimensional’ power as they are able to elect the government of their choosing thus giving them the ability to shape policy in their image. However, crucially in the UK, this notion has been undermined by a lack of true control over instruments like Parliament who have been described as an ‘elective dictatorship’ (Hailsham 1976) in all but name by some accounts. Crucially, as Roth states, “almost all states – whether liberal democracies, one-party revolutionary states, military dictatorships, or traditionalist regimes – subscribe to the notion that ‘the will of the people’ constitutes the ultimate source of governmental legitimacy” (Roth 2003, p.38).

One way in which power in the UK could be more vested in the electorate is through fairer elections. During the 2017 general election, it was found that only 110 of the 650 constituencies present in the UK could face the prospect of a different MP being elected (Barnes 2017). By introducing a system of proportional representation or perhaps even constituency boundary restructuring, elections could be made more competitive thus making political parties more engaged with the electorate. Subsequently, the people would be able to better portray their opinions in the knowledge that their vote could impact the results of a general election, thus giving them greater power over the UK political process. Furthermore, it is the electorate, through the use of pressure groups, which can provide a more inclusive and comprehensive government and thus make their power more accountable to the people. These pressure groups can provide a forum for which the electorate can directly influence policy (e.g. the ‘Snowdrop’ campaign), shift the agenda to certain areas of social, economic or environmental policy (e.g. CBI) or indirectly shape public opinion by providing factual information on certain policy areas (e.g. Migration Watch UK). This satisfies all three dimensions of Lukes’ theory of power and consequently suggests that the electorate should hold more power as they can wield it to a greater extent than the Parliament and/or the media.

Overall, it can be argued that power currently lies amongst the fundamental UK institutions of the Parliament and the media. It is these instruments, when working together to achieve mutual benefit, that own a monopoly on all three dimensions of power. It is Parliament that is able to directly implement and repeal legislation, not bound by any past administration and sovereign in its ability to do so. Similarly, it is the cabinet, and to a lesser extent cabinet committees, which set the agenda through weekly cabinet meetings and the subsequent agenda set by the Prime Minister directly. However, power should ultimately lie with the people as they are able to influence all three dimensions of Lukes’ power theory both during elections and outside of elections. It is only through political participation and engagement that the government can truly be acting in the best interests of the people.

Bibliography

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Rucht, D (2004) “Media Strategies of Protest Movements Since the 1960s,” in W. van de Donk, B. D.

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Russell, B. and Morris, N. (2005). Blair consolidates power with control of key cabinet committees. [online] The Independent. Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/blair-consolidates-power-with-control-of-key-cabinet-committees-491980.html [Accessed 12 Nov. 2017].

The Sun (March 18th, 1997). The Sun backs Blair: give change a chance. p.1 (headline).

Weir, S., Boyle, K. and Beetham, D. (1999). Democratic Control of Political Power. 1st ed. New York: Routledge.

White, M. (2017). Why aren’t the streets full of protest about the Paradise Papers? | Micah White. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/nov/10/protest-paradise-papers-micah-white [Accessed 15 Nov. 2017].

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