Would limiting Prime Ministers’ terms lead to bolder action?

Published by The i paper (20th September, 2021)

In February 1837 a group of radicals gathered in a pub in central London to launch a charter containing six demands to transform the country. Over the next few years millions of citizens backed their cause by signing mass petitions, although parliament rebuffed their ideas and the movement was crushed. Yet five of the suggestions – universal suffrage, secret ballots, payment for MPs, equal-sized constituencies and the end of property qualification for parliamentarians – were enacted over subsequent decades. Only one demand failed to fly: the call for annual parliaments, designed to make politicians more accountable to the people. 

So is it time to revisit this concept of those Chartists? Perhaps not for annual parliaments, which would wear out even the most devoted fan of politics, nor even for elections every three years as suggested by less militant reformers in those turbulent times. But the intention was sound: to remind political leaders whom they are meant to serve. And when we see how ambition, money and tribalism warp Westminster, it is arguable the need for such a reminder is even more pressing now than in those dark Victorian days to salvage our tarnished democracy. 

Think about our broken political system. We have a model of government corroded by cash, subverted by party tribalism and paralysed in face of debilitating concerns afflicting the country. This was driven home again by Boris Johnson’s failure to fix social care.

Despite the prime minister’s promise to sort a shattered system failing millions of citizens, the reality is that his government has raised taxes to pour more money into the sacred health service and help a few wealthier families protect their assets. Then this mild reform – which held greater political significance in raising taxes than consequences for a blighted sector – was followed instantly by stories of Johnson’s determination to stay in power longer than Margaret Thatcher.

Yes, the social care reform was a small step forward. Yet even after the pandemic exposed the flaws of our social care system with fatal consequences and amid a crippling staff crisis worsened by Brexit, the government has failed to confront glaring systemic failings. 

It has done nothing to tackle low pay for frontline carers, fat cats firms creaming off vast profits and hiding in tax havens, under-resourced local authorities overwhelmed by rising demand, and woefully-inadequate provision especially in poorer parts of the country caused by market imbalances. Instead we are promised a white paper ‘later this year’ – after at least 17 previous white papers, green papers and state reviews into social care this century.

We know the problems but this shows how Westminster all too often ducks debate, let alone finds solutions for complex problems. No wonder there is such lack of faith in politicians when a scandal that stains our rich nation drags on due to political timidity and petty tribalism. There is bold talk but limp action on many more issues of importance: the housing crisis, climate change, tax dodging, excessive pay, over-crowded prisons, spiralling drug use, stifling state bureaucracy, dire mental health provision, military strength, political funding, lobbying, left-behind communities. 

What hope of reforming our political system – let alone facing up to challenging questions over how to fund public services, fix the failures of capitalism, drive out corruption or mend the country’s fissures – when egocentric prime ministers focus on winning their next election rather than dare confront tough issues scarring their country? Johnson talks about levelling up and ‘Global Britain’ but fails to define his supposed big ideas beyond hollow boosterism and the shallowest of slogans. Yet this self-serving character – like Donald Trump in the United States – is the consequence, not the cause, of a political system and society that has lost its way.

Just like those Victorian idealists, we need to find ways to remake our democracy. So here is one suggestion for starters: enforce a one-term limit on prime ministers. There is nothing new about rules that restrict the rights of leaders to retain office, a concept of restraint with roots in ancient Greece and Rome. There was fierce debate among the founding fathers of the United States whether to include the idea in their constitution, which was eventually amended to enforce a two-term limit 70 years ago. And we have seen how Western leaders rightly, if rather hypocritically, react forcefully when despotic rulers in developing nations overturn term limits.  

What if politicians knew they would never face voters again after reaching the pinnacle of power? Might this encourage some to be bolder and try to leave their mark by achieving something tangible beyond longevity in office? Or perhaps to reach out across the tribal divide to sort difficult issues with potentially damaging political consequences such as costly social care, criminal justice failures or tax dodging? Critics might say the likes of Thatcher and Tony Blair only began to effect profound reform after learning how power works in their early years in Downing Street, yet both laid foundations in their first government and then over-stayed their time in Downing Street with detrimental consequences.

At the very least, a strict term limit would ensure constant renewal of politics. One thing is certain: the social care fiasco – which follows Theresa May’s 2017 electoral catastrophe when she thought she had space for reform – shows again the need to revive a creaking political system and, curiously, to embolden politicians. 

We have leaders who spew out soundbites but at best tinker around edges of deep-rooted issues while concentrating on their next election. As the Chartists said, those with power to make laws and take taxes have ‘wholesome and strict responsibility’ to those who must obey their edicts. Perhaps by putting shackles on prime ministers, we might free them from the burdens of their ambition to better serve voters.

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