Representative government in the United Kingdom has a very special character with respect to that elsewhere in Western Europe. In the first place, the British House of Commons at Westminster is the only parliament in Western Europe which neither now nor in the recent past has been elected under a system of proportional representation. The closest parallel to the British experience in this regard is France, which has maintained a majority two-ballot voting system for most of the period since abandoning proportionalism at the beginning of the Fifth Republic in 1958. And while a proportional system was reintroduced in the elections to the Assemblée Nationale in 1986, the majoritarian formula was restored once again in 1988. It now seems likely, however, that a proportional system will be reintroduced in France in the near future. Second, the House of Commons is now also the only parliament in Western Europe whose membership has been consistently and exclusively elected in single-member constituencies. Here, too, France is the closest parallel, but when proportional representation was temporarily adopted in 1986 it also necessitated the use of multi-member constituencies. And while Germany also uses singlemember constituencies, these are used to fill only half of the seats in the Bundestag, with the remainder of the seats being allocated on the basis of party lists. Third, the United Kingdom government is currently one of only three governments in Western Europe which command a majority of parliamentary seats and which at the same time represent only a minority of popular votes. While minority governments are far from exceptional in many of the Western European states, these are governments that, by definition, command just a minority of parliamentary seats, and it is only in France, Spain and the United Kingdom that the current government has been able to translate minority electoral support into a parliamentary majority. This is also all the more striking in the case of the uk given that many individual Members of Parliament who sustain that majority do not even command an individual electoral majority within their own constituencies. In the 1992 election, for example, some 40 per cent of the seats were won without an overall electoral majority, the winning threshold falling as low as 26 per cent of the vote (and just 19 per cent of the electorate) in the constituency of Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, the British principle of parliamentary sovereignty, when coupled with the practice of executive dominance, allows for the creation of a government which, despite its relatively weak representative base, enjoys more effective and more centralized power than almost any other government in Western Europe. It is a government which is free from the constraints that might be imposed by a written constitution or a bill of rights; which has never had to face the challenge of an independently elected upper chamber of parliament; and which, due to the virtual absence of strong local or regional government, rarely has to confront opposition from alternative centres of political power.footnote1 Finally, and more circumstantially, the United Kingdom is now also the only political system in Western Europe in which there has not been even a minimal degree of alternation in the party composition of government since the beginning of the 1980s.

Although it is this sheer cumulation of political and institutional peculiarities that has prompted a renewal of the debate on constitutional reform in the United Kingdom since the late 1980s, it is the working of the electoral system in particular, and its translation of minority electoral support into governing parliamentary majorities, that has tended to provoke the most widespread comment and criticism in recent years. In one sense this new wave of criticism is surprising, in that the electoral inequities evident today are not necessarily very different from those that existed in earlier periods: the fact is that no postwar government has ever enjoyed majority electoral support (the last occasion on which a single party won an overall electoral majority being in 1931), while it is also worth recalling that the average electoral support won by the Conservatives over the past four elections (42.6 per cent) was substantially higher than the average vote that brought Labour to power in the mid 1970s (38.3 per cent). But what is very different now, and hence what has acted to underline the inequities in the system in a very striking manner, is the sheer strength of the third-party vote, on the one hand, and its extraordinary degree of under-representation in Parliament, on the other.

For all of its representative inadequacies, the British electoral and governmental system did seem to work reasonably evenly in the 1950s, 1960s and, albeit to a lesser extent, in the 1970s, at a time when electoral preferences remained relatively concentrated around the two major parties. For although neither of the two did ever manage to win an overall electoral majority, their combined support effectively dwarfed that of any alternative party. Thus while the constitutional structure of the British state was always marked out as an oddity in Western Europe, its peculiarities seemed suited to what was also a relatively exceptional party system, for in almost no other West European polity did just two parties together account for such an enormous share of the vote. This is no longer the case, however. In the 1950s, for example, Labour and the Conservatives together polled an average of 94 per cent of the vote, well above the figure polled by the two largest parties in any other West European system (see Table I). In the 1960s, they polled almost 89 per cent, a figure second only to that in Austria. By the 1970s, however, the combined share of the two parties had fallen to just 80 per cent, less than that in Austria, Germany or Ireland; and by the 1980s it had fallen further to just 72 per cent, a figure which was not substantially higher than that received by the two biggest parties in multi-party systems such as the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden.footnote2

Nor was it the case that this very marked decline in the two-party vote in the 1980s was the result of a simple fragmentation of political support, in which the residual 30 per cent or so was dispersed among a wide variety of small alternative alignments. On the contrary, this aggregate electoral shift resulted from the effective transformation of a two-party system into a three-party system, a system in which Liberal (and Alliance) support had increased from an average of 5 per cent in the 1950s to 10 per cent in the 1960s, to 15 per cent in the 1970s and to a striking 24 per cent in the 1980s. Indeed, by the 1980s Liberal-Alliance support in the United Kingdom had grown to exceed that of Liberal parties in almost every other West European system, even though the strength of their parliamentary representation remained well below that of most of these parties.footnote3 In practice, and as a result of the workings