I am currently watching the House of Parliament debate the Henry VIII Powers contained within the EU Withdrawal Bill with a great deal of concern.

Can someone advise me if the Tories can use these Powers contained within this Bill to abolish general elections?

If they can, is there any way possible for the abolition of general elections to be returned to this country?

2 Answers 2


No. Nothing in the Withdrawal Bill gives Ministers the right to make major constitutional changes. Abolishing General Elections would require Parliament to repeal at least the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, The Representation of the People Act, and the Human Rights Act.

Abolishing general elections would also require a fundamental change to the UK constitution and by convention, such a change would need to be approved by referendum. The constitution with regard to referendums is developing, however, the tradition is that "Major" constitutional changes should be referred. There have been referendums on the voting method, Scottish Independence and EU membership. (Minor changes to the constitution, such as the timing of elections, are not referred.) If changes to the voting method are "major", then abolition of voting must also be considered major.

But let's be a little reasonable here. The UK is a mature democracy, and there is nobody in Parliament who has even suggested anything like the abolition of voting. It's not going to happen. It's not matter for discussion.

The "anti democratic" clause of the Withdrawal Bill states

A Minister of the Crown may by regulations make such provision as the Minister considers appropriate to prevent, remedy or mitigate—
(a) any failure of retained EU law to operate effectively, or
(b) any other deficiency in retained EU law, arising from the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU.

This allows a minister to adjust laws to deal with issues where UK law makes reference to EU institutions to which the UK will no longer belong. It is considered undemocratic as it allows for ministers to change laws without direct parliamentary approval. It does not allow the government to abolish general elections.

  • 2
    Do you have any evidence that constitutional changes require a referendum? For example, the fixed term parliaments act didn't.
    – origimbo
    Dec 12, 2017 at 18:48
  • 3
    @origimbo To the best of my knowledge, the UK lacks anything equivalent to a constitution that can't be arbitrarily changed by parliament. A current parliament holds absolute legal sovereignty, with the queen holding the only 'check' in the form of royal assent. Dec 12, 2017 at 19:20
  • That is not how the UK constitution works. Fundamental to the constitution is parliamentary sovereignty. But there is no written law that specifies that. The Queen doesn't check parliament, since she is part of Parliament. But tradition is very important. Major constitutional changes are expected to be confirmed by referendum. There have been referendums on AV, Scottish independence and membership of the EU. That is "only" a tradition, but parliamentary sovereignty is "only" a tradition, so tradition is rather important.
    – James K
    Dec 12, 2017 at 20:06
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    @JamesK You're now somewhat over-representing the meaning of the referendum on the Alternative vote, which was mostly a necessity to form the 2010 coalition government. In this sense you can argue that referendums in the UK only happen when the system of government itself can't decide an issue (which would also cover Brexit and Scottish independence). Note that while there was a referendum on whether to appoint an elected mayor in london, there was no vote on the system to be used.
    – origimbo
    Dec 12, 2017 at 20:32
  • The 1997-2010 Labour government introduced extensive constitutional changes (Human Rights Act, House of Lords reform, creation of a Supreme Court) without a referendum, although it did call referenda to authorise devolution in Scotland, Wales and the English regions. Roughly speaking, the precedent is that changes to the "user interface" of elected institutions require a referendum. Dec 13, 2017 at 9:02

"Henry VIII Clauses" per the UK parliment description, are provisions in a bill that enables government to repeal or amend it /after/ it has become an act of parliament. These later changes can be with or without additional scrutiny from Pariliament. Paraphrased from http://www.parliament.uk/site-information/glossary/henry-viii-clauses/

The above are more expansive forms of allowing the executive to make delegated (secondary) legislation. Acts as I understand anyways, tend to cover the broad brush of what they are trying to put into law, while the executive fills in the finer details via secondary legislation. Usually this later fine tuning still has to meet Parliamentary approval, the so called "Henry VIII clauses" appear to side step this. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Statutory_instrument_(UK)#Parliamentary_control

I've had issues finding the actual text of the brexit bill, but the explanations I found made it sound like the brexit bill is a reverse of the European Communities Act 1972, which used Henry VIII clauses to align british law with EU law. Apparently this has been the vast majority of how "Henry VIII" clauses have been used in the recent past. Given my understanding of how these clauses essentially consolidate within the executive, an ability to change whatever they wish (depending on how wide the scope was on the clause), I wouldn't be surprised if theoretically it could be used to abolish elections.

However, from a practical point of view, something that unjust would require numerous parties inside government to have any meaning at all. The queen would need to go along with it, the military would have to go along with it, the police would have to go along with it, parliament would have to go along with it. Declaring "X is now the case" only works if a significant portion of everyone agrees that X is now the case. Whoever is holding up "They'll abolish general elections!" is very likely hoping to use FUD for their agenda (which shouldn't be hard to work out).

The answer to your second question is a pretty simple "If enough people don't like the tyranny being imposed on them, they force government to stop that tyranny, by demonstration or force" if history is guide to anything at all.

  • Would it be fair to summarise this as "yes, but they won't, so there are more important antidemocratic actions to look for"? Text of the European Union (Withdrawl) bill, as introduced is here publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/cbill/2017-2019/0005/…
    – origimbo
    Dec 12, 2017 at 17:51
  • The major exclusions appear to be Taxation, the Human Rights Act and modifications to Northern Ireland post Good Friday Agreement.
    – origimbo
    Dec 12, 2017 at 17:54
  • @origimbo That's probably a fair summary of the point I was seeking to get across. There are any number of theoretical things that governments can do, and they aren't in reality constrained by what pieces of paper say, despite that strangely common belief. Dec 12, 2017 at 17:57

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