Power, Authority & Legitimacy in Practice


  • The ability to get someone to do something they otherwise wouldn’t do – power to. Does the armed robber exert power – what are the limitations? Power limited to coercive power as the armed robber lacks authority.
  • Co-existence of power and authority – do PMs exert power and authority – e.g. Brown’s loss of authority leading up to 2010 election – smaller majority compared to 97/01. Never had electoral mandate.
  • Cameron – can exercise power but authority undermined as he is part of coalition – no overall majority.
  • Distinction from influence – ability to affect outcome even if not having actual final power to decide – is this still power? Murdoch – visitor at No. 10. Did he have power or was it based on influence?
  • Decision-making – ‘the deal’ – contractual decisions via a deal on the coalition agreement? Brown/Blair deal before Blair came into power.
  • Who makes political decisions – consider whether the power of the PM is checked – power of Blair – elite – sofa government. Huge majority. Preference for bilateral meetings.
  • Note issue of royal prerogative and degree of separation of powers – under a lib dem regime there would be separation of power – power is diverse and not centralised.
  • Elitist critiques argue fails to understand unequal influence of key elites – note ability of financial sector to resist calls for severe limitations on bankers’ bonuses even in public owned banks. Economic elite – Hester – power not exercised by elite as companies had to change bonus packages.
  • Nationalisation of banks could also be seen as anti-elitist but was just pragmatic.
  • Military – least amount of cuts – have sway. C. Wright Mills spoke about the political, military and economic elites that have an “uneasy” alliance based upon their “community of interests” driven by the “military metaphysic” which has transformed the economy into a “permanent war economy”.
  • Agenda setting – Non-decision making – Cameron and EU. Issues being organised out of politics – benefit fraud policies but let people have their tax written off e.g. Vodafone. Also multinational companies such as Amazon don’t have to pay corporations tax because it registers itself a Luxembourg company.
  • Clare Short -  minister for international development – felt she had no voice. Only decisions made about it were regarding cuts. Off agenda.
  • Do elitist groups filter out radical proposals? Prospects of Robin Hood tax? Small subcharge on all transactions – Cameron won’t introduce it because he thinks it will undermine the City – one of the reasons he vetoed the Lisbon treaty – a lot of conservative donations (60%) are from City institutions.
  • Blair seen to organise issues out of politics (Schattschneider) regarding intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Lord Butler in his 2004 report stated that ministers’ lack of access to key papers reduced the “scope for informed, collective political judgement”.
  • Thought control – Marxist ideas based on favouritism of state towards bourgeoisie and their power through economy and political system – taught to believe that unless big industries are making lots of money, economy will collapse. Consumer-style democracy.
  • Marxism – inability to grasp collective interests thus vote selfishly – Bristol Council tax vote – people always vote selfishly. Are we conditioned to be selfish because that is what consumer society is about?
  • Legitimation crisis – linked to economic collapse and global recession. Political legitimacy challenged by demonstrations against undermining of pensions in UK?

Ruling elite in the UK

  • Classical elite theory and desirability of a ruling elite.
  • Modern elite theory – unequal influence of key powerful groups distorting the political agenda.
  • Marxist – bourgeois dominance exerting control over politicians. 50% Tory funds – New Labour with influence of large donors that stopped donating after they got out of office.
  • Existence of an Establishment – closed world into politics. Politics become the preserve of the posh. Meritocracy now ground to a halt – have a stratified society. Eton – 19 PMs. 66% of MPs privately educated. Oxford – 26 PMs produced – most classy apprenticeship going.
  • Competitive elitism – Schumpeter choice of elite rule e.g. influence of TU on Labour – form of political elite?

Counter argument

  • Pluralist theory – power diversified and fractured thus decisions not made in a vacuum. Opportunities for removal of decision-making – elections/recall votes/referendums. Influence of PGs.
  • Social mobility – are we all able to advance to power? Has this dried up – 18 millionaires in current cabinet.
  • Increasing separation of powers –
  • 2007 the ‘Governance of Britain’ Green Paper restricted the Prime Minister’s ability to solely make political decisions that he had little knowledge regarding, such as judicial and ecclesiastical appointments.
  • Introduction of opinion polls.
  • Almond and Verba – decrease in parochial political culture – recent governments try to combat this through regionalisation: referendums, autonomy, local council powers increased.
  • ConDem coalition attack this declining civic culture with the ‘Big Society’, “create a climate that empowers local people [...] that will take power away from politicians and give it to people” (David Cameron). This acknowledgement of a permanent ruling elite can be thought to be tackled, though whether or not this concept of giving power to the people is a facade is contestable.
  • Re-emergence of postmodernism – rejection of monolithic theories of society – less room for elitism as there is more need for outsider groups to have influence.
  • Diversification of HOL with removal of hereditary peers, increase of women MPs also fragments old working boys’ club.
  • Meritocracy still could exist with Blair’s reinvigoration of schools etc. to improve equality of opportunity.


  • Dictatorship can exert moral legitimacy.
  • PGs and PPs often use methods of ‘persuasion’ that appear to be the antithesis of authority – do they have authority? De jure sense – major parties do have a constitutional function – minor parties lack constitutional authority as such e.g. BNP.
  • Authority seldom exercised in absence of power. Difficult to find examples apart from cult leaders – Koresh – end of the world cult – commune in Waco, exerted authority.
  • Traditional – note traditional deference to the aristocracy and monarchy – Diamond jubilee celebrations – church groups – Queen – no power but lots of authority. PM audiences with the Queen – head of the Commonwealth but has no power, merely has authority. Can she dissolve parliament in practice? Has no right – royal prerogative now exerted by PM.
  • Rowan Williams – power without authority – internal church power but first authority over society.
  • Charismatic – Even in democracies this is exercised – Thatcher/Blair/Cameron – does have role to play in Western liberal regimes. Less authority for less charismatic PMs such as Brown and Major – not only factor affecting authority though.
  • Legal-rational – entrenched within liberal democratic constitutions. Powers of office not office holder – thus respect for PM and not just the politician, but degree of authority can be extended by charisma, tradition etc.
  • Checks and balances too prevent authoritarianism – liberals prefer this as there are clear limits e.g. when Brown lost premiership he lost L-R authority.
  • UK – authority with parliamentary sovereignty/electoral mandate.
  • De Jure – all PM and leaders in democracies exert de jure authority.
  • De factor – links to extent of authority – e.g. some PMs have charismatic authority and therefore have more authority. E.g. Blair and Thatcher very charismatic – personal loyalty at the beginning of premiership. Will Cameron be less charismatic soon following NHS bashing as BMA is increasingly disillusioned from discussions. Bureaucracy pushed to other figures.
  • Different views – liberals see authority coming from below – e.g. electoral legitimacy – Brown’s authority always limited – no electoral consent. Conservatives – traditional preference – potentially leads to authoritarianism through charismatic authority – deference to authority of the Queen is relatively high in Commonwealth – Australia will never become a republic as long as the Queen is alive. Exerts authority beyond Britain. Peter Hennessey – diamond jubilee – outpour of respect. Probably different with a new monarch therefore not purely tradition but also charismatic because of the longevity of her reign – longest British monarch.
  • Authority in dictatorship – Weber – traditional and charismatic can be legitimate if accepted by populace – mass displays of popular approval e.g. Gaddafi in Tripoli.


  • Civic culture – long term values associated with a country. Reasons why a country’s role and traditions come about and why they maintain their success.
  • Almond Verba – participant political culture – effective for there to be a high level of political participation – e-petitions, referendums. Subject political culture – more passive and realise they have little impact (authoritarian/monarchical regimes usually). Parochial political culture – neither ability nor desire to be involved and more interested in local area. Almond Verba saw C.C. as mixture of all three – democratic stability is a mixture of interest and apathy and obedience and performed from government.
  • UK – elements of participant (elections/political pluralism/increasing referenda), subject (deference for traditional institutions Monarchy and HOL), thus population believe they are able to influence government but also accept their obligations (taxes etc.).
  • Work been criticised by those who believe political participation is cornerstone of democracy – this theory promotes the idea that states if people don’t vote it is because they are happy with how things are going – Galbraith – culture of contentment – ‘sleeping dogs’ theory (Almond Verba)
  • Links to social capital – social connectiveness creating civic culture with shared values and common identity. Putnam noted decline in US social capital with increasing individual culture. ‘Bowling alone’ thesis – decline in clubs/societies that enhanced social connectiveness. People not connecting with social community beyond necessity – e.g. work – idea of commuting. Dislocates society. Entertainment culture is used as a forum for socially connection – eg. Twitter – more sociable?? General picture statistically is that people no longer desire to operate societally as much. Seen as a sign of a mature democracy.
  • Conservative view – social capital is cultural bedrock underpinning civic society – revolves around defence of traditional values. Major’s ‘back to basics’ campaign. Cameron with Christianity importance and morality. Burke and ‘little platoons’ – family/church/man.
  • Problems of Major’s campaign was that it was lampooned – didn’t reflect reality of society. Moral campaign ruined by majority of cabinet having affairs. Major and Edwina Curry.
  • Neo-conservatism and ideas of Daniel Bell and Kristol both reject a decline in spiritual values and the rise of moral relativism – destruction of spiritual values brought about by market pressures and permissiveness – violence and sex on telly undermines the fabric of society. Moral relativism – moral values do change over time but basics must be rooted in past.
  • Tea Party in US – links with Sarah Palin – republican movement in favour of traditional values. Moral religious means. Massive lobby in America. Mick Romney – hugely Christian – MORMON.
  • Critics – Marxist view of political culture – dominant ideology of the ruling class – process of Social Capital about imposing class based bourgeois hegemony on society to preserve ruling base of the elite. Gramsci.
  • Acceptance of existence of other ideas (Marcuse) but disadvantaged by dominance of bourgeois ideas – produces ‘repressive tolerance’. Links to Luke and thought control.
  • Liberals highlight integration of alternative cultural and intellectual values, diluting the dominance of bourgeois values and a broad acceptance of capitalist values – single dominant value has diminished.
  • Ideological hegemony through mass media – pluralist model – media produces informed citizenry, who will be a watchdog on the government. Internet opens up opportunities for small PGs to get their point across. Neutral – e.g. Press TV banned because it was too biased. Parties have equal TV time at elections.
  • Dominant ideology model – media is a conservative force with strong links to interests of economic and social elites. Chomsky – media manufactures consent for the ruling elites. All brainwashed into believing what we are told. Michael Moore films – media like a hypodermic syringe.
  • Market model – media reflects rather than shapes public opinion. Media gives people what they want and can’t risk bias. Media is merely a window into men’s souls.
  • Impact of media on Western society – impact of family/social class declined thus voting patterns vulnerable to rational and dominant ideology models. Development of mass TV – exploitation of TV by MPs e.g. leaders’ debates. Media has become powerful – Branson’s criticism of Murdoch “buying British democracy”.
  • Has media made elections more about presidentialisation rather than what party will actually do once in power?
  • Also resulted in greater need for Spin from all PP – role of Campbell and Coulson.
  • What makes Western liberal democracies legitimate? Consent; elections; political authority; constitutional accountability. CHALLENGED BY NEO-MARXISTS – legitimacy is a facade for capitalist exploitation.
  • Legitimation crisis – conflict between democratic demands for growing public sector welfare conflicts with capitalist desire for maximising profits via lower taxation – Britain reforming welfare provision – Greece also had over inflated view of state provision – austerity cuts.
  • Heath and “Who rules Britain” in 1974 general election – government needed to take control as TUs steered policy. Foreshadowed Thatcher’s battle.
  • Thatcher rolled back the frontiers of the state – welfare dependency rejected and state no longer seen as a guarantor of employment – state should be FACILITATOR – night watchman. Shouldn’t be seen as be all and end all. Are we returning to this? Government legitimacy called into question, overspending.
  • Evidence for legitimation crisis – lack of confidence in political class – unpopular decisions e.g. tuition fees undermining government promises and scandals e.g. MPs’ expenses.
  • Rise in electoral apathy and growth of an underclass – riots are sign of decaying society. But is this merely Galbraith’s culture of contentment or alienation of politics?
  • Growth in alternative politics – indicates that people see government as losing legitimacy – rise in anti-capitalist protests such as G8.
  • Financial crisis – Brown – 1st Crisis of Globalisation 2008-2009.
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