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I've been toying with how to word this question but I can't think of how to word it well.

Under current British law would it be possible to 'privatize' the government?

In my scenario I'm wanting a private company to take over the running of the country effectively turning it in to a disguised dictatorship, but I want it done by the book.

Is this possible with the current method of passing laws of England?

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    $\begingroup$ "I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it." -Learned Hand | If you have a people that will accept being privately owned, the laws don't really matter. If they won't accept it and you pass the laws, the laws don't really matter. $\endgroup$ – Shane Mar 1 '17 at 18:45
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    $\begingroup$ Relevant, but I don't think it's necessarily a duplicate: How can I transition from a democracy to a dictatorship, from within the government? $\endgroup$ – a CVn Mar 1 '17 at 20:02
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    $\begingroup$ Some would say that back in the days of the East India Company the government was "privatised". Certainly large parts of the Empire were run as for-profit businesses. $\endgroup$ – pjc50 Mar 2 '17 at 16:55
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    $\begingroup$ The City of London (not Greater London) works somewhat like this being partly governed by guilds (not corporations but basically clubs whose members are corporations) $\endgroup$ – slebetman Mar 3 '17 at 3:16
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    $\begingroup$ Ask Rupert Murdoch how he did it. $\endgroup$ – Whelkaholism Mar 3 '17 at 12:17

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Technically, the United Kingdom is a Theocratic Dictatorship, ruled by the whim of HM the Queen, which is normally expressed through parliament. That means that any change of law, up to and including the abolition of the monarchy and parliament itself, is possible.

To privatise the government, you'd need to introduce a bill, most likely in the House of Commons. It would go through three Readings, in which the bill is debated back and forth by all members; there's a vote to move to each stage. You'd need a simple majority of the MPs on your side for each vote to pass it along. The bill would then go to the House of Lords, where it goes through the same process. The Lords can propose amendments to the bill; if they do, the bill then has to go back through the Commons. So you'll need a majority of both the Commons and the Lords to pass your bill. If it passes through all those steps, it would go on to HM for Royal Assent; when the Queen signs the bill (normally a formality), it becomes law.

Which means nothing.

Unlike other nations with written constitutions, British government works on precedent, tradition, and custom - but those traditions and customs can be pretty damn ironclad. While abolishing Parliament and privatising government may be technically legal, there is no way in hell that the electorate would go along with it.

There would be huge protests, widespread civil disobedience, and a general refusal to accept the new government. If HM went along with the process (she likely wouldn't), you'd probably see protesters rallying around other members of the Royal Family - William and Harry have the popularity to carry it off - resulting in a quick declaration of a regency. If HM did NOT go along with the process, then it dies right there anyway.

The most likely outcome would be the corporate government being quickly removed by the military, someone in the line of succession - Charles or William, most likely - being made Regent, and elections being held. Members and Lords who voted for the bill could, possibly, be tried for treason on the grounds of "attempting to undermine the lawfully established line of succession".

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    $\begingroup$ Do you really mean 51%? If the House of Commons has more than 100 members, an absolute majority can be less than 51%. $\endgroup$ – Anton Sherwood Mar 2 '17 at 6:07
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    $\begingroup$ @AntonSherwood Can you elaborate on that? It must be a very large version of "less than 51%" which constitutes a majority - unless you mean a value somewhere between 50.00[finite number of zeros]01% and 50.99[finite number of nines]99%, that'd still be less than 51% and still in majority. $\endgroup$ – Mrkvička Mar 2 '17 at 9:36
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    $\begingroup$ @Mrkvička It's not that weird a fraction. As a simple example around the size of the UK House of Commons, 50% of 600 is 300, 51% is 306, but a majority is 301, or 50.16%. There have probably been controversial votes passed by fewer than 6 votes, so it's not just a theoretical difference. A common way of writing a simple majority like that is "50% + 1", i.e. "1 vote more than 50% of the votes". $\endgroup$ – IMSoP Mar 2 '17 at 10:46
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    $\begingroup$ @Mrkvička So what were you expecting to be elaborated? Some systems require 51%, some require 50%+1. The answer said "at least 51%", but meant "more than 50%"; it's a simple clarification. $\endgroup$ – IMSoP Mar 2 '17 at 10:55
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    $\begingroup$ @Mrkvička Right, which I think is what Anton was asking Werrf in the first place: does the UK really require 51%, which would be an oddly small supermajority, or was it just a mistake? The answer, as far as the UK goes, is that all votes are "50%+1 of those present", as far as I'm aware. On a controversial vote, "% of those present" is very nearly identical to "% of those entitled to vote", since they tend to pack out the House on such occasions. $\endgroup$ – IMSoP Mar 2 '17 at 11:42
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You've chosen an easy country for that.

Britain has no formal Constitution. That means that every law can be changed by the parliament.

So basically, yes. The only problem you'd face is making the people accept the new regime, but by the book you can achieve it.

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    $\begingroup$ Actually you'd need to 'persuade' other not formal powers: The queen, the police and military force, maybe media... Otherwise they would make it REALLY hard for you to get rid of democracy. $\endgroup$ – Masclins Mar 1 '17 at 15:33
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    $\begingroup$ @Terry Exactly, and don't forget that the queen, though she has no formal powers, is still exceedingly powerful as a symbol. In this case as a means to very effectively mobilize. Just imagine the impact it would have on the population if the queen broadcasted messages denouncing the current government and calling to rightious and regally sanctioned revolution. This corporation of yours would be on it's knees within a week. This isn't just theoretical either, this is one of the main reasons to maintain the british monarchy: it acts as a failsafe much like how the constitution is for the US. $\endgroup$ – AngelPray Mar 1 '17 at 15:43
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    $\begingroup$ @AlbertMasclans Why use euphemisms like "really hard" when you mean straight up revolt? $\endgroup$ – M i ech Mar 1 '17 at 15:43
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    $\begingroup$ I'm not British, but I would argue one of the purposes of the queen is to prevent such things from happening by sheer depth of character. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon - Reinstate Monica Mar 1 '17 at 15:46
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    $\begingroup$ @Terry "the queen, though she has no formal powers" - actually, it's rather the opposite: formally she has the power to reject any piece of legislation, appoint and remove the Prime Minister, etc; but in practice she is expected never to use those powers: she approves all legislation put in front of her, and always invites the leader of the largest party in the Commons to become the Prime Minister. But she does so only in order to maintain the current constitution, and could not be relied on to do so if you were deliberately subverting it. $\endgroup$ – IMSoP Mar 2 '17 at 11:25
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Here is an evil plan of mine for the case I ever become filthy rich. The gist: don't privatize the government, privatize the people.

Basically, you need the state in a desperate situation. Unable to pay for social security costs or to ensure the safety of citizens. Then you step up as a generous entrepreneur, and offer to "buy" a bunch of citizens (your employees and their families, or a few small cities). You don't really buy them, they don't become your slaves or anything - rather you promise to take care of them, and in exchange get their taxes and some sort of state-like souvereignity. You pay their medical bills / replace the NHS for them, you provide police and fire brigade services, send their kids to your schools. Short-term, this would be a tremendous financial relief for the state - you'd probably be able to "buy" citizens for close to zero cash. Long term you would want to make a profit, or grow so quickly that it doesn't matter.

Why would you do this? The reason is that you, as a private company, don't have to operate within the same bounds as the state. The NHS has a list of services they are legally mandated to provide, but you are a private company, and your services are up to negotiation. You can cut corners in ways the government can't easily. Some stubborn traditions that are inefficient? Political parties cannot agree on a course of action? You can do almost whatever you want on your private land, hopefully more efficiently than the government could.

What would your endgame be? If you play your hands well, you control almost every aspect of the lives of "your" citizens. Maybe they will even be better off than other citizens (if only because you picked the towns to buy wisely), and will be grateful. And if not, you own their schools and newspapers, so you can manipulate them. You will slowly starve the government, until it cedes more and more power to you. Finally, the old government will be a cerimonial shell, like the monarchy is today. The real power will lie in your corporation.

Why would the British state agree to sell you citizens?

  • There is plenty of precident for privatization in the UK, even when it was less then beneficial for the people. Often, the state will prioritize short term economic gain vs. long term utility or sustainability.

  • There is precident for giving corporations quasi-national-state powers. Think of the British East India Company. There is also a history of company towns.

  • There is plenty of organisational wierdness in the UK, for example the City of London - not to be confused with the city called London - which is a private state in the city, in which not people, but corporations have voting rights. That gives me reason to believe that this would fly, too.

  • There is a trend to "private public space". You think you are in a public space, but it actually belongs to somebody and not the commons / the government. You have the same rights there as in someone else's back yard.

In the end, you should be able to reign like an absolute monarch. The only thing you have to fear is that people do what they did back then - protest and fight to gain rights and representation in your corporate "government".

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  • $\begingroup$ The problem, of course, is enforcement. One of the accepted attributes of a government is a monopoly on the use of force (in an organized way). No contract with a citizen which makes him or her a slave is enforceable in countries like GB or the US. So your control of the citizens lasts exactly as long as they want it to. If you can convince all the citizens that they want to do as you wish (without duress), you might as well be in politics. $\endgroup$ – WhatRoughBeast Mar 3 '17 at 17:47
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Re-write the book

There is no constitution or jurisdiction, in any country on Earth, that is unchangeable or not amendable.

If you want to do it by the book, and the book allows you to, then the answer is: yes, you can do it "by the book".

If you want to do it by the book, but the book does not allow you to, then you re-write the book, and then the answer is: yes, you can do it "by the book".

... however ...

You asked for a reality-check, so here it comes: people will notice. No book today is written in such a manner that — if you try to abolish democracy by the book — you can avoid getting noticed. When noticed, people will move to block your machinations. And if you try to re-write the book, then that will be noticed, for the same reason: the book is written such that it will be noticed. And — again — people will move to block you.

This is because that which is written in book is only an implementation; a way to put words on something. That something is the intentions and the spirit that necessitated writing the book. And even if you, in very a lawyer-esque manner, manage to get around the letter of the book, you can never get around the spirit of that which caused the book to be written in the first place. And that spirit does not reside in the book.

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    $\begingroup$ There was a quite charismatic guy with a funny mustache in the earlier part of the 20th century that, all in plain sight, abolished democracy by the book. Sure, there were some protesting but, all in all, people let him do it as they thought he was nice and cozy, and as he did promise them a better time if they let him. They did get a bit surprised when they noticed how "un-cozy" he became once he had what he wanted. Sure, people nowadays would be more suspicious of such event, but it won't take long before it's so distant in history that it will work again. $\endgroup$ – Mrkvička Mar 2 '17 at 9:42
  • $\begingroup$ @Mrkvička I do not quite know about you... but I would at least hesitate to call setting fire to the parliament (Reichstag Fire), framing an innocent brick-layer and saying that the communists did it, "to do things by the book". Also note that for this "perfectly legal" plan to work, you need 1) nationalist sentiments of hurt pride after being blamed for a world war and forced to pay for it and 2) a great depression. $\endgroup$ – MichaelK Mar 2 '17 at 9:51
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    $\begingroup$ I do agree that they had great help of the current state of the world in order to take over; one cannot easily abolish democracy in a prosperous period, but have to time the event well. One can, of course, also help the world into a more depressed state by conducting terrorism or arson or other nasty things; the key there is that it must never be possible to trace it back to the proper origin, at least not before one has taken over fully. Since the Nazies has never been proven guilty, it was perfectly by the book; both before and after rewriting it. $\endgroup$ – Mrkvička Mar 2 '17 at 10:43
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    $\begingroup$ @Mrkvička Avoiding getting slammed by the book is not the same as doing it by the book. If OP had asked "How can I commit the perfect undetectable crime that allows me to be rid of democracy", then you would have had a point. But that is not what was asked. $\endgroup$ – MichaelK Mar 2 '17 at 10:48
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    $\begingroup$ Actually, it is. The book of (true) democracy states, among a lot of stuff, that one is innocent until proven guilty. What actually happened and who actually put what on fire is completely irrelevant until it is proven. As the events turned out, they did find a guilty person and he wasn't a nazi. He most likely wasn't the true arsonist (or, well he probably was the one lighting the fire, but was fooled into doing it). As far as we know, the mustached fella had no prior knowledge of it, he just happened to be able to use it. Point is: As far as we can prove, he did it by the book. $\endgroup$ – Mrkvička Mar 2 '17 at 11:03
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Define "the government"...

All utilities have been privatised for a considerable time. Prisons are run by private companies. Likewise construction, so-called "public" transport and refuse disposal. Schools have had substantial elements of privatisation. Various elements of the NHS have private competition, and some (e.g. dentists, opticians, even GPs) are entirely privatised already.

How successful these have been is very questionable. Let's just say that for many of these privatised services, it costs the government more (in real terms) than those services cost when they were publicly-owned, and the quality of service is not necessarily better. Still, belief in the unequivocal benefits of privatisation is a near-religious conviction without evidence, not an evidence-based policy, and it's not possible to argue with a belief that doesn't have evidence. This means that any attempt to discusss this will simply be dismissed out of hand by its advocates.

The last 30 years have also proven that the general public are perfectly willing to accept privatisation as a way of delivering public services if the privatisation advocates tell them that it will deliver those services better and cheaper. It's also proven that the general public will then tolerate the situation later when it turns out that privatisation delivers worse, more expensive public services. The failure can be easily blamed on the individual companies delivering those services, not on the systemic failure of the policy.

So, how to deliver your dystopian vision? The first simple steps are to privatise policing and the judiciary. Policing is easy - we already have private police forces running prisons, transporting prisoners and providing security for various public places, after all. For the judiciary, it could be as simple as professionalising the role of judge/magistrate.

Once you've got that, you're mostly set. You do have the question of where the House of Commons, the House of Lords and the Queen would feature in accepting this, though. The Commons could fairly well be rigged, but the Lords would be much harder. Even though the Lords don't have the power they used to, they can still call the Commons on doing unethical stuff (after all, that's their reason for existing). It's not the same as a veto, but it can expose the situation to the public.

And the Queen would also be involved, since in theory she runs the country. As a constitutional monarchy, for her to get involved would be pretty much a nuclear option which might take the monarchy down if she didn't have the support of the public, but if the result would be bad enough for the country then it's perfectly imaginable that she would effectively lead a coup. So you need a monarch prepared to let this happen on their watch too. It seems unlikely that Liz 2, Chas 3 or Bill 4 would allow it to happen, but we've had enough bad, cowardly or ineffectual monarchs that you can't discount it completely.

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  • $\begingroup$ Although the Parliament Acts removed the ability of the Lords to veto, they still have more than just an opinion, as the Commons can only over-rule them after a specific process and delay. $\endgroup$ – IMSoP Mar 2 '17 at 17:23
  • $\begingroup$ @IMSoP Given that the OP is talking about a megacorp mounting a hostile takeover of a country with the fifth-largest economy, a significant army and nuclear weapons, and they'll be doing this by stacking the Commons with people loyal to them, it's fairly safe to say that a small amount of process and delay isn't going to be much of an obstacle! :) $\endgroup$ – Graham Mar 3 '17 at 10:33
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, I was just being pedantic really, but it's a point that might not be so obvious to people less familiar with British constitutional arrangements. $\endgroup$ – IMSoP Mar 3 '17 at 10:38
  • $\begingroup$ It wouldn't be that hard to abolish (or further undermine) the Lords with pleas to "will of the people" and "undemocratic, unelected old people". The people will go along with it because they don't understand that's the whole point of the Lords - protection from populism etc. $\endgroup$ – Stop Harming Monica Mar 3 '17 at 11:51
  • $\begingroup$ Don't forget the civil service. That basically is central government and would be pretty easy to privatise. $\endgroup$ – Stop Harming Monica Mar 3 '17 at 11:51
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It already is privatized. Parliament, the Courts, every aspect of the state serves at Her Majesty's pleasure, so, in theory, you could have a Johnny English scenario.

Of course, given the English history of violently overthrowing unpopular rulers, the coup might not last very long.

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As others have noted, Britain doesn't have a formal Constitution, so the government can be changed through acts of Parliament. For most countries, it would require amending the Constitution, but again, most if not all constitutions have some legal procedure for amending them.

You face the far more difficult practical problem of how you would get such changes passed. To make a story plausible, you can't just say that one day someone came along and proposed totally re-organizing the government and Parliament passed this and it was done. Real life doesn't happen that way.

Any change requires that you get powerful groups and institutions on your side. To do it legally usually requires that you get some important elites on your side: one or more major political parties, the media, the schools, major businesses, etc. You don't necessarily need the majority of the people but it helps to have at least a substantial minority. Having the police and/or the military or other people with guns is also helpful.

Radical change is usually best done in small steps. If you announce tomorrow that everyone is to be rounded up and taken to slave labor camps, people are likely to rebel. But if you announce that you are taking away one small freedom, most people will say, I don't like it but it's not worth fighting over. Then take away another, and a few months or years later another. Avoid doing something that will destroy many people's lives all at once. You want people to think that they have too much to lose to risk opposing the government on this.

And of course, you don't publicly say, "Our plan is to take away everyone's rights and turn the country into a dictatorship." You say, "We are facing this extreme crisis and so we are calling for these temporary emergency measures until the crisis is over." Or, "We have no choice but to do this extreme thing because our enemies are trying to destroy us and this is the only way to fight back." Or, "Extreme? How are we being extreme? This is plain common sense." Etc.

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  • $\begingroup$ The last UK Labour governments went down the road of "We are facing this extreme crisis and so we are calling for these temporary emergency measures until the crisis is over" over terrorism. They are now permanently wiped out in Scotland by the SNP, and recently lost an election in England in a seat they have held continuously for 80 years. The current government has a realistic chance of increasing its majority from 17 to around 150 or 200 at the next general election. Trying to change "the system" by stealth doesn't always work - people aren't fools! $\endgroup$ – alephzero Mar 1 '17 at 20:43
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    $\begingroup$ @alephzero Seriously, have you read the policies of the current government? The most recent piece of snooping legislation has been described as the most draconian in any modern democracy. The idea that Labour were defeated because they were extreme, and the Tories benefited by reversing that is simply laughable. $\endgroup$ – IMSoP Mar 2 '17 at 11:29
  • $\begingroup$ Also those of us who are old enough to remeber the Troubles know the previous set of repressive temporary measures from the Conservative party. $\endgroup$ – pjc50 Mar 2 '17 at 20:20
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As mentioned, the obvious way is to get them to pass a bill.

The sneaky way is to outsource so many of the countries activities that, eventually, Parliament becomes a bunch of figureheads with, maybe, slightly more clout than the royal family. Or less clout if the royal family owns/influences those businesses.

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The 1987 movie RoboCop gave a somewhat plausible path to privatizing an otherwise democratic society. In the movie, Omni Consumer Products (the corporation that builds RoboCop) is a private company that has been outsourced to run the Detroit police department. While the movie uses a fair amount of hyperbole, the general implication is that OCP is the de-facto government of the city. The outsourcing of the enforcement of laws allows them to, essentially, do things "above the law".

In the United States, Congress has, over the past century, created governmental institutions to create Federal regulations. Examples include the Environmental Protection Agency, the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Communications Commission, etc. Each agency has the ability to write regulations (essentially laws) and determine enforcement. I'm not as familiar with Britain, but this style of governance is quite popular in modern liberal democracies around the world.

If you combined these two concepts, you could create a system that at least still "appears" like democracy (as in there are still elections) but would not actually function like one. Create a governmental agency with the ability to write laws and then have that agency be privatized because only this one company can fill that role. Over time they write laws that make them more and more powerful, while elected officials deflect blame or concerns over those laws (either out of fear or self-interest). Eventually you would wind up with an oligarchy, where the real power is held by this one company running the governmental agency that has taken over all other aspects of the government via regulations.

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The City of Gurgaon in India is probably the most compelling example of how a private company could privatize most of the role of government.

It is also relevant of comparable developments in the U.K., because ultimately, India's legal tradition is a direct outgrowth of the British system of government.

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Maybe have a look at the series of books about Thursday Next by Jasper Fforde, where the Goliath corporation has achieved something like that. True, the universe there ticks with certain differences (mammoths and time travel to name but a few). The author's imagination is immense. And even if you would not find it inspiring, it's still a great fun to read!

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  • $\begingroup$ This doesn't answer the question though. How did they take over the government? $\endgroup$ – Brythan Mar 3 '17 at 13:53
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry for a late response. You are right, my answer does not really answer the question. And neither do the Thursday Next books, as far as I remember. I just thought the OP might be interested in reading someone else's book about a similar topic, nota bene when it is also Britain overtaken by a company. And not having enough reputation for a comment I made it an answer. This said, shall I remove it? $\endgroup$ – Dominik Mokriš Oct 3 '17 at 16:24
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As I understand the English system it would be a piece of cake. It is sort of a surprise it is not happening, if it is not.

http://www.parliament.uk/about/mps-and-lords/members/electing-mps/ /To become an MP representing a main political party a candidate must be authorised to do so by the party's nominating officer. They must then win the most votes in the constituency./

Obviously this is not the case in the US where any random person with the funds can hold himself or herself out as a candidate and even a candidate of a particular party, the opinions of the parties themselves notwithstanding. Chaotic and disruptive, but definitely democratic.

In a system where randoms cannot just stroll in but any candidate must be put forth by the party, then all the company needs to do is quietly take the reins of the party(s) and then put up its own puppet candidates. Badaboom, if they say that in the UK.

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    $\begingroup$ Of course the UK has a multi-party system. Saying that a Liberal candidate needs the OK of the party is like saying that a new recipe in a McFastfood franchise needs the OK of the company. You can always go to Fastfood King or Fastfood Hut if you don't like the menu at McFastfood. $\endgroup$ – o.m. Mar 1 '17 at 17:31
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    $\begingroup$ @Will In the uk anyone (*reasonableExceptions) can stand to be an MP; they are independent candidates. electoralcommission.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0008/141785/… $\endgroup$ – Richard Tingle Mar 1 '17 at 17:31
  • $\begingroup$ @o.m. ahem - *Donalds, *Burger, *Pizza. There. $\endgroup$ – Cullub Mar 1 '17 at 19:13
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    $\begingroup$ I'd say it's the other way round: the UK has 12 different parties represented in Parliament, and all sorts of parties and independents running. Whereas the US has exactly two parties with representation, and they're both vulnerable to corporate buyout (Citizens United passim) or penetration by foreign intelligence services. $\endgroup$ – pjc50 Mar 2 '17 at 20:19

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