May 15, 2009

You are no Parliament!

The words of Oliver Cromwell on dismissing the Rump Parliament in April 1653 seem particularly apt, especially given that some of the disasters which have befallen recently have precedents which date back to about this time. The long years of executive contempt for the primacy of Parliament and the tendency of party hierarchies to populate the House with their creatures have at last come home to roost.

The disgraceful scandals surrounding expenses in the Commons and cash for amendments in the Lords notwithstanding, the rot was already well and truly established. Twelve years of a government with a larger majority than was healthy have meant a substantial reduction in the influence of our elected representatives in the House of Commons and an increase in that of authoritarian ministers, shadowy civil servants, policy wonks, party hacks, Fleet Street editors, think tankers, and quangocrats. Supine backbenchers have voted the line on a series of utterly reprehensible laws, seemingly designed solely to hedge our existence around with endlessly-increasing strictures and regulations, pausing only occasionally when attacks of contagious conscience cause them to oppose government policy when it finally becomes so vile as to become impossible even for the most compliant and venal apparatchiks to support.

Having constantly failed to curb the government on issues such as Iraq, curtailment of civil liberties, and a host of others, MPs suddenly wonder why they are held in contempt – not only by the electorate whose interests they have so manifestly failed to serve, but by the government whose path they clear and whose excesses they accommodate. It is this contempt which has led to the recent catastrophes for the primacy of Parliament.

First came the arrest of Damian Green and the abject failure of the Speaker to stand up for rights for which Parliament had long fought. Whether or not Green should have been arrested is entirely immaterial; the fact remains that for the first time since 1642, an MP was arrested (or at least sought) for actions which were largely political. The fact that the Speaker put up so little resistance was a grave dereliction of duty, and it compares very badly with the words of his predecessor, William Lenthall, who, confronted by the King, who asked where five members of the Commons might be found so that they could be arrested, is famously quoted as having said:

May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here.

This assertion of Parliamentary sovereignty has held such sway ever since that that was the last time a monarch even entered the Commons chamber, yet now, the vital rights of our elected representatives are nibbled away because the government is embarrassed, and the Speaker fails to prevent it. This is an unconscionable level of backsliding, as it suggests once more executive primacy over Parliament, as an MP’s official correspondence was seized by a load of politically naïve woodentops sent on a fishing expedition by spiteful ministers and officials.

The nadir of Parliamentary influence, however, has come with the twin scandals of MPs being caught claiming outrageous expenses funded by the taxpayer, and the much more serious matter of two Lords being recommended to be suspended for six months for allegedly agreeing to take money to propose amendments to legislation – the first suspension from the Lords since 1642. This clearly shows that not only is Parliament held in contempt by the government, but even Parliamentarians hold it in contempt. After all, it’s hardly respectful to claim dubious expenses, and to take money to try to influence legislation should really be regarded as nothing less than criminal. Is it any wonder, therefore, that the stock of politicians has never been lower? Nor that many of the historical precedents cited date back to the worst period of civil conflict this country has ever had.

Sweeping changes are urgently needed to ensure that, gravely imperfect as it is, the Parliamentary system is safeguarded so as to avoid the rise of untrammelled executive power. Single Transferable Vote-style PR is a must for a start; thus we can better reflect the views of the electorate whilst making sure that we don’t introduce a disastrous party list system. Larger constituencies are also needed, as well as shorter Parliamentary terms, so as to ensure that MPs do not become too comfortable and complacent. Parliament should probably also look into reforming MPs’ housing so that instead of paying through the nose for second homes, Parliament itself buys up houses in London and rents them to MPs who need them – if nothing else, I suspect that this would lead to a lot of MPs suddenly discovering that their constituencies are commutable after all. More short-term, the situation in the current Parliament is insupportable, and in my view, a general election should be called as soon as all expenses claims are published, so that the public can pass its verdict on the activities of people who are, in the final analysis, our employees. So the words of Cromwell, last used to evict Neville Chamberlain in 1940, once again, are apt:

You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately… Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!

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