MPs must guard against presidential power

Podium: Tony Benn: From a speech in the House of Commons, delivered by the MP for Chesterfield and former Cabinet minister
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The Independent Culture
I WAS elected 49 years ago this month and have fought 17, and won 16, contested elections, which the House of Commons library tells me is a record equalled only by Mr Gladstone and Mr Churchill. The library also told me that 431,622 people had voted for me, and it is on their behalf that I want to speak. The debate is about the oldest issue of all - the relationship between the government and the governed.

I want to be clinical so as to avoid being controversial, but I think that, without any announcement of any change being made, this country is moving from a parliamentary to a presidential system. It appears to me that, increasingly, all effective power comes from No 10 Downing Street.

I understand that the current Prime Minister has twice as many advisers as his predecessor. That is not a new development - I had two advisers when I was Secretary of State for Industry and for Energy - but it is new in the sense that it is now becoming apparent to many people that the real cabinet is now in No 10 Downing Street and that policy announcements made have been discussed within that cabinet. However, that cabinet has not been elected, nor have its members been through the rigorous selection process applied to the civil service. It is far more like the American system. The Cabinet is no longer the centre of real decision making.

There are no effective checks and balances in our new presidential system comparable to those in the United States. As we know from recent history, an American president has to think about the House of Representatives, the Senate and the Supreme Court, but the president of this country does not have to think about any of those things. Those are facts - although I hold strong views, I make no comment. Every prime minister can do what he likes, and the current one certainly does.

My concern is the quite different question of how the House of Commons should respond. I shall set out what I take to be the obligations of members of the House of Commons. We have obligations to our political parties. I am well aware that I would never have become a member of Parliament or a minister had I not been a member of the Labour Party. I joined the Labour Party on my birthday in 1942 and I intend to die in it - but not quite yet. We are all committed to the manifesto that brought us here. It seems quite reasonable that, if the party promises something, we, as individual members, have an obligation to support it. We are also committed to the electors who choose us. They employ us, they can dismiss us and we must speak for them. We are also responsible to our consciences and convictions, because the only image that matters is the image in the mirror when one shaves in the morning.

No other image matters; we have to live with ourselves.

However, we - I am speaking of whoever happens to be a Government backbencher - are not required to take orders from the Government when a policy has not been in the manifesto, has not been put before us and has not been the subject of consultation. On welfare reform, I did not vote against the Government; I voted for disabled people. I greatly resent the current personalisation of media coverage - the references to the "awkward squad", "mavericks" and "rebels".

This place is elected to give a judgement on the measures or motions brought before it. Our duty is to speak and vote as we believe to be right. We must defend our Speaker from any attempt to remove her. We must control the select committees. I also believe that there should be more free votes. I believe that members of Parliament must re-assert their role, and that the Government must accept it.

I hope that this will not be the last speech that I shall make in the House of Commons, but the House will understand that I should not be sorry if it was remembered. It has expressed my deep convictions and my determination that the new tendency towards centralisation should not obliterate the very thing of which we boast most proudly.