In a 1939 essay, the novelist E M Forster, complimenting parliamentary democracy, wrote: “I believe in the Private Member who makes himself a nuisance. He gets snubbed and told that he is cranky or ill-informed, but he does expose abuses which would otherwise never have been mentioned…” In one sense, Forster was curiously unambitious for the institution, saying that the mere “chatter” of the Commons was valuable because it was so “widely reported” (much more so than it is now). And much of the intervening period has hardly been a golden age for the rank-and-file MPs on whom Forster correctly saw the health of parliamentary democracy depended.
The Major parliament from 1992-7, for example, was often exciting, but only because of his extremely narrow majority. For most of the Thatcher and Blair years which sandwiched it, the Commons in particular was quiescent to the point of deadly dullness. Yet last week, Andreas Whittam Smith – with better examples than Forster’s – celebrated on these pages his view that “the backbench part of Parliament is working rather better than it has done for many years”.
He’s right, of course. Nobody absent for eight years from Westminster, as I have been, can fail to notice the difference. Last week’s severe criticisms of the half-baked “Help to Buy” mortgage guarantee scheme in the (Tory-chaired) Treasury Select Committee response to George Osborne’s Budget, to take one more example, is almost certain to force Osborne to modify the plan before the Bill reaches its final stages in June; it’s doubtful, to say the least, whether for most of the time Gordon Brown was Chancellor that the [then Labour chaired] Select Committee would have acted likewise.
This didn’t all happen by accident. In the old days, the membership of Select Committees was stitched up by the whips of the main parties. The brave attempt by the late Robin Cook to democratise the system a decade ago was quashed by the ruthless manipulation of the party managers. A Tory task force set up in opposition under Ken Clarke recommended secret ballot elections for the chairmen of Select Committees, which to his credit David Cameron accepted (though he may yet rue the day, as Margaret Thatcher regretted the original establishment of the committees by Norman St John-Stevas in 1979).
But another factor, paradoxically, was the MPs’ expenses scandal in 2009 and an urgent need to show that MPs were more than mere lobby fodder; one on which a committee chaired by the then Labour MP Tony Wright capitalised by successfully proposing the election of committee chairmen by secret ballots of all MPs (and of MPs in their own party in the case of other members). It’s unlikely that Andrew Tyrie or Labour’s Margaret Hodge would be the successful chairpersons of the Treasury or Public Accounts committee without such a system. One which has even created the possibility – threatening to party leaders who had always relied on the lure of the front bench to manage dissent – of a backbench political career.
But the chamber has changed, too. The post-2010, post-expenses scandal, intake, less deferential, especially on the Tory side (and not only on the ideological issue of Europe) also made a difference. The possibility – however seldom realised – that the opposition will peel off some Liberal Democrat MPs has added edge to some debates. But so, too, did another of the Clarke/Wright reforms, the establishment of a backbench business committee which allocates (outside government control) 35 days per parliamentary session to backbenchers wanting to initiate debates.
But the election of a new, reformist Speaker was also the result of the expenses scandal, of which his predecessor Michael Martin was a casualty because of his bad handling. John Bercow has his critics, but he has done more than any of his recent predecessors to bring the executive to the Commons. The number of Urgent Questions (requiring ministers to account for themselves to MPs) tell its own story. There have been 41 in the present session alone. In his last three years, Martin granted 17. This is a major irritant to ministers, but it has helped to reinforce the centrality of parliament.
When Ms Hodge complained this week that recesses were not leaving enough time for parliamentary scrutiny, it was, if nothing else, a testament to the seriousness with which (some) MPs now regard that task. Which certainly doesn’t mean that all is perfect.
Reformers have many other proposals: Confirmation hearings for major public appointments, ranging from, say, the Chairman of the BBC or the Chief Inspector of Schools, to the heads of the major quangos to which the government has devolved so much power over the past 20 years. Monthly – instead of six monthly – hearings of select committee chairmen with the Prime Minister. A properly elected chairman for the Intelligence and Security Committee (currently still appointed by the Prime Minister). And an end to the practice in which the membership of standing committees on Bills are often, to hasten the Bills’ progress, those with the least expertise on the subject in hand. More parliamentary commissions on the banking standards model instead of costly judge-led inquiries with narrow, government imposed remits. And so on.
When Forster wrote his essay, he offered “two cheers for democracy”. In 2013, that’s still no more than parliament deserves. But two is one more than it did for most of the past 35 years.