We wouldn't need to recall Parliament if it worked on the same schedule as the rest of us do

The inflexible tradition of annual recess isn't in keeping with the rest of the world

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The Independent Online

Do our elected representatives get bored of the beach so easily? Scarcely, it seems, have they departed on holiday than some of them at least start agitating to come back. This year they managed just a fortnight or so away before the first calls for a recall were heard. In the past week or so the pleas of a few have risen to a clamour.

With the emergency in Iraq and the Kurds calling for help in resisting the advance of the Islamic State, surely MPs should have a say in what action, if any, the United Kingdom takes, especially if it is going to entail some deployment of our armed forces? Is it not time to recall Parliament?

Well yes – and no. Parliamentary recalls can be risky, as David Cameron’s decision to bring back MPs last August demonstrated. Whether it was the shadow of Iraq, or the crossness of some MPs who did not want to return, or the pressure from voters via social media, the cause was lost, and the UK swerved away from a new foreign embroilment. 

In view of this experience, it is entirely understandable that the Prime Minister is trying a different approach this year. He ended his break (a little) early, took ostentatious charge of the alarmingly-named Cobra committee, and yesterday warned in Blair-like terms of the threat to the UK from developments in Iraq. The message was “I’m in charge”, and the upshot is that MPs can probably relax on their sun-loungers a little longer.

Once a rarity, however, recalls have been increasing. If they were to be summoned back this year, it would be the fourth time in as many years. Last year it was Syria; in 2011 MPs were summoned back twice, first because of the furore over the Metropolitan Police and phone-hacking, and then in response to the riots. It could be argued that the only reason there was no recall in 2012 was that many ministers and MPs remained in the capital to meet, greet and even take in an event or two, during the Olympics.

Nor, I suspect, is the frequency of parliamentary recalls coincidental. It may reflect a certain timidity on the part of government, along with the return of influence to Parliament as an effect of coalition. Before this, not only were recalls quite rare, but few – even with hindsight - would contest their necessity.

In 2002 Parliament was recalled from its autumn conference recess to consider Iraq and weapons of mass destruction.  In 2001, the recall followed 9/11, and in 1998 it was a response to the Omagh bombing in Northern Ireland. Going back further, there is the invasion of Kuwait (1990); the Falklands crisis (Easter, 1982); the invasion of Czechoslovakia (1968); the Berlin Wall (1961), and Suez (1956), plus periodic domestic economic crises. The pretexts tended to be both sudden and acute.


What is happening now in Iraq and across the wider region is more of an international process than a national crisis (whatever Cameron said yesterday). The humanitarian emergency in northern Iraq could be dealt with – as, in fact, it was – by the United States and President Obama’s use of aerial bombardment to clear an escape route for the Yazidis. The greater movement of peoples and the redrawing of borders across the region will still be going on when Parliament returns on 1 September, and for many months, probably years, after that.

This does not mean, of course, that all is fine and wonderful with the parliamentary timetable as it stands. Even the most die-hard traditionalist must acknowledge that there are faults, and one of the most glaring concerns the summer.

The actual summer recess may be shorter than it was, but MPs return for less than two working weeks this autumn before adjourning for the month-long conference season. Thus six weeks becomes ten weeks in which normal parliamentary business is essentially frozen, just as the rest of the country is getting back to work. Shorter conferences, held at weekends or over holidays, as happens elsewhere in the developed world should be part of the answer.

But that cannot be the whole answer. As I have observed from my email inbox over the past decade, British politics has taken the academic year and crossed it with a Continental rhythm. Late June, early July is for end-of-term parties (even though the annual State Opening of Parliament has only just happened). By the last days of July political events have dried up.

A few hardy think-tankers fire off responses to current events, but they are the exception. Amazingly, this summer is no exception, even though the historic Scottish referendum looms on the horizon. The campaign, it seems, has simply transferred to the Edinburgh Fringe, for want perhaps of another venue.

So here we are, a week before the August bank holiday, with the summer break – for those who can afford one – longer and more sacrosanct than ever, but crises, especially abroad, obstinately refusing to respect our time off. One way or another, Parliament has to change its ways. Either it must meet year-round, with holidays taken - as in the real world - by turns, or a formal  standing committee should be formed to fill in for Parliament when it is in recess.

The alternative is executive rule, unchecked by the people. The overheated language of David Cameron’s Iraq warning should remind us of what a bad idea this would be.