Monday 12 January 2009
Bruce Anderson: What does Parliament mean when prime ministers ignore it?
The expansion of the state, and increase in legislation, has created a problem
Parliament returns today. Will anyone notice? Admittedly, the Israel/ Gaza conflict could not have been predicted, but there would have been enough economic difficulties to occupy the institution which ought to be the focal point of national debate, if that is how Parliament still functioned. But it no longer does so. It has been in steady decline for the past quarter of a century.
Recently, when Ken Clarke was reproached by a fellow Tory for some unhelpful comments, he defended himself by saying that in order to make as little trouble as possible, he had made his speech in a setting where it was bound to pass unnoticed: the House of Commons.
A witty remark, it was also a depressing one. It is only funny because the House of Commons has become a joke. It has never stood lower in public esteem since the Great Reform Bill, and then, the public had an excuse. The pre-1832 Commons had ceased to be credible. Yet even allowing for the restrictive franchise, and with the exception of the Reform Bill period, the House of Commons could have claimed to be a viable representative body from the 16th century onwards.
For this we ought to be grateful to the Emperor Charles V, and his victory at the Battle of Pavia in 1525, one of the four most important dates in British history. (The others were 1940, 1066, when William the Conqueror made sure that we did not become part of south Scandinavia, and that blessed date in pre-human history when the British Isles were sundered from the European mainland.) At the time of Pavia, Henry VIII was getting fed up with his Queen, Katharine of Aragon, and her failure to produce a male heir. He decided on divorce. For that he needed the Pope's blessing. But after Pavia, the Imperial armies occupied Rome. Charles, who was Katharine's nephew, would not allow his aunt to be swept aside, so no divorce. Instead, we had the English Reformation. In the words of Brendan Behan, not noted as an historian but admirably succinct in his judgments, "The Church of England was founded on the bollocks of Henry VIII".
If Francis I of France had won Pavia, history would have been different (wretched French: always let you down militarily when you most need them). Henry VIII might have got rid of Parliament. In the early 16th century, it did not seem certain that a mediaeval estates-general had a role in a modern, efficient monarchy. The Kings of France and Spain both binned theirs, which did not re-emerge for centuries: in the French case, dramatically.
Henry VIII was more than autocratic enough to follow the continental example. But he felt it necessary to use Parliament as the principal instrument in his religious revolution. That enhanced its status. Elizabeth railed against her later Parliaments: too late. Charles I did try to dispense with it: much too late. Without Parliament, Britain's benign constitutional evolution would not have been possible. "The House of Commons preserved the Monarchy and the House of Lords": discuss. Perhaps we should be grateful to the French after all.
We ought certainly to be grateful to Parliament. From 1660 onwards, battles have been fought and conflicts ultimately resolved in the Commons' Chamber. Without it, our history might have been arbitrated in the clash of arms. Today we have protestors arguing that if they do not like a law, they have the right to break it. Those who talk like that are intellectually defective, with no understanding of the nature of law – or of rights. Hobbes could remind them what happens to rights when the populace takes an a la carte approach to law. If Parliament were respected, such naive pseudo-arguments would not receive a hearing. The disrespect is partly the fault of an education system which is making the English as post-historical as they were already post-religious. It also owes something to the fact that historical curiosity is harder to arouse in a nation which has had a relatively easy historical development.
Whatever the explanation, the belittlement of and growing contempt for Parliament is unhealthy. This problem has grown with the expansion of the state and the inevitable increase in the volume of legislation. It helped to create the modern party system. The word "Whip" comes from the hunting field. The danger is that under their Whips' control, modern MPs will turn into a docile pack of hounds.
The increasing professionalisation of politics does not help. A generation ago, there were lots of MPs on all sides who never expected to be ministers. Knights of the Shires in the Tory party, late middle-aged trade unionists for Labour; in both cases, the highest ambition was membership and service in Parliament. Now, the shop stewards have been replaced by social workers; the Knights of the Shires by the esquires of the suburbs – and everyone wants to be a Parliamentary Secretary.
When PM's Questions was first broadcast in the United States, and in the days when the Commons had a Speaker who could open his mouth without disgracing his great office, many Americans concluded that there were advantages in recruiting the executive from the legislature. So there are, but it also creates difficulties.
We need a much less subservient House. We also need MPs with the guts to point out that neither their pay nor their allowances are generous. Those who demean Parliament will eventually destroy it, and much else besides.
There is one further form of contributory negligence which is adding to the difficulty. We have now had two successive Prime Ministers who have no reverence for the Commons. By the end, Tony Blair had become a formidable performer, but he never had any feeling for the place and went there as seldom as he could. Gordon Brown only likes forums which he can dominate. In the Chamber, he is in constant danger of being duffed up by English public-school boys. He cannot bear it.
Moreover, most people's opinions are like archaeological layers. Whatever the subsequent activity, it is usually possible to trace the earlier phases. In the 1970s, Gordon Brown was a Marxist and believed that Parliament was a corrupt lackey of the bourgeoisie. Tony Blair was never a Marxist in the sense of reading the texts, but in his early days he would have inhaled similar views with his tobacco-smoke.
Mr Blair has come a long way from thar era and so, probably, has Mr Brown, though he retains his early hatreds. Both of them might tacitly admit that their younger selves were wrong about nuclear weapons, nationalisation and tax rates. Neither is ready to admit that they were equally in error about the British constitution.
This will be a busy political year with many possible outcomes. But we can be certain on one point. Respect for Parliament will not increase. That ought to make thoughtful people worry.
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