Norman Baker: Why I boycotted the parliamentary tributes to the Queen Mother

'While MPs were paying lavish tributes to the Queen Mother, the Middle East was melting down'
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The Independent Online

I was in my constituency yesterday dealing with urgent matters raised with me by constituents. This included a family facing imminent eviction and homelessness, a potentially suicidal prisoner in Lewes prison, and a case of serious domestic violence, as well as many others.

The alternative, of course, would have been to attend the one-day emergency recall of Parliament to hear a repetition of the sentiments expressed so fulsomely and exhaustively by MPs on every media outlet since the sad death of the Queen Mother on Saturday.

I felt I was more use to my constituents in Lewes.

That, of course, in no way diminishes the sympathy I feel for the members of the Royal Family, particularly for the Queen herself, who has now seen her sister and her mother die in quick succession. Anyone who has lost a loved one will feel for her in that situation. I suspect it may also be harder to deal with what is effectively a public bereavement at a time when most people would naturally want quiet and privacy.

It is also true that all of us have grown up with the Queen Mother as part of the backdrop of life in 20th-century Britain. The death of someone who has been so much in the public eye is inevitably something which touches out beyond the immediate family.

That said, I am genuinely puzzled to understand why it was thought sensible to recall Parliament for a day in the middle of the Easter break. Each of us, myself included, will already have expressed our sympathy on our local broadcast media and to our local papers. Doubtless there will be a further opportunity next week when the funeral takes place.

The argument goes that it is somehow necessary for Parliament to assemble to express its collective sympathy. I am not sure that is true, particularly given the repetitive nature of the speeches made yesterday. But even if it is, could time not have been found when the Commons reassembled as planned next week? It is, after all, hardly a long time away. We could have had an hour set aside at the beginning of the day to hear from the three party leaders and leading backbenchers, if that was thought appropriate.

Instead we have an emergency recall, which necessitates cranking up the whole machinery of Parliament, bringing MPs back from wherever they are – at public expense if necessary – even if they are on the other side of the globe. It also means bringing back hundreds of staff who work in the House, all of whom will have had their holidays interfered with. Apart from the inconvenience, mobilisation on this scale does not come cheap.

Of course, while MPs were queuing up to pay lavish tributes to the Queen Mother, another, more immediate matter was not discussed in Parliament yesterday. I refer to the quickly disintegrating situation in the Middle East, where meltdown is now in sight. If President Arafat is killed, or martyred as he would put it, there must be a real possibility that the conflict, so far limited to Israel and the Palestinians, could spread to the rest of the Middle East. That would in turn have global consequences, including, I suspect, a further boost to fundamentalism and implications for oil supplies.

The British retain influence both in the Middle East and with the United States. We could play a part in trying to keep the temperature down and in helping to persuade President Bush to rein in the Israeli government and put pressure on the Palestinians to prevent further suicide bombings.

Frankly, for Parliament to be recalled in emergency session to repeat already uttered tributes to the Queen Mother while simultaneously being prevented from discussing this serious international situation is ludicrous and does nothing to improve the standing of Parliament or make it relevant in the 21st century.

Parliament needs to form a new relationship with the people, based on relevance, modernity and openness. Part of that requires a recognition that the relationship between the monarchy and the people has changed.

Back in 1952, when the Queen ascended the throne, almost a quarter of those questioned said they believed that she had been chosen personally by God. If they didn't believe in blue blood and the King's touch, they were not very far from it. I doubt if you could find one in a hundred to hold that view today.

Over the past 10 years we have seen a significant change in support for the Royal Family; change rather than diminution, for people still respect the Queen for what she does. But it is a personal endorsement, not an institutional one. Over the past 10 years in particular, we have seen all too clearly that the royal family is just like the rest of us, with the same strengths, weaknesses, foibles and inconsistencies. At the same time, the intellectual case for hereditary power has ebbed away, driven by the changes to the House of Lords.

I believe people want a modern monarchy. One that pays taxes, one without anachronistic privileges, one more rooted in the society the rest of us inhabit.

We also need an end to the offensive abuse of the so-called Royal Prerogative, which allows the Prime Minister of the day to declare war, make peace, hand out honours to party donors, even if he were a Catholic, to appoint bishops to the Church of England, and all in the name of the monarch.

In short we need a new approach for a new century.

The way the death of the Queen Mother has been handled, says far more about Parliament than it does about her. It says that Parliament, unlike the population at large, still treats the monarchy with a deference and a reverence of an age now gone. Strengths are praised, shortcomings glossed over. It says that celebration of the institution is still more important than celebration of the individual.

For my part, I prefer to concentrate on the individual. I thank the Queen Mother for what she contributed to public life in the last century. In many ways, she typified the era into which she was born. She has now gone, and with her passes that era.

The author is Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes