Parliament must listen to the people outside

Taken from the House of Commons valedictory speech given by the Labour MP for Chesterfield Tony Benn
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The Independent Online

We live in a strange country: we do not elect our head of state; we do not elect the second Chamber. We elect only this House, and even in this House enormous power is vested in the prerogatives. The Prime Minister can go to war without consulting us, sign treaties without consulting us, agree to laws in Brussels without consulting us and appoint bishops, peers and judges without consulting us.

We live in a strange country: we do not elect our head of state; we do not elect the second Chamber. We elect only this House, and even in this House enormous power is vested in the prerogatives. The Prime Minister can go to war without consulting us, sign treaties without consulting us, agree to laws in Brussels without consulting us and appoint bishops, peers and judges without consulting us.

Then there is the link between the Commons and the people. I have seen many schoolchildren taken around the House, and have talked to some of them about how it has been a home of democracy for hundreds of years. In 1832, only 2 per cent of the population had the vote. That may seem a long time ago, but it was only 18 years before my grandfather was born. When I was born, women were not allowed the vote until they were 30. Democracy - input from the people - is very new. The link between popular consent and the decisions of the House can be tenuous.

Furthermore, nowadays, Parliament representing the will of the people has to cope with many extra-parliamentary forces - very threatening extra-parliamentary forces. I refer not to demonstrations, but to the power of the media, the power of the multinationals, the power of Brussels and the World Trade Organisation - all wholly unelected people.

In the course of my life I have developed five little democratic questions. If one meets a powerful person - Adolf Hitler, Joe Stalin or Bill Gates - ask them five questions: "What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?" If you cannot get rid of the people who govern you, you do not live in a democratic system.

There are two ways of looking at Parliament. I have always thought that, from the beginning - from the model Parliament - the establishment has seen Parliament as a means of management: if there is a Parliament, people will not cause trouble, whereas, of course, the people see it as a means of representation. Those are two quite different concepts of what Parliament is about. The establishment wants to defuse opposition through Parliament; the people want to infuse Parliament with their hopes and aspirations.

I have put up several plaques - quite illegally, without permission; I screwed them up myself. One was in the broom cupboard to commemorate Emily Wilding Davison, and another celebrated the people who fought for democracy and those who run the House. If one walks around this place, one sees statues of people, not one of whom believed in democracy, votes for women or anything else. We have to be sure that we are a workshop and not a museum.

My next point is that all progress comes, in my judgement, from outside the House. I am in no way an academic, but if I look back over history, I see many advances first advocated outside the House, denounced by people in power and then emerging. Twenty years ago, Swampy would have been denounced as a bearded weirdy; he will probably be in the next honours list, because the environmental movement has won. We are the last place to get the message, and it is important that we should be connected effectively to public will.

There is a lot of talk about apathy, and it is a problem, but it is two-sided. Governments can be apathetic about the people, as well as people being apathetic about governments. For me, the test of an effective, democratic Parliament is that we respond to what people feel in a way that makes us true representatives.

The real danger to democracy is not that someone will burn Buckingham Palace and run up the red flag, but that people will not vote. If people do not vote, they destroy, by neglect, the legitimacy of the government who have been elected.

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