Peter Hennessey: Parliament's true place in the constitutional sun

From a speech by the Attlee Professor of Contemporary British History, Queen Mary College, given at Portcullis House, London
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The Independent Online

Despite writing at length about Whitehall over the past 30 years, I am Parliament's man by instinct. I dislike the executive dominance that disfigured our system of government for most of the 20th century; I recoil when those who through, long years in opposition, denounced the overmightiness of the executive, then seize upon every particle of power with relish the moment the first red box is placed reverentially in their hands by a deferential civil service private secretary on day one of their life as a minister.

Despite writing at length about Whitehall over the past 30 years, I am Parliament's man by instinct. I dislike the executive dominance that disfigured our system of government for most of the 20th century; I recoil when those who through, long years in opposition, denounced the overmightiness of the executive, then seize upon every particle of power with relish the moment the first red box is placed reverentially in their hands by a deferential civil service private secretary on day one of their life as a minister.

For such politicians, the House of Commons can suddenly switch from being the indispensable collective tribune of the people into a raucous, uncomprehending nuisance, with the press filling the irritation gap during the recess.

There is, however, much still to do if Parliament is to enjoy its true place in the British constitutional sun. One prerogative exercised by ministers cries out for a statute to bring the matter into Parliament once and for all. That is the prerogative of peace and war. We really do need a War Powers Act which, except in dire emergency, requires a specific vote of the House of Commons to approve military action in advance of its being taken.

Another thing that Westminster needs is a contemporary history of Parliament capability to conduct research along and around the jagged line between past, present and future. Each year, rather like the Institute of Strategic Studies in the Cold War, it could publish an audit of the balance of power between the legislature and the executive. Just think how many nostrils-in-authority it would get up! The public would love it. They care for Parliament more than they do the executive, particularly now when we have the most supine Cabinet since the war.

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