Here's the proposition: the House of Commons is decadent. It is in decay. It's dying. The last time it looked as sick as this, Oliver Cromwell kicked it out into the cold and open air with the words: "For God's sake, go!".
You think I'm exaggerating. The House of Commons can't be dying in front of our eyes, you think; someone would have noticed. But these things happen quietly. And for a lot of familiar reasons (the EU, Downing Street, quangos, Newsnight), the Commons has become like the old French parlements with the power not to approve legislation, only to applaud it.
Why is so much of it so lifeless? Why is so much Commons life concerned with debating 5,000 words of legalese to regulate the structure of attendance registers in schools? How come major Bills leave the House with whole swathes of them unexamined and undebated? Why is so much rubbish put through the system "to send a message" to this group or that in society? Why, in the most obvious morbidity, is the place more or less empty more or less all the time?
Is it because the media ignore Parliament? No, that's a symptom, not a cause. Is it the way MPs behave? The lack of honour, the abuse of expenses, the refusal to accept responsibility? No, these things create interest and attract attention. How about the personal betrayals, the parliamentary evasions, the foolish manoeuvring, the self-defeating accusations, the point scoring, the jeering, the playground attempts to trip up opponents as they speak, the animal noises ... We can't speak ill of these things; they are traditional values in a modern setting.
No, the one fatal symptom is the sense of futility that hangs around so many occasions in the Commons. And what is futility in politics? It is powerlessness. The sense that words will not work. That however strong the argument, the whip will not change. That nothing in the room will ... happen.
I remember sitting in European Standing Committee B some years ago listening to MPs debating whether or not to approve the EU budget. After 45 minutes they voted it through. I was watching the river flow outside. The EU was entirely indifferent to this process of scrutiny, so called. "What would happen if the committee voted not to approve the budget?" I asked one of the members. He laughed, as though I was trying to be funny.
In the 13th century, there was a motto applied to Edward I's Model parliament; it was so brilliant it would serve as the national motto they're still trying to formulate: "What touches all should be approved by all," it said. Whatever Edward's intentions, his eight words carried in them the seeds of the modern world.
And that's the core of today's malaise. If the political class wants widespread engagement in politics (and it probably doesn't, incidentally), it needs to go back to this point of decision, this point of power. If the public can't be involved in the approval process itself, it wants to see its representative, its MP, approving it for it. But for its approval to be interesting, to be an event, there has to be a chance it'll withhold it.
Collectively, MPs are the best company in Britain; most are clever and even the stupid ones have a dash of Tabasco in their psychology that gives them bite. But in the run of daily business they resemble zombies doing ballroom dancing. They know it, too. And, to their credit, they don't like it.
So, occasionally MPs form into a group to demand more respect for parliament. The Modernisation Committee (sic) reports. The Procedure Committee pronounces. The hierarchy considers the discontent for two years and makes recommendations. Ken Clarke's task force came up with the same sort of proposals that Jack Straw did, and blow me down it was all amplified by Gordon Brown in his new broom phase last summer. The role of Parliament is always about to be enhanced by beefing up the role of backbenchers. They all say that's what's going to happen but it never does. It's against the run of play in politics to give power away.
Straw's reforms were fine as far as they went – but that wasn't anywhere at all, now I think of it. The topical debates have bombed; topical questions at question time haven't really helped. No power has been transferred because Jack, in his clever, complicated way, wouldn't take on the whips.
The whips haven't always won, of course. When Gwyneth Dunwoody (bless her, RIP) was removed as chair of her committee, it was Labour backbenchers that rebelled and had her reinstated. The whips had their revenge. When Robin Cook put a Bill before the House giving MPs the power to select their own committees and chairs – they voted it down. The whips, incredibly, prevailed. They have powers of patronage, you see, and are jealous of them. It's why Jack Straw didn't dare take them on in his own proposals.
All is not lost. The world is still interested – fascinated, even – when something actually happens in the Commons. Control orders. Top-up fees. Foundation hospitals. A packed chamber and intense reporting. When MPs vote according to their conscience, or at least according to their character, they generate a personal glamour. It's why we're looking forward to Frank Field's amendment to the Finance Bill on Monday. And to the extension of detention without charge to 42 days. Something might happen. It is the possibility of an event that magnetises us.
Parliament is run by consent, not by the rule book. If they want, MPs can find many ways of withholding consent. They can delay business so thoroughly as to force their concerns on the executive. The Irish did it in the 19th century; a loose affiliation of fellow travellers could do the same now. For MPs who lament the decay of Parliament, the solution is in heir hands – and their hands only.
How unlikely is this revolution by procedural means? Anything in Parliament that demands inter-tribal co-operation, has no electoral advantage and requires personal courage is unlikely.
Certainly, talking about this decadence, grieving for it, anatomising it will not make the Government one whit more likely – not in 800 years – to grant a parliamentary manifesto. But blocking business with 50 divisions, that would bring it about in a week. But who? And when? And what, exactly? Answers on a postcard, please.Reuse content