Parliament must fight to regain its place at the centre of British politics

Betty Boothroyd was right when she told MPs in her valedictory address to the Commons yesterday that "The level of cynicism about Parliament and the accompanying alienation of many of the young from the democratic process is troubling". She was also right to urge members to reflect on this fact, then to work hard to rebuild public trust and confidence.

Betty Boothroyd was right when she told MPs in her valedictory address to the Commons yesterday that "The level of cynicism about Parliament and the accompanying alienation of many of the young from the democratic process is troubling". She was also right to urge members to reflect on this fact, then to work hard to rebuild public trust and confidence.

Despite her best efforts, the prestige and standing of Parliament today is at a low ebb. Partly, this is to do with the sheer size of the Government's majority. It is, after all, only a few years since a handful of obscure euro-sceptic Tory backbenchers held the Major government to ransom.

But none of this alters the fact that, over the last quarter century or so, the House of Commons has gradually shifted away from the centre of national political life. Parliament no longer shapes public opinion. Political debate, such as it is, is now carried on in television and radio studios and in the press. In that sense it it is understandable that what matters to the Prime Minister - according to his leaked "Touchstone Issues" memo - is the reaction of advisers, focus groups, and the media.

Of course, governments should listen to public opinion; there is nothing necessarily ignoble about that. What is sad, and damaging to our democracy, is that those we elect to the House of Commons and pay to hold the executive to account seem so pathetically weak in protecting the powers of the House in which they were elected to serve. Both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair have taken advantage of their feebleness, adopting the style and approach of a US president. But, crucially, an American president is constrained by a system of checks and balances, involving the House of Representatives, the Senate, the Supreme Court and individual states.

Instead, with virtually no debate, Britain is evolving a system of presidential government almost bereft of any brakes on its power. We have reached a situation where the Prime Minister can, via the power of the whips, control the House of Commons and appoint the House of Lords (to say nothing of his Government's power of patronage over the church, judiciary, the quangocracy and even the BBC). In such circumstances democracy is gravely weakened; the current preoccupation with the numbers of special advisers is an irrelevant sideshow by comparison.

So what is to be done? The election of a new Speaker provides an opportunity to start redressing the balance. He or she must be elected on a manifesto that embraces reforms suggested recently by the bright young Tory MP, Andrew Tyrie, Lord Norton, the Tory peer, and Tony Benn. A bigger role for select committees, released from the control of the whips and allowing them to examine how departments spend money and to ratify appointments to quangos, would be a start; restoring twice-weekly prime ministerial question time would also be welcome. Modernisation of archaic working methods would help attract a broader base of talent. More free votes and time for private members bills would also give backbenchers a meaningful role and an alternative career path to climbing the greasy pole.

Parliament is in peril. It must again become an "efficient", rather than a "dignified", part of the constitution. MPs should not underestimate the importance of the challenge they face. They should heed Miss Boothroyd's warning. Time's up.

Comments