As Parliament breaks for summer recess, MPs should reflect seriously on the future of our Government

Self-indulgence and grandstanding come easy; caution, attention to detail, care over language, the focus on the longer term are all less fun, but are now more needed more than at any time for the past half-century. Politics is about ideas; governance is about competent administration and management

Sunday 23 July 2017 16:00
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Contrails or vapour trails made by passing aircraft in the sky above the Houses of Parliament
Contrails or vapour trails made by passing aircraft in the sky above the Houses of Parliament

MPs heading off on the long summer recess of Parliament for their holidays – or perhaps their other jobs – should use their time away for reflection about their roles, and the role of government more generally.

It has of course been a tumultuous session. How could it not be, with a weak Government with a cobbled-together majority, a more self-confident though deeply divided opposition, and the hugely contentious issue of Brexit looming over everything?

But tumult does not lead to good governance. In the months ahead, the country will need calm and competent direction. Self-indulgence and grandstanding come easy; caution, attention to detail, care over language, the focus on the longer term are all less fun, but are now more needed more than at any time for the past half-century. If our MPs want an example of how not to behave, they have only to look across the Atlantic.

The prime burden to behave lies on the members of the Cabinet. It is naturally in their self-interest that they should remember Benjamin Franklin’s remark at the time of the signing of the American Declaration of Independence: “We must all hang together or most assuredly we will all hang separately.” But it is also in the interest of the country. At some stage the Prime Minister will be replaced, but until that time it serves no purpose to plot.

The need for self-discipline goes far beyond the Cabinet. Backbenchers can do a lot of damage and not only to themselves. Senior Labour politicians have not distinguished themselves for their self-discipline either, both on matters of policy (writing off student loans) and of personality (the treatment of their leader). As for former senior politicians, they should remember that the fact that they were important 10 or 20 years ago may give them access to the television studios, but it does not mean their views are very helpful now.

There is a broader point here. A modern democratic state requires political dialogue, for that is its very core. But it also requires good governance, for without that the lives of its citizens are impoverished or worse. Politics is about ideas; governance is about competent administration and management. It is about the endless, relentless focus on the detailed business of running things better, everything from school-building programmes to paying people correctly the benefits to which they are entitled. Why should there be so little surprise that the HS2 railway project is running far over its initial budget? Because we all have very low expectations of the Government’s competence to carry though the project in an orderly and efficient manner.

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The project of Brexit is another order of magnitude compared with building a railway. It has never been done before. You don’t have to accept at face value the snide comments of the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier about the disorganisation of the British team to be concerned about the ability of the Government to reach an adequate settlement. Whatever view people take about the fundamental issue of Brexit, there is no case for an unnecessarily confused and damaging outcome for the negotiations. If there is, it will not be the fault of the civil servants tasked with the detail of the talks; it will be with the political leaders of the country. No wonder the business communities on both sides of the Channel are worried. They are right to be.

Parliament does not return until 5 September. It would seem to most people a very long break, and not a particularly deserved one. But it is an opportunity for a reset of our politics, and we most assuredly need it.

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