Held in Contempt: What’s Wrong with the House of Commons? by Hannah White

Pessimism comes in different forms. Few conservatives are without a sense of loss, a feeling that valuable aspects of our culture have got worse, and we are engaged in rescuing what we can.

Hannah White offers a case study in liberal pessimism. In her five chapter headings, she maintains that the House of Commons is “Side-lined, Unrepresentative, Arcane, Exceptionalist and Decaying”.

Her regret is not so much for what has been lost as for liberal reforms which have not yet been enacted, and she fears never will be enacted, unless, as she puts it in her closing lines, a catastrophe occurs:

“If the unmodernised palace finally goes up in flames like the cathedral of Notre Dame, parliamentarians will find themselves forced out of Westminster without notice. The task of re-creating parliament in such circumstances would prompt reflection on many previously unthinkable questions about the way our politics operates. Perhaps it is only such a disaster that will force Westminster to reverse the cycle of decline into which it has fallen.”

Here is the tabula rasa fantasy in an extreme form. Only by razing to the ground what is already there can we start afresh and build something better.

This was the assumption which led, after the war, to the demolition of great tracts of our towns and cities, rather than the repair and adaptation of existing buildings.

White is impatient at the slowness with which Parliament changes. However fast our legislators move, they are too slow for her, too stuck in their ways, too “exceptionalist”, as she often puts it.

Surely, a conservative reader will think, all Parliaments are in some way exceptionalist, and in many ways ought to be exceptionalist: ought to cherish their traditions and the things they do well, and draw on those strengths as they redress grievances, correct abuses and adapt their procedures and buildings to modern needs.

The Institute of Government, where White is Deputy Director, is a valuable source of expertise about how Parliament and Whitehall actually work. She herself was a clerk in the House of Commons.

But she never pauses to celebrate the adaptability of our political system. In 1979, she records, 19 women were elected to the Commons, three per cent of the total.

In 2019, she goes on to say, 220 women were elected, 34 per cent of the total. One can, of course, say this proportion should be larger.

But liberal pessimists make themselves excessively despondent when they ignore the speed of the change that has taken place, and just lament that the proportion is not yet 50 per cent.

She takes a similar attitude to the proportion of ethnic minority MPs, which has again shot up; and she passes over in silence the number of Cabinet ministers from that background.

At one point she refers in passing to “the UK’s infamous ‘unwritten’ constitution”. What is “infamous” about it?

One can make a case for a written constitution. One may deprecate the complacency which once existed about our way of doing things, which was held to be “the envy of the world”.

But “infamous” is used here as if no argument is needed. The assumption is that written rules must be better than a tradition of behaviour.

No allowance is made for the possibility that not everything can be written down. In most walks of life, including politics, one learns how to do things by practising them, not just by reading books about them.

The most instructive form of education is often the apprenticeship. One learns from someone who has already mastered the craft, by watching what they do, and by attempting to imitate what they do, at first not very successfully.

This is how, on the whole, we learn the craft of politics. One may read any number of books about how to give a speech, one may learn any number of rules to follow, but without actually giving speeches, and probably a great many speeches, one will not learn how to do it.

White yearns to simplify the rules of procedure in the Commons, and to make them more comprehensible. She seems quite unconscious of the dangers which reform might bring.

The executive might become over-mighty. Various reforms, including family-friendly hours, have already reduced the ability of determined parliamentarians who believe the Government is doing the wrong thing to make ministers’ lives a misery by keeping them up all night.

On the other hand, the country might become ungovernable. Ministers do sometimes have to act with great rapidity. To decide when this is the case, judgment has to be exercised. MPs have to be persuaded, or refuse to be persuaded, that what the Government is proposing is justified. No set of rules can allow for every eventuality.

White declines to recognise some of the great simplicities which already exist.

The vote is won or lost: that anyone can understand. The Government survives or falls: that too is clear enough. To form a Government, one must have a majority in the Commons: again, a brutally clear rule.

The Speaker is asked to grant an Urgent Question on some controversial matter which has just blown up, about which the minister then has to come to the Chamber to answer. Here is another matter of judgment which cannot be reduced to a rule.

I happened to be sitting in the Commons Press Gallery in 2009 when John Bercow replaced Michael Martin as Speaker. There was an immediate and dramatic improvement in the quality of debate in the Chamber.

Bercow had himself been a hyper-active backbencher who spoke with amazing frequency and often behaved very badly. He wanted the Chamber to be animated, and to be debating whatever the topic of the hour was, and to a great extent he managed to bring this about.

After the EU referendum of 2016, White notes, Theresa May excluded Parliament from the Brexit negotiations, but was then unable to maintain this exclusion: Parliament had to decide whether to accept or reject her deal.

One of the paradoxes of Brexit was that before it happened, it made the Commons far more significant, with people tuning in from all over the place to see what was happening.

It is in fact at moments of crisis that the Commons comes into its own. So we need crises: here White is correct. Freedom is only truly valued when it is in danger.

After May had failed, Johnson too did not have a majority, so fought a Parliament versus the people general election at which he gained a majority by promising to get Brexit done.

Suppose that instead, Remain MPs had managed to stop Brexit: would this have enhanced the legitimacy of the Commons? It seems likely, on the contrary, that the standing of the Commons would have been fatally undermined.

White refers at quite frequent intervals to “the spiral of public contempt for the House of Commons”. She cites some polling evidence, but does not examine in any detail whether the Commons has usually been held in contempt.

In the 1970s, things seemed pretty bad, and when the Palace of Westminster caught fire in 1834 the London mob applauded, just as they had applauded the assassination in 1812 of the Prime Minister, Spencer Percival.

It seems to me likely that a considerable number of people have always despised the Commons on what one might call egalitarian grounds – a desire, that is, to stop MPs feeling excessively pleased with themselves, grander than the rest of us.

And perhaps it is possible, as with a football team, to be both scornful and loyal; both to despise the Commons, and to hold out the hope that it is going to start doing better.

White does not dwell on the need to get good people to stand for Parliament. She is instead obsessed by the question of diversity, which for her is also a question of efficacy:

“Inevitably, the gap between what MPs decide for the rest of the country and what they (literally) embody themselves determines their authority in setting the rules. Consequently, a lack of diversity in the House of Commons itself is likely to reduce the efficacy of the laws and regulations it passes.” 

Yet she also concedes that the public do not seem all that worried about diversity, referring for example to

“a 2019 YouGov poll in which three in five respondents said that gender or gender identity, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation were not important when selecting prospective MPs (62, 59, 68 and 68 per cent, respectively). The same survey found that a significant chunk of the public – around two-fifths – were opposed to measures to improve the diversity of candidates, including all-women shortlists, gender quotas or lists of preferred ethnic minority candidates.”

What matters much more to the public than the achievement of perfect diversity is the calibre of the politicians who are elected. White recognises one aspect of this when she writes:

“Every reported misdemeanour by an individual MP, every example of MPs acting as if rules do not apply to them, chips away at public respect for the House of Commons in a way which is not easy to repair.”

But there have always been some MPs who have behaved like that: see the melancholy catalogue set out in Great Parliamentary Scandals by Matthew Parris and Kevin Maguire.

To find 650 perfect human beings who are also energetic enough to want to get elected to the Commons is an impossible mission.

Even to arrange for there to be among the 650 members of the Commons a sufficient number of able people from whom to form an acceptable Cabinet, and also a sufficient number of acute critics to scrutinise that Cabinet and provide the nucleus of an alternative administration, is an ambitious task. It is not, unfortunately, one which White gets round to considering.