The current constitutional crisis has thrown our political system into a state of flux. Commentators vent at the dark days of the House of Commons and posit that we may be experiencing an irrevocable breakdown of trust and respect. The days of MPs motivated by duty, service and the common good appear to be over. Giants have been replaced by pygmies. What happened to our parliament, erstwhile that most august of institutions?
As recently as the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s there were many men and women of distinction on both sides of the Commons. On the Conservative side were Macmillan, Maudling, Macleod, Powell, Heath, Butler and Hogg amongst others; for Labour there were the likes of Wilson, Gaitskell, Castle, Healey, Foot, Benn and Callaghan. While these individuals were impressive characters in their own right, they also enjoyed a fierce streak of independence which ensured that their opinions actually mattered.
The rot began in the 1980s, when the professionalisation of politics accelerated. The traditional elite withered to be replaced by a new class of politician. Deference also died; parliament faded. Sir Geoffrey Howe’s resignation speech may have destroyed Mrs Thatcher’s premiership, but in truth it was the last gasp of an age when parliament was relevant. That Tony Blair did not even trouble himself to be present for Robin Cook’s resignation exposed the sad state into which our parliament had slipped.
Stripped of any consequence, MPs have acted since as little more than one-person Citizen Advice Bureaux. Parliament has become a recruitment centre for future Cabinet ministers, with the Cabinet itself a neutered body after Mrs Thatcher’s centralisation and Mr Blair’s lamentable sofa government. Mr Blair, during his last PMQs, professed not to be a “House of Commons man”. That is evident in the continual challenges to the importance of parliament over the last decade.
Many have argued the current crisis presents David Cameron with an opportunity. In fact it burdens him with a heavy responsibility. Mr Cameron does have a Macmillan-esque knack for understanding the mood of the nation. He has expressed pique and shock in fairly equal measure at the imaginative ways in which some Tory MPs have utilised taxpayers’ money to buttress their own lifestyles. As we are living through the last rites of a dying government it will be Mr Cameron to whom the nation turns to restore faith in the political process.
Mr Cameron has precedents to guide him. Governments and parliaments have been able to use the flexibility inherent in our constitution to enact historical change. The great Whig government of Charles Grey enacted the 1832 Reform Act, as well as abolishing slavery. It was Benjamin Disraeli, albeit for partly cynical motives, who expanded the franchise in 1867. The best Conservatives have always accepted that reform might be necessary: “A nation without the means of reform is without the means of survival” (Burke). Mr Cameron has grasped the nettle.
There are, then, two problems revealed by this crisis that need addressing. One is the urgent necessity for constitutional and parliamentary reform. The other is the pressing need to improve the calibre of our elected representatives. Too many contemporary political speeches are technocratic and managerial, constructed not to win hearts and minds or convince opponents and others of the worthiness of their cause but to please the party whips.
The two problems may be addressed hand in hand. The reason that so many of our elected representatives underwhelm from the backbenches is understandable. The only way to achieve high office, or occupy any prestigious position in our political system, is to be almost mind-numbingly loyal. The whipping system, combined with the fusion of the executive and legislature, has been deeply corrosive to effective scrutiny. Bills fly through parliament with little meaningful discussion. Mr Cameron’s proposal to allow backbenchers to elect Select Committee chairmen should be extended to Public Bill Committees as well. To be the chairman of a Congressional Committee in the US is to hold an esteemed job. Committee chairmen in the UK should enjoy similar relevance.
The proposal for “much less whipping” during the committee stage of Bills is to be welcomed also. The whips must be constrained. The public are sick of a chamber of (some) intelligent men and women who are prevented from having a modicum of independence. With independence we could enter a new age which retains the best of the old. Re-reading Peter Hennessy’s Having it so Good it is clear that Enoch Powell’s speech on in the Commons in July 1959 (at 1.15 am!) on the brutal deaths of Kenyan detainees changed the prime minister’s policy towards Africa substantially. We must enjoy a modern age in which MPs are individuals of substance, a single speech can make or break a career and the Commons is a place where great decisions are made.
Of course, some authority must be maintained: the British people expect their government to have the ability to govern. Yet there is a fundamental line between authority, which can be questioned, and tyranny. The tragedy of the last three decades has been the gradual drift towards the latter. Lord Hailsham was absolutely correct. This has been an elective dictatorship and a stronger and more tenacious legislature would counteract it.
It is now essential that these proposals become concrete policies. Mr Cameron can book himself a place in history as the first prime minister in over a century to lead major parliamentary reform which restricts the power of the centre. He has impressed thus far, understanding the public’s fury and reacting to it as best an opposition leader can. The responsibility will be his. Dare he take it?