The MPs’ expenses scandal has damaged the reputation of, and public trust in, politicians – but the increasing malfunction of the British parliamentary system over the last two decades is an issue even more fundamental. I am proud of the fact that it was Britain which developed parliamentary democracy over the last 1,000 years – as well as so many other things – but the system which has evolved from the mid-18th Century is no longer serving the national interest and as a result too many citizens now feel alienated from the political system as well as politicians as a breed.
Britain’s 1688 Settlement intended a system similar to that of the USA, and which the USA copied a hundred years later, with two independent legislative chambers controlling legislation and, in particular, taxation, providing checks and balances on the executive – in the case of the UK headed by the unelected monarch. Also, the simple and clear Bill of Rights starts off by declaring that nothing should be the law of the land unless passed by both Houses of Parliament but has since been blatantly ignored as regards EU Directives, where, astonishingly, the undemocratic medieval Crown Prerogative has been used to convert Directives into UK law.
Britain’s intended political system changed dramatically in the 18th Century, following the importation of the Hanoverian monarchy, with the chief executive becoming the Prime Minister, being the person who could command a majority in both Houses of Parliament. This arrangement worked satisfactorily through to the 1970s, with its own checks and balances, in part as political party organisation and discipline were less strong, particularly, in the 19th Century; and as there was always a substantial number of independent-minded MPs of stature in their own right who voted in accordance with their principles ahead of their party allegiances. Governments were also more honourable than today and resigned when they had clearly lost national support. The last embers of this order was seen when the Tory “Backwoodsmen” used their power to elect Margaret Thatcher as Leader of the Conservative Party, following the failure of the 1970-1974 Heath Government.
Today, the numbers of such independently-minded MPs of stature – across all parties – can be counted virtually on one hand. There are no longer substantial numbers of MPs who are leading academics, businessmen, ex-military, landowners, or other established leaders from across the nation’s interests and not dependent on party patronage. Politics has become a career for professionals, mostly starting young, where those who have built successful careers outside politics are less than welcome by any of the parties as MPs. Moreover, under the proposed new rules relating to outside interests they would not now want to be MPs and the choice of parliamentary candidates is now also largely “managed” by the parties centrally.
The system we now have is one of “elected tyranny”, where, provided governments have a large enough parliamentary majority, they continue in power until legally obliged to call a General Election, irrespective of their competence; and become ever more out of touch with the nation. The floor of the House of Commons has become little more than an ill-attended, empty shell, apart from the weekly “spectacle” of Prime Minister’s Question Time.
It is in the House of Lords where a substantial spread of experience and wisdom lies, and where party management cannot be as disciplined – as once appointed, Lords cannot be removed by the party system. But the power of the Lords is limited both by the Parliament Act and as they cannot vote on fiscal matters. Notwithstanding, the “Lords” provides the most effective challenge to bad legislation.
Also, the historically, much-prized, high standards, independence and competence of the British Civil Service have been badly eroded, particularly under the Labour Government of the last twelve years, largely as the result of politicisation and the appointment of too many advisers.
While it remains healthy to have a critical media, there is the additional problem that the “Westminster Village”, ‘closed-shop’ interaction between politicians and the media has led to the main objective of politicians becoming their cover in the next day’s media, rather than the national interest.
Under the British system of “elected tyranny” if we are to reduce the extent of bad and excessive legislation and incompetent government which it has produced, above all we have to find ways of achieving more able and independent-minded MPs of personal stature in their own right – such as Frank Field – and to reduce the power of political parties, both to control MPs and the local choice of parliamentary candidates. Clearly this is not something which parties will want to encourage.