The recent expenses scandal was the bursting of a septic boil that had been festering for more than a century. For it is over this period of time that Parliament has meekly ceded its legislative powers to the Executive, rendering it an increasingly toothless debating chamber – easily derided and bypassed on the big issues of the day.
Nobody wants to be regarded as an irrelevance, least of all the egos like mine drawn to politics, so Members of Parliament like myself have retained the trappings of power, busying ourselves with constituency work while pretending that the nation hangs on our every breath. The hopelessness of our position was perfectly demonstrated by a recent exchange in PMQs:
Michael Meacher (Oldham, West and Royton) (Lab): The Reform of the House of Commons Committee proposed that the House should have the opportunity to debate and vote on its recommendations within two months, and that period has elapsed.
The Prime Minister: The Government will make time available for a debate and the House will have an opportunity to decide on the Committee's recommendations.
A reasonable request swatted away. How very generous of the PM to try and find Parliamentary time! It used to be the case that the House decided what was worthy of its attention and if the Prime Minister didn’t like it – tough on him. Now it is he who calls the shots. How feeble we have become – reduced to begging for a hearing in our own Chamber.
This leaching away of Parliamentary powers to the Executive has accelerated over the past thirty years to such an extent that when Prime Ministers stop to groom themselves in the mirror, they see a President staring back at them. Vanity dictates that they like what they see. Why else would we be having television debates between the leaders of the main Parties? Such excitements are the staple of a Presidential, not a Parliamentary system.
Of course, in the modern media age our democracy is not immune from celebrity culture and the craving for identifiable icons, perhaps Presidential in their style. In the Party of Government who really matters to the public outside Brown, Darling and Mandelson? In my Party, it is the faces of David Cameron, George Osborne (and I’ll leave it to the readers of ConservativeHome to decide the third) that count, while the Liberal Democrats have Nick Clegg and Vince Cable. It is this tiny handful of people who the media are interested in. The rest of us are simply theatrical backdrop to the great political show – easily shuffled in and out depending on whose turn it is to have the Ministerial limo.
How soul destroying it must be for new Ministers, even Secretaries of State, to find that after years of hard graft to get the desired “Red Box”, their views carry less weight than the most junior No. 10 policy adviser, struggling to escape the clutches of his mid-twenties. And yet despite these and countless other well documented humiliations we, Members of Parliament, still cling to the fiction that we remain part of a great democratic settlement, one that rises above pale imitations. Addled by the opiate of patronage that afflicts one in every two of our number, we continue to doze as Parliament fails.
And oh what failures we find the patience to endure. Ministers mumbling their way through incomprehensible statements at the Despatch Box – resisting their inner voice demanding that they blurt out “who the hell writes this rubbish?”. Appallingly drafted bills, designed to respond to the faux concerns of newspaper leader writers, rather than the needs of our Country. Instead of strangling this nonsense at birth, we allow its passage through disinterested committees, shorn of the powers or the will to reform. Even where progress is made, Parliament is only allowed a cursory glance at the resultant pudding before it is placed in the oven to be under-cooked for public consumption. The result is too often both tasteless and distasteful.
Against this backdrop of legislative failure, it is too easy for the great powers of the land to make Members of Parliament the enemy of the day. We bleat about the treatment we receive at the hands of our respective Party Leaders and the media, complaining that we are locked into a violent and abusive relationship. Yet collectively, over-time, we have created the conditions of our reduced circumstances. We seem mesmerised by our endless spiral of decline – wedded to our fate of being consigned to the cheap seats of political life, unable to affect political change beyond lobbing popcorn at the stage. How can sane people genuinely believe that further reducing the circumstances of Parliament will somehow restore the standing of Parliament? How can we look to the Executive, any Executive, to save the day when a weak Parliament so adequately serves their purposes? The nation’s elected representatives disengaged from the process and processes of Government – sidelined to the very margins of political life.
The public are now on to us. Over time they have seen their elected representatives cowed by the might and reach of the Executive. An admittedly more rebellious Parliament has failed to keep pace with a supremely powerful and aggressive Executive. The occasional defeat quickly brushed off, no lessons learned, no humility garnered. “The Prime Minister’s word is law – the Cabinet, Parliament will do as I say.” The Executive of the day enjoys a deference that an American President could only dream of. In the US you generally have to win the argument to get your agenda through, in the UK you routinely ram it through or, as in the case of the bank bail-out, you simply bypass Parliament altogether. The electorate are rightly asking “what the hell are we paying these people, our MPs, to do?”
Who is going to get us out of this mess? It is no good Parliament looking towards the Executive with doe-eyes, as on past form the offer of a helping hand will as likely disguise a stiff arm to the groin. No, if we want a democracy we can once again be proud of, then Parliament needs to take the lead. We must turn our back on gimmicks and window dressing reforms that give the illusion of action but offer little if any change. What we must do is break the hold of the Executive and the cycle of patronage. We must turn our backs on the Ministerial jobs, the titles and the cars and focus on what we are paid to do and that is to represent the people who send us to Westminster. Those who hanker after the trappings of executive office need a political career outside Parliament, not a vocation within Parliament.
To rebalance our democracy, radical surgery is required. Restoring the necessary checks and balances into our systems of Government and cutting out the cancer of patronage can only be done through the separation of powers. A separation that would see the Executive removed from Parliament – unshackling both sides. The Prime Minister of the day would have a direct mandate and have the freedom to hire our greatest talents to run the Country. Likewise, released from the burden of stocking the Ministerial Offices of Whitehall, the nation would get a leaner and meaner Parliament, reduced in size for the right reasons, dedicated to scrutinising legislation and holding the Executive to account.
The separation of powers would create two competing spheres of influence in political life, we would have genuine tension. No longer could the press solely obsess on the Executive, as Parliament would once again be central to the story. We would have legislators who would become celebrated heroes in their own right, transcending in every way their current function of providing soundbites and a rubber stamp. It is only when Members of Parliament have recovered their self-respect that we shall recover the respect of those we represent.
These ramblings of a Backbencher will be easily dismissed in many quarters. But even now in these fevered and troubled times, it is possible for Backbenchers to have the highest aspirations for their Country and for a democratic settlement that binds it together and serves its people. As a Backbencher, I exercise my choice to embrace the virtues of idealism over the narrow, suffocating confines of pragmatism.