John Bercow, the Speaker, has apparently told Channel 4 News that “he would be disappointed” if ministers followed through on rumours that they intend to instruct MPs to sit out future Opposition Day motions.
Following as it does the (largely hyperbolic) coverage of the Government’s successful bid to grant itself a majority on bill committees, Twitter is (atweet?) with talk that Theresa May is downgrading Parliament and re-writing the constitution in favour of the executive.
I have already set out elsewhere on this site how much of the breathless coverage of the ‘battle of the bill committees‘ was overblown. By the same token, and speaking as something of a bone-dry constitutionalist, it is difficult to get terribly worked up about the Government’s new Fabian strategy for Opposition Days.
Just as with the bill committee vote, the underlying facts of the Parliamentary situation undercut much of the posturing. If the Government can afford to simply ignore a vote in the House of Commons, that says much about the actual value of said vote. They are largely meaningless.
Of course they give opposition parties an opportunity to (literally) set the agenda and generate some good news coverage. But is the Government obliged to participate in a parliamentary pantomime to that end? It is hard to see why. If the Opposition are raising strong arguments they should be saleable to the press without a staged confrontation in the House.
None of which is to say that the Commons has not been diminished in recent years. It most certainly has. But a suspension of theatricalities on Opposition Day, or a (precedented) capture of some procedural high ground last week, are not the problem.
A much more telling sign of Parliament’s diminished status is the introduction of strict time-limits on contributions in the chamber, most of which are now adequate to create a clip for the news but not to develop a substantial argument. Or the truncated sitting hours which leave MPs with far less time to scrutinise legislation, leading to increasingly frequent bouts of legislative ping-pong with a House of Lords which is less mindful of its proper constitutional function than once it was.
In my piece on the bill committees I drew the comparison with the fraught Parliament of 1974-9, and it is this comparison which truly spotlights how twenty years of devolution, European integration and the growth of quangos (each “a process, not an event”) have enervated the Commons.
Where are the all-night sittings, the fierce line-by-line battles where determined backbenchers push ministers to their limit? Where, as my colleague Mark Wallace asked, are the great orators? Since Tony Blair’s post-1997 reforms those former pillars of the Westminster process have all grown faint, or vanished.
Walter Bagehot, in his seminal work The English Constitution, posited a distinction in the British system between the ‘dignified’ parts of the constitution, those old-fashioned parts whose practical purpose was fading and whose modern role was increasingly ritualised and decorative, and the ‘efficient’ portion which did the actual governing.
In his day the dignified role was played by the royal court, which still wielded great influence in some spheres, and the efficient by the increasingly powerful Parliament. But in recent times it can sometimes feel as if the Commons had itself started out on the slow, inexorable road towards dignified irrelevance.
Not only have so many of its practical functions been outsourced in all directions, and those that remain suborned to less output-oriented priorities such as shorter sitting hours, but MPs spend ever more of their time focusing not on national legislation but constituency casework, much of which falls properly under the purview of the local council or another body.
One good thing which might come out of Brexit is that the huge repatriation of responsibility it entails will give Parliament no choice but to reinvigorate itself – assuming it isn’t all immediately passed down or sideways, that is.
If Bercow really wants to help restore Westminster’s position as the pilot seat of the nation he should pay more mind to how the systems evolved over the past two decades will adapt to that old-fashioned workload, and not get distracted by sideshows such as Opposition Day.