My article, ‘Speaking for Parliament,’ has been published online by Parliamentary Affairs. It will be appearing in a print edition in due course. It is based on my Michael Ryle Memorial Lecture, delivered in Speaker’s House in July.
The theme of the article is straightforward. For Parliament, these are the best of times, these are the worst of times. They are the best of times in Parliament’s relations with the executive. Both Houses are now more effective in calling government to account than at any point in modern British history. They are the worst of times in terms of Parliament’s relations with the public. People have always been critical of politicians, but recent decades have seen a growing distrust of parliamentarians. The expenses scandal may have exacerbated the distrust, but it is not the cause and has not had the impact parliamentarians attribute to it. The problem is more longstanding.
Parliamentarians have tended to adopt a ‘tin hats’ approach, retreating to the bunker until the problem goes away. Adopting a reactive and passive approach will not help enhance Parliament’s reputation. However, adopting a proactive response is hampered by the unique nature of Parliament. Parliament is an entity that comprises two distinct chambers, each of which is the sum of several hundred independent units. There is no one who can speak for Parliament. There is no equivalent, as in business, to a chair or chief executive who can respond as soon as there is a crisis. There is no CEO of Parliament. The Clerk of each House is the chief executive officer of the House, but is not the same as a company CEO. MPs and peers are not the equivalent of company employees or shareholders. The intrinsic nature of Parliament hinders its capacity to deal with attacks. Doing a good job in scrutinising the executive will not counter popular distrust. Rather, what is needed is for MPs and peers to act proactively to defend and promote the interests of the institution of which they are members.