Is the House of Commons becoming too powerful?

In my 2016 Michael Ryle Memorial Lecture, I developed the theme that for Parliament these are the best of times and the worst of times.  It was a theme to which I returned in my Daily Telegraph article earlier this month (see my earlier post). They are the best of times in that, in relation to the executive, Parliament is the strongest it has been in the era of modern British politics (which I treat as post-1867).  They are the worst of times in terms of the relationship to the public, which exhibits little trust in politicians and the institution.  Is the former affecting the latter?  Is the House of Commons reaching a stage where it is arguably becoming too powerful?

There is a tendency to take a strengthening of Parliament as an obvious good.  However, some years ago, Anthony King penned an article entitled, ‘How to strengthen legislatures – assuming that we want to’.  Very few appear to question the assumption.  There is a case for strengthening Parliament as a policy-influencing, or reactive, legislature, that is, fulfilling the functions of legislative scrutiny, administrative oversight (colloquially, calling government to account), and debate, ensuring the voices of citizens are heard.  These are functions particular to Parliament.  They are carried out in relation to government. Government maintains a discrete role, crafting and bringing forward policy to which Parliament then responds.  The distinction between the tasks of government and Parliament is core to accountability.  The government is accountable between elections to the House of Commons and at elections to electors.  Voters know who to hold to account for the outcomes of public policy.

We are now in an unprecedented situation in that there is basically a tussle between government and different configurations of the House of Commons for control of policy over Brexit.  The situation is complicated, not to say confused, by the fact that the government itself is not united; neither is the Opposition (the alternative government, which it is why it is designated formally as the Opposition).  This creates a problem in standing before the electors as unified entities.  In the Commons, there are different combinations of Members coalescing behind different approaches, in effect trying to achieve a different policy outcome to that proposed by government.  It is not a case of the House of Commons saying aye or no to government, with the onus for generating policy remaining on government, but rather combinations of MPs attempting to substituting alternative policy or policies.  This creates a confused situation in terms of accountability, not least if a different policy outcome to that proposed by government is achieved.  There is no one body that can stand before the electorate to be held to account.

The situation arises from a unique combination of events: the 2106 referendum; the divisive nature of European integration, which has divided the parties and created divisions within parties throughout the post-war era; the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader; and the result of the 2017 general election.  All this against a backdrop of MPs’ willingness to vote against the whips; long gone are the heady days of what Sam Beer referred to as ‘the Prussian discipline’ of MPs.  Electors do not reward parties that are seriously, publicly and consistently split.  Not only does this not help parties, but the divisions and uncertainties are not helping how people see the House of Commons.  The House is divided across a range of policy positions, rowdy and contributing to uncertainty. MPs appear more concerned with pursuing their particular policy preferences (convinced – whatever the stance is – that they are so obviously right) than they are with the reputation of the institution of which they are members.

The government is still in the driving seat, in that it is responsible for negotiations and determines its business schedule in the House (which it has used to delay debate on the withdrawal agreement), but there are others in the vehicle seeking to grab the steering wheel.

In fulfilling the reactive tasks ascribed to a policy-influencing, as opposed to a policy-making, legislature, both Houses are doing a good job, far better than ever before (hence the best of times).  Look, for example, at the work of select committees in both Houses, including in examining the consequences of Brexit.  Strengthening both Houses in fulfilling these core tasks is to be encouraged.  However, in seeking to wrest control of policy from government, MPs are creating what may prove to be a short-term aberration, but while it lasts it creates an uncertain, and potentially perilous, situation.

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Merry Christmas – from all of me

Merry Christmas to readers. I trust you have the opportunity to relax and find some peace.

As regular readers will be aware, I receive correspondence that addresses me in different forms. My recent post on the subject identified perhaps the most intriguing form, namely ‘Philip of Louth’ (conjures up all sorts of images: ‘And Philip of Louth travelled far and did sit among the council of the wise, and saw that it was good.’ Doesn’t quite work with ‘Mr Louth’, which is how I am addressed in one regular communication.) Over the Christmas period, I have made a note of the different forms of address. Excluding those letters that are addressed to Lord Norton of Louth or Professor Lord Norton of Louth, I have been designated as:

Lord Norton K. Louth
Professor TLNO Louth
Mr P Lord Norton of Lo
The Lord Norton Norton
Professor L. Louth
Professor Norton of Louth
Lord N. O. Louth
Lord Philip Norton Louth
Mr P. Norton
Lord P. Norton
Prof Philip Norton of Louth
Prof. P.Norton

The list is not exhaustive. I variously receive letters from one particular charity addressed to ‘His Excellency Lord Norton of Louth’ – I haven’t rushed to correct that one.

Not sure if there are any benefits from the different forms. If HMRC got it wrong, could I return it as ‘not known at this address’? Then again, could they try and tax me under each?

Anyway, Merry Christmas from all the foregoing.

And good tidings for regular readers. There will soon be another caption competition….

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Here we go again…

It seems some people still have not grasped the contents of the Fixed-term Parliaments 2011.

The BBC has published an article on unlikely scenarios to break the Brexit deadlock. One comes from former MP George Galloway, who is quoted as saying:

“There are several ways that stasis could be broken. The best one by far is for Her Majesty to decide that only the country itself can rule on where Britain goes next. General election now, that is what I say, that is what I hope she will say.”

This is not an unlikely scenario. It is an impossible one. Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, the monarch lost the power to dissolve Parliament. She retains no residual powers in relation to dissolution.

The Act has been on the statute book for seven years.  And it is not that long…

UPDATE:  Pleased to report that after I contacted the BBC, the article was amended to include reference to the Act.

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The paradox facing the House of Commons

Today’s Daily Telegraph carried a lengthy article by me on the role of the Commons in the light of the Government defeats in the House this week in relation to Brexit.

My argument, the core of which will be familiar to some readers, is that for the House of Commons, these are the best of times and the worst of times.  It was a theme I developed in my 2016 Michael Ryle Memorial Lecture.  They are the best of times for the House in relation to government and the worst of times in relation to the public.

A combination of behavioural, attitudinal, structural, political and constitutional changes have rendered the House more powerful than at any other time in modern political history in challenging government.  This week’s defeats were not unprecedented as defeats, but they were remarkable in that they constituted an attempt by the Commons not simply to say no to government, but to wrest control over a major issue of public policy.

The public, however, do not judge the House on what it does in fulfilling its core functions, but rather on the behaviour of members.  The result is that the House is neither loved nor respected.  The Brexit debate exacerbates the problem by creating a situation in which MPs by their votes, whichever way they go, are going to annoy a good part of the population.  People have taken entrenched positions on different sides and are not going to be budged from their perch of moral certainty and belief that most people agree with their stance (‘the people did/didn’t vote for…’).  As a result, MPs cannot and will not please everybody and may well annoy more people than they please.

Disapproval of what members do reinforces negative perceptions, however ill-founded, and – as I have argued before – there is no single figure of authority to respond immediately to defend the institution.  Parliament comprises two Houses.  Each is the sum of its members.  There is no one authorized to respond to attacks on the institution.  When there is a response, it is usually too late to undo the damage.  Members could do more collectively to defend the institution, but they are distracted by other concerns.

As I concluded the article, ‘Paradoxically, the House of Commons may thus be both a major winner and a loser from Brexit. It is a unique conundrum for which there is no obvious answer.’

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A Conservative view of the constitution

Earlier this month, I spoke to the Edinburgh University Philosophy Society on the Conservative view of the constitution. The photograph shows me with some of the officers of the Society following my talk.

In large part, I drew on the thesis developed in my article, ‘Speaking for the people: A Conservative narrative of democracy’, published in Policy Studies, 33 (2), in 2012. I outlined the basic dispositions of British Conservatism – a basic scepticism of man’s reasoning and a wariness of grand schemes, a reliance on the accumulated wisdom of generations, and working with the grain of human nature.  In addressing the constitution, I developed the key elements of a Conservative approach – a commitment to past and future generations, an empirical approach to decision making, and a trustee rather than a delegate model of representation.

On an empirical approach, I drew out the extent to which a rational approach focuses on theory – if the facts don’t fit theory, there is something wrong with the facts – whereas the empirical focuses on what can be done.  The situation we face may not be the ideal, but it is the real. I quoted Vivien Hart’s neat way of putting it: ‘In America the emphasis has been on what democracy is and should be, while Britain has been characterised by a more pragmatic and less urgent emphasis on what democracy is and can be’.  The Conservative also takes a Burkean view of representation, leaders being elected to lead, having regard to the needs of future generations, as well as what has gone before, and not simply the demands of a transient majority.

I identified the key attributes of the Westminster model of representative and responsible government – coherent and transparent, accountable, effective, flexible and responsive – and the challenges posed by the extensive and intellectually incoherent constitutional changes of recent decades.

There was not only a large, but also an engaged audience, with the talk eliciting some good questions.  They included ones about direct democracy and the implications of referendums. In dealing with referendums, I addressed the extent to which they are strictly irresponsible, in that there is not a body that is responsible to the people for decisions on public policy, since the people cannot hold themselves accountable for the outcome of a referendum.  It made for a stimulating evening.

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When I was made an honorary Freeman of the City of Hull, the most frequently asked question was ‘Do you get to drive sheep across the Humber Bridge?’  The reality is that there are no rights or powers that attach to the position.  It is principally an honour.  However, one is invited to civic events.  One  I make a point of accepting is to the Remembrance Service at the War Memorial in Paragon Square.  This year, like last, was notable for how many people turned out for the occasion.  I joined civic dignitaries, members of the armed forces, the city’s MPs and others to mark the anniversary of the armistice.  The service went without a hitch – last year there was a problem with the sound system – and the trumpeter played brilliantly.  It was a solemn and fitting occasion.

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