The crisis of British democracy and Parliament isn’t going away anytime soon
Sunday National, September 29th 2019
The British Parliament returned to work last week – reopened after the historic Supreme Court verdict.
Its undertakings were highly charged, contentious and even abusive in language and exchange. Attorney General Geoffrey Cox sneeringly stated ‘this Parliament is dead ’ with ‘has no moral right to exist’, Boris Johnson talked dismissively of a ‘paralysed’ and ‘zombie’ Parliament, while even the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg described it as ‘exhausted and broken’.
Beyond the drama and high tension, one emerging question is what is the appropriate role and purpose of the UK Parliament? How can, and should, it best exercise power – and hold government to account? What is the appropriate role of MPs? Is it to reflect on their own views and bring their expertise to any issue, or to listen and represent the views of their constituents? And how does representative democracy live alongside the popular democracy of a referendum?
Is Parliament flexing its muscles and showing that there can be a new rebalancing of power between legislature and executive? Or is what is emerging an unsustainable, uncontrollable mess where making clear decisions will increasingly prove more and more difficult?
The activities of the UK Parliament have come centre-stage to an unprecedented degree. Meg Russell of the Constitution Unit has a positive take on this: ‘Recent months, in a context of minority government, have seen Parliament reasserting its power – now strongly supported by the decision of the Supreme Court. In that respect Brexit demonstrates the system working.’
Is this, as some claim, a gridlocked Parliament that can only agree what it is against – having voted down Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement on three separate occasions, while not backing any other plan, the revoking of Article 50, or a second Brexit referendum?
Brexit clearly has caused some of the tensions between backbench MPs and the government. They are also aided by the hung Parliament with no party having an overall majority, and the opposition parties unwilling to grant an early election without Boris Johnson ruling out a No Deal Brexit.
Is it possible that normal service could be restored if one party is returned at the next UK election and Brexit – or this stage of it – completed? Ruth Fox, Director of the Hansard Society, observes that ‘Much will depend on if and when there is a general election and what form Brexit takes. If a significant number of the current MPs are re-elected, then levels of trust within the Commons are likely to remain low.’
But it is also true, says Fox, that the relative balance between the parties will matter with another hung Parliament offering little respite: ‘If there is more fragmentation then procedures could come under even more strain and prove ineffective.’
Back to the supposed certainties of ‘strong government’ is attractive for some, in other words a return to an all-powerful executive overseeing a compliant Parliament rubber-stamping legislation and not asking any difficult questions. This is the world in which Conservative and Labour politicians grew up and yearn for, believing that everything could be okay if only they could return to this world of supposed order.
Something fundamental has happened to the UK Parliament which cannot be put back in the box. To some this is uncomfortable. And to some it is even viewed as anti-democratic, thwarting ‘the will of the people’ over Brexit. Government ministers find the new reality uncomfortable and claim it is unconstitutional and illegitimate, but as Meg Russell states it is ‘their behaviour, belittling and undermining the courts and parliament, [which] risk seriously damaging the system.’
The collapse of the old conventions did not just happen overnight. Throughout the history of the UK Parliament there has been a conflict between executive and legislature, the limits of the actions of both, and the scale of sovereignty that can be exercised and how qualified or absolute it can be.
Beyond Brexit, what future beckons for the UK Parliament and what passes for democracy? The old constraints of language and respect have collapsed and will be difficult to put back together. Maybe that is no bad thing as the previous regime of parliamentary rules and conventions contained much hypocrisy, used to maintain the existing order and way of doing things.
The struggle inside Parliament could represent the dying embers of the ancient regime with its high bound Westminster tradition and veneration of past precedents. This has the potential to morph into something more progressive or reactionary, democraticising or authoritarian. It could even be that out of this struggle a more modern kind of Parliament emerges, one open to further reform and change.
Underneath all the noise and bluster last week something profound is going on which is about more than Brexit. We are witnessing a debate with powerful antecedents in the past and in momentous moments such as the English civil war where the King and Parliament engaged in a titanic battle over who had political authority.
It is not stretching things to see similarities between then and now: between an unaccountable monarch and Boris Johnson, between questionable use of political authority and a government looking for any way to not implement the Hilary Benn act outlawing a No Deal Brexit, and that this was in past and present about England.
England for all the hyperbole of it being ‘the mother of Parliament’ – has never become a fully democratic country. Its system of parliamentary democracy grew out of the fossilised remains of the ancient feudal system and never fully democratised, leaving a Parliament where only one part – the Commons – is elected and where a host of Crown powers such as the right to declare war are exercised not by MPs but by the executive.
Is far-reaching parliamentary change possible? Could there be a political will for Parliament to become a modern, democratic institution? Ruth Fox thinks so, observing that ‘Leadership will also matter: the identity of the new Speaker and the party leaders will heavily influence any future reforms, particularly those need to realign the House of Commons legislative and scrutiny work to address whatever form Brexit, and our relations with the EU might take in the future. Business as usual will not work.’
For many the answer to this constitutional crisis is wholesale reform and a written constitution. Sadly though this isn’t some painless catch-all cure for a constitution is only as healthy and vibrant as the political culture it sits in. And creating the right kind of culture is hard work.
It is also salutary to note that a written constitution is not a fail-safe guarantee against the abuse of power. Look at Donald Trump’s actions, when the US has a written constitution, and the fact that the processes of impeachment look unlikely to pass through the Senate. Politics and constitutionalism work in tandem, but for any major UK change politics have to be remade and that looks highly unlikely in the foreseeable future.
Finally, there is how this affects Scotland. We can take succour from looking at the Westminster debris and think how fortunate we are to have the Scottish Parliament. However, while this is undoubtedly true our own Parliament still has to mature in how it makes laws, holds ministers to account, and scrutinises others. Humza Yousaf, Justice Secretary, has talked of the Parliament being ‘utterly transformative’, but beyond our political class that is a tough claim.
Then there is the issue of how voters in Scotland see this ongoing debacle and whether it aids or hinders the prospects for independence. There are at least two distinct camps on this. The first thinks that broken Britain makes the case for self-government self-evident, but the second worries about how voters horrified at how messy and drawn is, might baulk at further constitutional change.
Brexit offers a warning of a politics gone wrong – and an opportunity to do things differently. This is a fundamental constitutional moment in the history of the UK from which there can be no going back. The UK, and at its heart England, will either embrace a future that is more democratic and progressive – which would mean these forces need to get serious and organised or, at the moment as seems more likely, embark on a future more ugly, harsh, and populist.
The latter outcome would make the choices Scotland face stark, but it also means that our politicians will need to raise their game and not assume – as too many do on the pro-independence side – that victory can come by default. The implosion of British politics and the crises of its Parliament show that positive change has to be stated and constantly restated, and the forces of populism and reaction continually defeated and cannot be taken for granted.