“In theory, Britain has a sovereign Parliament. In practice, as Mr. Grieve told a meeting at the Institute for Public Policy Research in London, the recent history of Parliament is that of its increasing subordination to the executive. Labour MP Tony Wright agreed: Here is a Parliament that, in practice, refuses to bhttp://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/opinions/revolution-at-westminster/article1211220/e sovereign since “the main objective of members of the legislature is to join the executive.” The electoral system, he added, is really about choosing a government, not representatives of the people.”
Revolution at Westminster?
Only a novel kind of interaction between Parliament and the people can give Britain the constitutional moment it needs
Timothy Garton Ash
From Thursday’s Globe and Mail Last updated on Saturday, Jul. 11, 2009 04:44AM EDT
Unless I’ve missed something, Britain has not just emerged from a war, revolution or declaration of independence. Such are the exceptional circumstances that are usually needed to produce a constitutional moment.
And yet – incongruously precipitated by revelations about British MPs claiming expenses for items such as a little wooden house for ducks on a duck pond – there is a widespread acknowledgment that Britain’s political system is in a profound crisis. Earlier this week, I heard Dominic Grieve, the opposition spokesman on home affairs, say this crisis could put in question “the foundations of the legitimacy of the state.”
There is no agreement about the solution. Many in the political class still appear to believe that patchwork repairs will be sufficient. They are wrong. Britain does not need a revolution, but it does need a great reform. There is something fundamentally wrong with a state that is so grossly overcentralized and has such an overmighty executive, restrained only by judges implementing the country’s Human Rights Act, unelected lords and journalists.
In theory, Britain has a sovereign Parliament. In practice, as Mr. Grieve told a meeting at the Institute for Public Policy Research in London, the recent history of Parliament is that of its increasing subordination to the executive. Labour MP Tony Wright agreed: Here is a Parliament that, in practice, refuses to be sovereign since “the main objective of members of the legislature is to join the executive.” The electoral system, he added, is really about choosing a government, not representatives of the people.
Britain’s task, therefore, is to create and sustain a constitutional moment, without the historical circumstances that usually give rise to one. This requires exceptional initiatives from above and from below, from Parliament and from the people. At the moment, there is too little and too much from both sides. There are innumerable proposals, speeches and initiatives, but it is wholly unclear how any of this will come together to produce change.
What has emerged from above is pretty minimal. The House of Commons will clean up its act on expenses. This fall, a select committee, chaired by Mr. Wright, should propose some significant improvements to the way the House conducts its business. There is also, once again, a serious discussion about electoral reform. Alan Johnson, a strong contender to be Labour’s next leader, restated his proposal this week for an election-day referendum on the “alternative vote plus” system – the one recommended a decade ago by a commission headed by Roy Jenkins, the former Labour minister and European Commission president, but then shelved by the Blair government.
Meantime, the game called politics continues being played on the country’s television screens. But how many Britons feel these are their representatives? The intermediate levels of democratic participation are either weak or non-existent, unlike the flourishing local and regional democracy of America and much of continental Europe. Yes, once every four or five years, the British voter can help to “kick the bastards out.” Then a new bunch will head to Westminster, and go on playing the same game the same way.
Outside the walls of Parliament and its attendant TV studios, there’s a plethora of new initiatives fizzling off in all directions. Tonight, for instance, there’s a rally in Westminster’s Methodist Central Hall, organized by the Vote for Change coalition with music by Billy Bragg to stir enthusiasm for electoral reform. The Unlock Democracy campaign has a draft bill to empower a citizens’ convention to decide on reforms. There’s 38degrees.org.uk, which aims to create a British online community for change.
A mighty popular mobilization is essential. Without pressure from below, British politicians will sink back into their bad old ways. But there are some hard questions to be answered. How far can popular anger at the political class be translated into sustained participation in a movement for constitutional change? Won’t such civic energy as there is be dissipated among all these diverse initiatives? In what sense can any of them claim to speak for “the people”? (A convention of randomly selected willing citizens, as pioneered in British Columbia, would go some way to meet that objection.) And, at the end of the day, how can all this be translated into legislation in Parliament and into the specific motion for a referendum?
At some point, sooner rather than later, what’s needed is a body that’s a two-way bridge between Parliament and the people. Mr. Wright, the Labour MP, has suggested calling it a “democracy commission.” It should have some people on it who really know what they’re talking about when it comes to Britain’s half-written constitution and complex political system. It should have representatives of the political parties. And it should include a student, a blogger, a couple of civil society activists – and why not some members of the general public, chosen by lot?
This cannot be a delegation from Westminster that travels around the country, graciously listening to the humble petitions of Her Majesty’s subjects, and goes on to produce compromise proposals from which the government of the day then chooses the bits it wants to push through a subservient legislature. Nor can it just be an independent citizens’ initiative from below, without the political authority to place demands before Parliament.
Neither Parliament alone nor the people alone can do the business. Only a novel kind of creative interaction between Parliament and the people can give Britain the constitutional moment it needs.
Timothy Garton Ash is professor of European studies at Oxford University.