We Broke British Politics

It wasn’t long after the High Court ruled that, however it happens, Article 50 must go through Parliament that I wrote rather compulsively Support the People’s Budget only a few posts back, and since then my opinions haven’t changed too much. But the crisis hasn’t gone away, with ever more calls for Mrs. May to stop her appeal and accept the decision, and I’ve been given much more time to think, and I think I’ve got more to say. And even if I don’t have a solution yet, I think I know what’s happened. This is a fundamental question about the British political system — about parliament, government and lawyers, about the legislature, the executive and the judiciary — and what we did to
ruin it, and why, in the ultimate irony, we had to.

It isn’t going away, is it?

See, nobody has really done anything out of turn. If you think about it, Parliament is scrutinising, opposing and holding the Government to account, as they are supposed to, and the Government is trying to get things done, as it is supposed to, and yet it’s all fallen apart, somehow. Some might be tempted to blame the system. “It’s archaic! It’s broken! It was never going to work!” They seem to forget that it did work for centuries, better than most European systems, and it’s much more likely that we did something to fuck it up than it just derailed itself.

Walter Bagehot proudly wrote in the 1860s, just as true, total democracy was beginning to appear in Britain, that he had discovered the “efficient secret” of the English Constitution. What he meant by that was the fusing of the legislature and executive — of parliament and government. He liked it; he thought it was a good idea — though at first glance it’s difficult to understand why. Although the government is completely powerless without the approval of parliament, it will almost never be lost: the prime minister can almost always depend on a majority to pass his legislation, because he is the leader of the party that holds more than half of the seats, and the 100 or so ministers that run and staff the various departments are also MPs, handpicked by him, so he can depend on their support even more. Add to that the democratic mandate he has to implement his manifesto pledges, the whips, and the ability of the Commons to overpower and bypass the House of Lords, and you start to wonder what the point is. Why do we even have a parliament, if it’s just a puppet of the elected government? You’d be surprised how rarely government-backed legislation is actually defeated.

Well, actually, parliament has several uses. To start with, it is supposed to be adversarial. It is not undemocratic or even counter-productive for members of the opposition party to vote down government legislation, endlessly debate and criticise it, propose totally unworkable alternatives and generally try every trick in the book to stop it. By doing this, they are forcing the government to explain itself, and the endless debates mean bills are thoroughly interrogated and amended across the three readings, one of which takes place in a special committee that reads over every line. It is not expected that they will get their way very often, but if they highlight enough flaws that backbenchers start raising their eyebrows they will almost certainly be able to force amendments and concessions, because the rarity of government defeats only adds to their humiliation. It is also accepted that, although MPs are supposed to generally “toe the party line”, they are fully allowed to oppose the government if they feel an overwhelming moral compulsion, or on behalf of their constituents. We saw this when Zach Goldsmith resigned over Heathrow not long ago, and in Tony Blair’s government when he was constantly heckled by the hard left of the Labour Party; more recently, a renegade faction of Conservatives opposed to the European Union has been making trouble (understatement). MPs from all parties also hold the government to account, using their shadowing select committees to carefully examine what the government is up to, and attack it for any failures. Select committee reports tend to be unanimous, supported by all MPs involved from all parties, and so are taken very, very seriously. Opposition parties can use such reports to shame and pressure the government into firing incompetent ministers.

Then, once a bill has been read, debated, amended, sent off to a legislative committee, read, debated, amended, returned to the Commons, read debated, amended, and finally voted through, it must face the House of Lords. The much-maligned undemocratic Upper House is actually very significant, because its members don’t have to worry about re-election or impressing the prime minister. Following Tony Blair’s reforms, most of the new appointees are retired politicians who can’t quite bear to go off quietly into the night, and they’ve started to take their job seriously, seeing themselves as the guardians of minorities and inalienable liberty against “elected dictatorship”. Some of the peers are crossbenchers, meaning they don’t align with a particular party, and they stop a majority from ever forming. Even the ones that are Conservatives or Labour members are far more independent, and quite willing to vote down party legislation without batting an eyelid. They act like a giant, 700-member committee, and if the Commons majority is particularly large they see it as their duty to become like a second opposition (they certainly gave Tony Blair a lot of trouble, though that might have been for different reasons). If they do vote down a bill, they send it back with a list of amendments, which may or may not be accepted. If it comes back to the Lords with only half written in, they can vote it down again, and send it back with the same list, and again, and again; this is called “ping-ponging”, and it can go on for an entire year until the next session, when the Parliament Act of 1949 states it will become law anyway. They don’t usually do it, but if they wish they can make themselves incredibly obstructive. This is playing with fire, obviously, going to war with elected representatives, but then so is the government by ignoring the concerns of an independent council that exists to safeguard against tyranny.

End result: the government has the odds stacked in its favour by design, but it still has to fight for what it wants. And this, more than an efficient secret, is the hidden genius of the British political system. Fundamentally, the relationship between government and parliament is based on balance — not quite equilibrium, no, but balance still. The idea is that the government is almost certain to get its way, but only with such difficulty that it must make amendments and concessions, and actually defend itself to the public. Government MPs are likely-though-not-certain to vote government legislation up, and opposition MPs are likely-though-not-certain to vote it down, and in this way we have democracy. Powers and ideologies are allowed to clash against each other, and the outcome is pre-determined just enough to make sure the electorate is always served. Voting would be pointless if the winners could not have a reasonable chance of at least pyrrhic victory, and at the same time it would be a scary thought if they were allowed to pass whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted, without a shred of disagreement.

So what did we do to break it? I think it’s fairly obvious: we introduced an new quantity — the referendum. The system wasn’t designed for this, and it’s falling to pieces. Those Remainers arguing that Parliament is sovereign and should have the power to overturn the vote need to remember that it was never supposed to have to; it’s a representative body — do you really want it to have the ability to straight-up tell the electorate they were wrong? If you’re going to say they are experts and know better, hogwash! You know as well as I do they’re fallible and their only claim is that maybe they watch the news a little more. If we were intelligent enough to elect our representatives for five years, why were we suddenly not intelligent enough to make a singular decision? Why are they somehow better placed to make the same decision? You’re being totally arbitrary, throwing up technical rules and using them in a way they weren’t supposed to be used, in a situation they weren’t supposed to be used in. You want to cast aside a democratic mandate? Think about what you’re saying! This is no different to an election.

Similarly, Parliament cannot simply be cast aside and told it has to take a backseat. It is performing its role perfectly, scrutinising, attacking and opposing, only this time it is not the Government they are opposing — the Government is reluctantly doing something it certainly does not want to do — but the electorate itself. They are your (superfluous in a respect) representatives and their function is to hold the government to account. Don’t stop them; don’t break everything even more because it’s already been smashed.

“We should never have held a referendum! We should have elected a party that made it explicitly clear in their manifesto they would extricate us from the European Union, with parliamentary support! The opposition would be able to oppose effectively without being in danger of actually winning!” This I think would be perfect — but it was never possible, and you know it was never possible. Neither the conservatives nor Labour was ever going to dare put that in their manifesto, or even muster enough support from the backbenchers if they wanted to. The elites being out of touch with Johnny down the pub has been a recurring theme in politics recently, and if it weren’t for the aforementioned renegade Tories we wouldn’t have any Leave representation at all in the Commons, besides one UKIP (I refuse to call it “Ukip”) MP. No other party was ever going to win, and even if the Conservatives had haemorrhaged enough votes to Farage to give him sixty or even seventy seats — enough to form a coalition — that would have posed problems all of its own. Even so, and I don’t care how you voted, European Union membership had become so controversial it just had to be settled, so I suppose in retrospect, one of the mainstream parties offering a plebiscite, terrible idea as it was, was necessary. Parliament doesn’t work if it isn’t working, and the only reason that vote needed to be put on the Tory manifesto was because it wasn’t working. Not it’s not working more.

John Oliver said 2016 was “the fucking worst”. I just think it’s the year journalists need a pay-rise.




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