There is hope. Perhaps only a glimmer, but at least a number of parliamentarians have taken a courageous stand, resigned from their parties and come together as a group to break the mould of the corrosive, tribal, two-party political system that has dogged the UK for many years.
The group is not yet a political party but might grow and develop into a centrist party that would, at least, introduce more plurality in parliament and provide a counter to the extremes of left and right. In doing so the centrists might be able to introduce more deliberative and consensus-building processes in Parliament. But will that be enough?
Many of us agree, with them, that the way in which the UK does politics has to change (Currently, there are 190,000 people signed up and following the Independent Group on Twitter) but the problems inherent in the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy have been described before. Forty one years ago, Lord Hailsham described many of the weaknesses in the system in his book “The Dilemma of Democracy”. He called for a period of respite from frantic left versus right campaigning and fighting, a pause for thought, and it is worth reflecting on some of what he said:
“In the field of doctrine, the period of respite should be used for a clear consideration of the path which we wish our nation to be treading. What are our moral values? What place do we allow to religious or spiritual experience? What part in the world do we wish Britain to play? What sort of democracy do we wish to practise? What is nation-hood, and what is our nation? Until we have a picture of the things we really believe in we shall go on blundering about in the City of Destruction, until one day we find that the kissing has to stop, either because we discover that our main policies spell only disaster or because disaster has overtaken us owing to the fact that they add up to absolutely nothing at all.”
To help define what sort of democracy Britain should be, he said:
“I am sure that Britain needs a new constitution. I am sure that it should be of the ‘written’ or ‘controlled’ variety, and that it should therefore contain entrenched clauses if it is at all possible to bring this about. The object of such a constitution should be to institutionalise the theory of limited government. The method adopted should have the effect of giving more power to the people nationally and locally in order to prohibit their supposed representatives from passing unwanted legislation. So far as it is necessary to protect minorities or individuals against mob law or populist politics from left or right, judicial remedies should be provided. But these are the least important part of the whole package. The root of the current evil lies not in an excess of democracy but in too little, too much power in parties, whips, officials, cabinets and a House of Commons elected in the present manner for a period terminable by dissolution and possessed of all the powers of Parliament. In short too little power is given to the people.
These being the desired purposes, I do not wish to be dogmatic about any particular set of proposals. Changes should be undertaken after discussion…”
Lord Hailsham felt that it was necessary to set up ‘machinery for constitutional reform’, a commission, and felt that its work might take years. But he did highlight a problem related to the way in which prospective parliamentary candidates are chosen by political parties:
“..it becomes necessary to discover how candidates are chosen by their parties, in what manner members are elected by voters, and how their powers are exercised once they are at work. The results of such an enquiry are not altogether reassuring. The selection of candidates is in the hands of a caucus… But the caucus, necessarily consisting of a tiny minority of the electorate, has a disproportionate amount of power, particularly in a so-called ‘safe’ seat, where, in selecting a candidate, they virtually select a member.”
The unsatisfactory method of choosing prospective parliamentary candidates has been highlighted recently by Isabel Hardman in her book “Why We get The Wrong Politicians” (Over 80% of MPs currently serving were selected by a tiny number of people on the panels of the two main political parties in the UK. It is not representative.) and, over the years since 1978, many distinguished people have called for wholesale reform of the UK’s parliamentary and constitutional arrangements, as well as the specifics of electoral reform.
So the weaknesses, the frailties, the fault-lines inherent in the UK’s governmental arrangements have been known and written about for many years but nothing has been done to address the issue of reform. This, I think, is partly because when a party has a large majority in parliament, it simply does not care about reform. It is more than happy to pursue its agenda, to dictate or rule rather than govern, safe in the knowledge that Parliament has limited powers with which to participate in the legislative process. Then when there is no large majority, the British system tends to get log-jammed in crisis and there is no time to consider the complexities of reform.
But the Brexit crisis has thrown the weakness of the British system into stark relief. We do not really have to argue about it. Over the last three or four years, it has been demonstrated that the tribal, two-party, adversarial system has failed to deal with the complexities related to defining Britain’s future political and commercial relationships with Europe and the rest of the world. To illustrate the point, just recently (Spectator, 22 Feb 19) Louise Mensch, who has been in favour of leaving the European Union, has come to the conclusion that the process needs ‘deliberation’. It will take time and departure should be delayed so that the UK can figure out exactly what it wants to become. One might be forgiven for asking why the issue was not deliberated upon before the referendum but the explanation is that the British system is not deliberative, or used to consensus-building, so it was possible for the process to be initiated by the party in power at the time without adequate consultation.
It is clear, more clear than ever, that the system has to change and it may be that the Brexit Crisis will prove to be the catalyst for the initiation of a comprehensive programme of parliamentary and constitutional reform. The members of the Independent Group of MPs have correctly identified the problem and, of course, in recommending that the UK changes the entire culture of political discourse, they are not just talking about Brexit. In due course the UK’s Legislators will have to deliberate on the complexities relating to issues such as the establishment of sustainable health, care and welfare systems in the UK, amongst many more profoundly complex problems. The members of the group have made a start in attempting to break the mould of the old tribal politics and it is to be hoped that they can build a consensus in parliament to initiate a process of reform that will enable the UK to re-define itself and prosper.