As things stand, UK parliamentarians will return to the debate on the EU Withdrawal Agreement (WA) and the Future Relationship Political Statement (FR) this week before voting during the week beginning 14 January. If MPs vote to approve the WA and the FR then presumably the UK can proceed with ratification. It will leave the EU on 29 March and the FR will be the subject of lengthy negotiations. If parliamentarians do not approve the WA and FR nobody knows what will happen and the UK will be in a state of constitutional crisis.
Whatever the outcome of the debate this week and the subsequent vote, it is likely that the country will remain bitterly divided and its institutions; government, parliament and the civil service, through lack of cohesion, will continue to find it difficult, if not impossible, to find solutions to serious domestic issues whilst the struggle to define the UK’s role in the world continues. At some point, if the UK is to prosper in the future, parliamentarians will have to acknowledge that the country is in crisis, come together and seek to restore order, to re-establish institutional cohesion and provide the country with the leadership that is now lacking. There will need to be a process of parliamentary and constitutional reform or, as some commentators have suggested, a fundamental change in political culture together with a re-structuring of governmental arrangements.
Such a process is, of course, extremely complex and it would need to be addressed by an august body of suitably experienced men and women. Lord Hailsham, back in 1978, recommended that such a process should be undertaken by a Royal Commission. Others have suggested that a Constitutional Convention might be established to do the job. The process would take time and the resulting recommendations would need to be ratified by parliament and possibly the country in a referendum. That said, it is not too difficult for ordinary people, voters or citizens like me to identify some of the areas that might be considered in a process of reform.
Probably, we can all agree that essential elements in our constitutional arrangements include; an independent judiciary, an independent legislature, a fair and incorruptible electoral system, a representative executive, and a fully functional, impartial civil service. We do have an independent judiciary, as demonstrated in the recent Gina Miller case. Sadly, some parliamentarians and some newspapers have recently denigrated the judiciary by calling Supreme Court Judges “Enemies of the People” but essentially the judiciary remains functional and respected. But it is fair to observe that the same cannot be said about the other elements of our constitutional and parliamentary arrangements:
An Independent Legislature.
At the moment about 88% of MPs now serving in parliament were chosen, in the first instance as prospective parliamentary candidates (PPCs), by panels in the two main political parties i.e. by a very small number of people. Isabel Hardman has written about the inadequacies of the system in her book “Why We Get The Wrong Politicians”. Nobody knows exactly, but there are about 124K members in the Tory party and about 552K in the Labour party, a total of 676K or less than 2% of the total who were eligible to vote in the 2016 referendum The system cannot be described as representative. More importantly, the legislature cannot be said to be independent since, once MPs are elected to parliament, they are controlled, in large part, by party managers and the whips. As David Natzler, Clerk of the House of Commons, said recently, “most members of the UK parliament do not come to Westminster to legislate, but to support their parties.” MPs, our legislators, should be held in the highest regard by the electorate, confident that they are able to consider issues competently and able to vote according to their consciences, completely unfettered by political party dogma or ideology, which leads to consideration of the electoral system.
A Fair and Incorruptible Electoral System.
We have seen recently that the current electoral and political campaigning system is vulnerable to corrupt practice through illegal spending and fraudulent representations, particularly through modern social media. The award-winning, investigative journalist Carol Cadwalladr has written extensively about the levels of corrupt practice inherent in the system. So, as Sir John Major has said recently, serious consideration must be given to reforming the system. I recently received a voting form, arranged by the Electoral Reform Society on behalf of our local hospital, inviting me to vote for hospital governors. The candidates’ CVs, were included to guide me in my choice and the whole process was conducted through the post. It might be possible to use a similar process for national elections. A wide range of independent, aspiring PPCs, from any walk of life, might be encouraged to apply to the Electoral Commission for consideration. After initial vetting by the Commission, a citizens’ panel in a constituency or region might then, by interview, draw up a short list of candidates whose names together with their CVs might be sent to voters by post. By carrying out the procedure directly with voters there would be no need for political party campaigning, which is largely irrelevant and often untrue.
A Representative Executive.
Despite the existence of minor parties, essentially, the UK system is still a two-party, adversarial, majoritarian system that only functions at all when one party or another has a large majority, as is illustrated by the current malaise in parliament. The UK has not yet learned to do coalition politics and consensus building. As a result, the two main political parties put power-seeking before objective analysis of the issues facing the country and if they win a large majority they tend to dictate policy rather than consult before implementation. In effect they see themselves as being ‘in power’, ruling rather than governing and representing all of the country’s citizens. That should change so that there is a balance of influence between the executive and parliament which means a fundamental review of executive prerogative powers. The main aims of government and the executive should be to represent the country internationally and to ensure that the country has properly functioning and independent institutions, especially an elite civil service.
An impartial Civil Service.
As the current Brexit crisis demonstrates, neither individual MPs nor their many factions nor political parties themselves have the capacity to process the vast amount of data relating to complex problems. That task has to be undertaken by a first class, elite civil service working with other institutions including the Bank of England, universities, professional bodies, trade unions, devolved assemblies and citizens’ assemblies. Once its task is complete, all of the options together with the associated ramifications, potential advantages and risks, may be presented to government and legislators in parliament for consideration before free votes are taken to decide on the best possible options in the best interest of everybody in the country. Pascal Lamy, a former Director of the world Trade Organisation, recently said (largely in the context of Brexit negotiations), “I could testify before any tribunal on earth that the most independent, objective, loyal civil service on this planet is in the UK. And I have been working with roughly 100 national services. I have absolutely no doubt. The problem is that the British politicians do not believe it, and that is a tragedy.” So, measures must be taken to re-establish trust in the UK’s civil service and the executive must learn to use it properly rather than rely too much on personal ‘advisors’, thereby enabling viable options to be presented to independent, free-thinking legislators in parliament.
To conclude, it has long been obvious to many distinguished people such as Lord Hailsham in 1978, and many others since, that there is a need for parliamentary and constitutional reform in the UK. The current Brexit crisis, which now amounts to a national emergency, only serves to confirm the need and it leaves ordinary citizens like me at a loss to understand why a proper procedure for reform has not been initiated. The important question to be asked now is, how can a process of reform be initiated? It has been suggested by many people recently that, in this national emergency, it would be appropriate to form a government of national unity or a grand coalition to bring parliamentarians together, to begin a process of reconciliation, reform and consensus building that might lead to the development of a plan for the UK’s future that the country as a whole can support. As ordinary citizens or voters, probably all we can do is write to our elected representatives and ask them to raise the issue of fundamental parliamentary and constitutional reform in the House.