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.
The evenings are drawing in, Autumn will be upon us soon. Parliament is re-convening on 4 September and it looks as if we will be in for more turbulent times. So it is comforting to look back on a glorious summer day in Cornwall. The view from Zennor Head looking west was wonderful back in June.
Sir Patrick Stewart, a life-long Labour Party supporter, recently declared that he no longer knew what the party stood for and thought that he might vote for the Green Party in future. During his interview with Tim Walker for The New European, 16 August 2018, he said:
“I have a suspicion Jeremy (Corbyn) believes a disastrous Brexit would benefit him politically, and, in all the chaos and confusion that would occur after the policy is implemented – in either a hard or soft way, I might add – he sees himself taking power. It seems to me to be just plain wrong to play with the country’s future in this way.”
It might also be argued that long-term supporters of the Conservative Party are now facing a similar dilemma. With the emergence of the European Research Group (ERG) within the Conservative Party and the potential it has to ally with the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) as well as far right activists such as Stephen K Bannon, it is difficult for a potential Conservative supporter to know exactly what he or she might be voting for. One Nation Conservatives, in parliament and in the party generally, are now fighting for power against the ERG supported by UKIP and activists such as Bannon. Voters might well find it difficult, if not impossible, to tell which of these factions their candidate might support and in what direction the party might travel.
Sir Patrick’s reference to “taking power” as the main objective, as opposed to focussing on addressing the country’s problems objectively, is all important. At the moment, party-politics, between the major political parties, and factional power struggles within the parties, are the cause of the current crisis over Brexit and the reason why vital issues such as the establishment of a sustainable health and care system are not being addressed. There is no trusted forum (parliament/legislature) in which issues can be considered objectively and decisions made in the interest of everybody in the country.
At the moment, UK officials are in discussions with their EU counterparts to reach agreements on the UK’s withdrawal from the Union and the future relationship between the UK and the EU. Prime Minister May’s Chequers White Paper was a proposal to enable the discussions to progress. Without doubt, it will be modified but, by October, there probably will be a form of agreement that can be presented to Parliament for consideration and it may be that a majority in Parliament will be able to accept it as a basis for managing an orderly withdrawal from the Union, albeit with further necessary development of detail. However, judging by the Leavers’ and Remainers’ campaigning that is already increasing in, sometimes acrimonious, intensity, there is a real possibility that an agreement reached between the UK and EU officials by October will not be acceptable to either side and the UK’s party political system will be log-jammed. The essentially two-party system will have broken down leaving the country leaderless in a political vacuum.
Reform of the UK’s political party system in the short-term, especially in the middle of a major crisis is impossible but it might be possible in due course. In fact, given the current level of political malaise, it is reasonable to argue that reform of the UK’s constitutional and parliamentary arrangements will be essential at some stage if the country is to prosper. But for the immediate future, unless parliament and the country as a whole can accept the forthcoming October agreement as a basis for working out the UK’s future, to avoid total chaos and the possibility of those with Fascist tendencies from filling the political void, some way must be found to build a consensus in parliament. Pragmatic legislators, from both sides of the House, will have to come together to consider the facts in an objective fashion without regard for party-political, short-term tactics and undue influence from party managers and the whips.
Some have argued recently that the formation of a new party of the centre might help to break the log-jam but it is difficult to see how such a party could be formed in the short-term. Perhaps the UK can just muddle along until one party prevails or some sort of coalition emerges but that would entail prolonged, very damaging uncertainty. Who knows how this will work out, but, after October, if the UK descends further into crisis there can be little doubt that it will be in a state close to emergency. Should that turn out to be the case, it might be wise for the UK’s leaders to jointly recognise that fact and try to form a Government of National Unity capable of working for the benefit of the people, without influence from ideological extremists.
“The time has come to build a consensus about the changes that we can make together to help renew trust and confidence in our democratic institutions, to make them fit for the modern world and to begin properly to articulate and celebrate what it means to be British.”
That statement was made at paragraph 8 in the introduction section of the Government Green Paper, ‘The Governance of Britain’, that was presented to Parliament in July 2007.
At paragraph 212, the paper said:
“But there is now a growing recognition of the need to clarify not just what it means to be British but what it means to be the United Kingdom. This might in time lead to a concordat between the Executive and Parliament or a written constitution.”
And in the last two paragraphs it said:
“214. Our national identity is founded in the values we hold in common, manifest through our history and our institutions. If we are to forge the shared sense of national purpose we need to meet the economic and social challenges ahead, our institutions must reflect those values.
215. The programme of constitutional reform set out in this document seeks to meet that objective by renewing our democracy. This task does not fall to government alone, but to all the people of these islands – and the discussion now begins.”
The discussion did begin and a lot of consultation took place on various aspects of the document, but the process was not finished. A Political and Constitutional Reform Committee was established for the period 2010 to 2015, its remit to consider political and constitutional reform. Then, in 2015, with the next change in government, a Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee was formed and the emphasis changed. The forward-looking drive for constitutional reform dissipated.
Now, far from having clarified what it means to be British, government, parliamentarians and the country as a whole have not been able to decide what the United Kingdom’s relationship with Europe and the rest of the world will be in the future. Hopefully, when the negotiations with Europe are further advanced, it will be possible to initiate another process, similar to the one started in 2007. Whatever the outcome of the negotiations, it will be necessary for the government of the day, together with parliamentarians from across the political spectrum, and the country as a whole to reach a consensus about who we are and what our role in the world is to be.
Sadly, a potential obstacle to reaching such a consensus might be the adversarial nature of our two-party political system in which both parties might seek to gain electoral advantage from any proposed change. Solving that problem is extremely difficult as it would involve re-thinking the role that we want political parties to play in our politics. Ideally, they should be organisations that develop ideas for consideration by Parliament, not power seeking entities in constant electioneering mode. Parliamentarians, in turn, should be free to vote with their consciences without fear of retribution from party whips.
We live in hope.
In 2017 the UK had the fifth biggest economy in the world, by Gross Domestic Product (GDP), according to the United Nations, a fact that has often been used to express the importance of the UK in the world order.
Other indices also indicate that the UK ranks very highly but slightly less so than a simple comparison of GDP would suggest. For example, the Happiness Report 2018, published by the UN as a human development indicator, placed the UK 19th out of 156 countries. And other indices placed the UK in a similar position in the rankings:
- GDP (Nominal) per capita. IMF 2017. 22/187.
- GDP (Purchasing Power Parity) per capita. IMF 2017. 26/187.
- Human Development Index. UN 2016. 19/51.
Finland replaced Denmark in the top spot of the World Happiness rankings published in 2018 but it is interesting to note that all of the Scandinavian countries, together with Switzerland, have consistently ranked in the top ten of that list and all other indices.
As has been explained by the political comparativist Arend Lijphart, all of those countries have consensual models of democracy unlike the UK which has a highly majoritarian model of democracy.
At the moment, the UK is bitterly divided within and between political parties and across the country as a whole because of the decision, by referendum, to leave the European Union. However, there is some evidence to suggest that members of parliament are recognising a need for cross-party, non-partisan deliberation in trying to address the problems that the country faces. It is perhaps most apparent in the progress being made by the cross-party, parliamentary select committees.
As all the indices show, the UK’s performance compared with other nations is not at all bad. It might slip a little over the next few years but, perhaps, when its relationship with Europe is eventually settled and the current heated arguments dissipate, cross-party, non-partisan, deliberative processes might be further developed to make the UK model of democracy more consensual. That, in turn, might help to make the UK a much happier place than it is now.
Here is an interesting observation:
“most members of the UK parliament do not come to Westminster expressly to legislate, but to support their parties.”
That statement was made by David Natzler, the Clerk of the House of Commons, during a seminar held in parliament on 15 November 2017 to discuss the findings of Meg Russell and Daniel Gover published in their book ‘Legislation at Westminster’. It gives pause for thought and is a little worrying in that it seems to imply that most MPs, or a very significant number of them, simply do what they are told by their party managers, the whips.
That, in turn, implies that policy and legislation is being developed by a very small number of people and the broad consideration of issues across the whole of parliament is being lost. It might then be argued that when governments have large majorities, parliamentary consideration is lost completely. When there is a minority government, the system leads to polarisation and deadlock.
MPs should think of themselves, and be thought of, first and foremost, as legislators with a duty to properly consider all issues using their individual intellectual powers; to objectively analyse evidence and arguments from all relevant agencies before voting according to their consciences, free from constraint or diktat from party managers. But for that to be possible, the way in which parliamentary business is conducted would have to change.
Wholesale reformation of constitutional and parliamentary arrangements in the UK is impossible and an attempt to undertake it is probably undesirable. It would simply be too complex and difficult to manage. However, beneficial modifications to parliamentary procedure might well be possible in a process of manageable evolution.
As Meg Russell and Daniel Gover have explained and David Natzler has emphasised, the relatively recent development of the select committees in parliament has already had a significant impact on the legislative process. MPs are finding that it is possible to consider complex issues in great detail by listening to non-partisan and very experienced practitioners. That process of consultation enables specialist legislators to understand issues better, to build a cross-party consensus and to make well thought through recommendations to the legislature as a whole.
With that progress in mind, it might be possible to contemplate a number of measures that might improve parliamentary procedure. For example, MPs, especially those new to parliament might be given more training designed to enable them to become effective legislators; training that might emphasise their role as independent decision makers.
Then, consideration might be given to making all votes in parliament free votes. And, it might be possible to modify the procedure relating to the passage of bills through parliament so that more weight might be given to the findings of select committees. The House of Lords Constitution Committee is currently taking evidence to answer their question, ‘Should there be greater select committee involvement in legislative scrutiny?’
There are encouraging signs that MPs as legislators are increasingly acknowledging the need to build consensus through cross-party consultation. Hopefully, that trend will continue so that parliament can become more consensual, truly representative and effective in making good legislation.