Two days before Parliament
In London's Parliament Square ... the dominance of urban politics.
WHAT is the role of parliament in a parliamentary democracy? A silly question, you may reply; the answer is obvious.
Indeed it is, but only up to a point, if the U.K. experience is anything to go by. Throughout recent weeks of concern about British policy towards Iraq, and about United States policy, most of the debate has been on television and radio, in the newspapers, at political party meetings, at prime ministerial press conferences. It has not taken place in Parliament. Indeed Parliament is in recess.
As I wrote in the last "Cambridge Letter" many MPs, including many on the Government side, have been anxious about the direction in which Government policy has seemed to be going. They have repeatedly called for the recall of Parliament. The Government showed marked reluctance, and there was even a move by one back-bencher to organise a kind of unofficial meeting of Parliament.
The Government has now agreed, and Parliament will be meeting two days after this article appears, but it raises an important constitutional point: who controls Parliament?
In theory, Parliament is supreme and makes its own decisions. The separation of powers means that the government of the day is answerable to Parliament. In practice, Government dictates the agenda, particularly when the Government, as is the case now, has a large majority, and when, as is also the case, the official (Conservative) Opposition is weak, floundering and unconvincing in its policies.
A further factor is that Parliament is seen to be much less important than in the fairly recent past. Until the 1960s, for instance, serious newspapers provided full coverage of parliamentary debates. Now none does. Of course there are many reasons. Notably, the means of communication have developed rapidly, and the exposure of politicians to radio and television inquisition and the "spin" which the politicians for their part employ, have become far more sophisticated.
The trouble with all that is that none of the alternatives has adequately replaced the crucial role of Parliament in holding ministers, and governments, to account, and in doing so with a mandate from the people.
In these circumstances, it is not surprising that other ways are found to put across opinions, and to attempt to formulate, or change, or influence government policies. As you read this, for example, if all goes according to their plans, the Countryside Alliance will be bringing thousands of people to London for a demonstration about the problems facing rural life.
The Countryside Alliance is a vocal pressure group which has been increasingly dominated by the pro-fox hunting lobby. As a result, many of the real problems facing rural areas have been obscured. There is indeed a shortage of jobs in many areas. Many farmers are in financial difficulty. Rural public transport services are often inadequate. Villages lack shops and post offices. And so on. A proposed ban on fox-hunting (on grounds of cruelty) is really irrelevant to these issues "though to listen to the hunting lobby you would think a ban would end civilisation as we know it". Our centuries-old way of life is under threat is the message, and it is tendentious nonsense. I have lived most of my adult life in a village and spent my childhood in a largely rural area. Most of the people I have known have not taken any part in hunting. Most are opposed to it.
Major political issues, whether domestic like this, or international, like Iraq, are surely best treated in a properly organised political setting, and that, in a parliamentary democracy, must involve Parliament. This is not just a quirky personal view. This afternoon, I posted the form confirming details to be included in the next issue of the parliamentary electoral register. I am obliged to do so under various Representation of the People Acts. The law sees registering the right to vote for Members of Parliament as important enough to be obligatory. MPs' determination not to be ignored is, in my book, highly commendable.
There is an interesting footnote from an event which received minimal publicity this week. A MEP (Member of the European Parliament) decided to resign because of frustration. Groups of MEPs represent large regions of the country, under a system of whose effect is that they are largely unknown to their constituents. Some clearly feel that in these circumstances they cannot properly do their jobs. Political representatives need to be able to be truly representative, if they are to form an effective forum for decisions.
The writer is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge, U.K.. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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