The Crisis of Parliaments
If Brexit marked one blow to Parliament, the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn was another. For the first time in British history, the Leader of the Opposition commands no meaningful support within the House of Commons. He was placed in that role against the express opposition of MPs; and when they attempted to remove him, even serious news outlets described it as a “coup”. A vote of no confidence, backed by three quarters of the parliamentary party, was dismissed as of “no constitutional legitimacy“. Corbyn’s re-election confirmed a remarkable constitutional fact: that the power to appoint the Leader of the Opposition no longer resides in Parliament. Labour MPs now huddle together on the backbenches, powerless behind a leader whose mandate is entirely extra-parliamentary.
Only a happy accident prevented an even more serious constitutional anomaly on the Conservative benches. If Andrea Leadsom had not given a foolish interview to the newspapers, bringing a premature end to the Tory leadership race, Britain would now have its first directly elected Prime Minister. The new premier would have been placed in Downing Street, not by Parliament, nor even by the electorate, but by 170,000 entirely anonymous party members. Not since the Great Reform Act have a few hundred thousand people exercised so much unaccountable and undemocratic power.
Does it matter?
Does any of this matter? Parliament is a medieval institution in a digital age, and there have always been those who suspect that it exists rather to frustrate the popular will than to enact it. Surveys consistently rank MPs alongside journalists, estate agents and bankers as the professions least trusted by the public, a sentiment deepened by Iraq, Chilcot and the expenses scandal. Why have MPs at all when, as the Daily Express notes, we already have “a government carrying out the will of the people“?
It is this that underpins a parliamentary system. The word “Parliament” comes from the French word “to speak”. It is a place where the different classes and interests that make up a nation come together to parley. MPs talk, debate and bargain; they make compromises, in order to build coalitions of support. Where agreement cannot be reached, the majority must decide; but even majorities are alignments of conflicting ideas and intentions, pulling in different directions even as they coalesce around a temporary position. That’s why there are 329 MPs on the government benches, rather than one MP wielding 329 votes.
In a parliamentary system, dissidents are outvoted, but not silenced. They can test and challenge the majority, asking difficult questions and trying to peel off support. Opposition is not just expected; it is institutionalised. A shadow administration exists throughout the duration of the parliament, led by “the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition”. The archaic title captures something important: that opposition is itself a patriotic duty.
‘The true meaning of democracy’
The vision of democracy currently taking root is very different. For the tabloids, in particular, “the will of the people” is clear and unambiguous. Those who oppose it are guilty of treason against democracy. “Time to silence Brexit whingers“, proclaims the Daily Express. “Damn the Bremoaners and their plot to subvert the will of the British people“, the Daily Mail expostulates. For a columnist in the Express, no punishment could be too severe for critics of Brexit:
Here’s what I would do with them: clap them in the Tower of London … we should give them 28 days against their will to reflect on the true meaning of democracy. We’re in the midst of an exhilarating people’s revolution and those who stand in the way of the popular will must take what’s coming to them.
The Telegraph was only slightly more measured: “all parliamentarians”, it decreed, must “get behind Mrs May and her ministers”. After all, “why would ministers be seeking anything other than the best possible outcome for the country?”
This vision of “the people” as a single intelligence, issuing instructions to politicians, is a dangerous fantasy, made possible only by the vigorous suppression of dissenting voices. The 16 million voters who backed Remain are summarily expelled from the people; they are no longer “people” at all. When Nigel Farage proclaimed, on the morning of 24 June, that Brexit was a victory for “real people“, he meant precisely that. To the populist, minorities are not “real people”; they are traitors and quislings, “metropolitan elites” whose “snake-like treachery cannot go unpunished“. Their views are of no consequence, except as a source of unpatriotic resistance.
In truth, the voice of the people is like the announcements on the London Underground: loud but often difficult to understand, because so many people are talking at once. In populist visions of democracy, only the voice that shouts loudest deserves a hearing. Whether that means the Daily Mail and the Murdoch press or the Momentum faction in the Labour party, that is a grim prospect for our democratic future.
Over the next two years, the country will confront a series of momentous policy questions, none of which was on the ballot paper in June. What trade relationship do we want with the EU, and what price are we willing to pay? How do we rewrite our laws, after 40 years of integration? What do we want to keep, and what must we replace? Our fractured politics has never been more in need of a place where competing ideas and interests can gather to argue, to educate and to inform. What we have instead is a prime minister channelling the malevolent spirits of the tabloid press, wielding prerogative powers and “Henry VIII clauses“, while dissent is shouted down as an offence against the people.
If we want to turn this around, we’ll have to fight for it. That means demanding the right of Parliament, not just to “have a say” on Brexit, or to vote on some meaningless one-line bill expressly designed to shut down discussion, but to take the lead in determining Britain’s new direction. It means not being cowed by the thugs in the tabloid press, whose language increasingly resembles that of the Blackshirts they so admired in the 1930s. It means not putting up with the delusion that Jeremy Corbyn, one of the least popular leaders in British electoral history, has an unparalleled “democratic mandate”, which demands the obeisance of MPs elected by 9 million Labour voters. But it also means admitting where Parliament has been complicit in its own decline.
MPs must take much of the blame for their shrunken status. Parliament was badly damaged by the Iraq vote, when too few MPs were willing to resist the pressure of government and the tabloid press. The expenses scandal did colossal damage, as did the parachuting of party apparatchiks into safe seats with which they had little connection. Above all, an indefensible electoral system has shut out from Parliament significant bodies of opinion that deserved a hearing. When 4.5 million people vote UKIP at a general election, and are rewarded with a solitary MP, we should not be surprised if they conclude that Parliament is something done to them by an external elite.
If Parliament is to revive, we must do more than simply forget that 2016 ever happened. The culture, behaviour and institutions of Parliament all need to change – a subject to which I will return. But it is a fight worth having, if we are to retain a democracy that is pluralistic, discursive and respectful of minority opinions. As 2016 limps unlamented from the stage, let us take back our parliamentary democracy.