In preparation for the meeting in Harrogate on Saturday I gave my starter for ten of ideas for improving our democracy on Monday, which elicited some excellent comments. Witterings from Witney gives a typically robust response to my last post which I hope to respond to before I have to share a car with him for 4 hours on Friday.
In this post I aim to develop further some more ideas on how to improve and change what is a failing Parliament in its current state.
Unlike many other current democracies which had a definite starting point, where checks and balances could be established from the outset, our Parliament has largely been one of constant reform over centuries. It is therefore still a work in progress - progress that is now going significantly backwards. On the basis that power is always taken never given this has resulted in us being in a situation where we are constantly being on the back foot, by having to 'take' any checks and balances that are required and necessary for a fully functioning democracy. Unsurprisingly Parliament has historically been most unwilling to give up those powers readily. The road to true representative democracy therefore has been slow and one where thus far we haven't reached.
So where we currently end up is a halfway measure of a significant blurring of powers - fusion of powers - between the legislative and executive. This is most symbolically evident on the green benches, where part of the legislative sits with the government and opposite sits the rest of the legislative; the green benches usually split along tribal party lines. So instead of accountability via legislative vs executive, we have instead some legislative and executive vs the rest of the legislative. Accountability of the Government is diminished as a result.
Such a situation makes the Prime Minister too powerful - having control as he does over the Government and parts of the legislative. This coupled with the lack of the usual restraints, enjoyed in other countries such as a codified constitution, means Parliament is essentially a law unto itself (which is partly the point) - only restricted by measly (and rigged) elections every 5 years. The only checks and balances seemingly evident consist partly of, tradition, a sense of public duty and Parliamentary conventions, almost from another age - all of which have proven to be woefully inadequate when push came to shove. For example conventions can be ignored on a whim (see page 6). Thus the current setup allows for widescale abuse of the system for party political benefits.
In addition as a last resort we also need a 'long stop', to prevent the ultimate abuse of power, giving it away to someone else. As a Constitutional Monarchy that obviously and currently falls to the Queen. Again trust and tradition relied on her Coronation Oath to fulfil her duty. But as has been proved many times this has turned out to be woefully inadequate. Despite her limited powers, the one power, and duty, she did have she failed to enforce - effectively abdicating (Elizabeth II, EU Citizen). Now, I don't propose abolishing the Monarchy, we can still wheel her out to wave at foreign tourists then she can go back to her glorified council house to play with her Tupperware set, but as a constitutional 'long stop' she failed abysmally.
Therefore I feel it's necessary, in additional to my previous proposals, to have a codified constitution upheld by a Constitutional Court, essentially making it the unmovable long stop. It is temping to include a proposal to have a referendum by people on any constitutional changes in the future, however as the experience in Ireland has shown, that is never any defence against a decline in democracy - Ireland is more immersed in the EU project than we are, despite numerous referendums. I'm more inclined to follow the German model, of a designated Constitutional Court, though it's not without faults. However the German Constitutional Court is doing what it was is designed for; namely upholding German Basic Law even if it means global economic turmoil via the Eurozone crisis as a consequence.
Another proposal is to help define the separation of powers further by having a directly elected Prime Minister. As it currently stands we elect MPs who elect the party leader who then is usually appointed by the Queen as Prime Minister. This creates the de facto situation at General Elections where votes are cast in favour of who we want as Prime Minister rather than who we want as a local MP. This was illustrated quite clearly at the last election where, not only was Gordon Brown wrongly criticised for not being elected as PM - yes he was by the constituents of Kirkcaldy and then by his own party - but also by the televised debates which turned 2010 into a Presidential-style campaign where no Presidential system exists. Not even Witterings From Witney can vote for a Prime Minister. Therefore a separation of vote for Prime Minister and MPs can help in my view of clearing up the confusion (or fusion).
Even as a symbolic move I would also prevent ministers from sitting on the green benches, make them for the legislatives only. Ministers and the Prime Minister in turn should have seperate seats in front of the Speaker. This will help to facilitate, in mood at the very least, that the legislative and executive branches should be separate.
I aim to have another couple of posts up before Saturday.
Samizdata quote of the day
48 minutes ago