Party tricks

Parliament in the 21st Century
September 22, 2006

If you had purchased a book titled Parliament in the 21st Century , you might well assume that it was an exercise in futurology, akin to Robert Hazell's Constitutional Futures: A History of the Next Ten Years. If so, I am afraid you should ask for your money back, as this book mostly describes the past. Not only does this mean a lost opportunity, but there is already an extensive literature, the principal competitor being Vernon Bogdanor's collection, The British Constitution in the 20th Century (2004), which covers largely the same material.

Nicholas Baldwin's book includes a total of 30 "op-ed" length contributions and is stronger on anecdote than analysis. True to his Liberal Democrat inclinations, the book is scrupulously pluralistic: whereas Bogdanor has one essay on the House of Commons and one on the House of Lords, Baldwin has three and four respectively. All very inclusive, but of necessity each contribution is short and overlapping.

In the more forward-looking chapters, Barry Winetrobe argues that the best way to cure the problems of Westminster is to follow the Scottish Parliament model. However, it is not entirely clear how the Scottish Parliament has reduced the domination of party, and it looks as if a parliament "close to the people" will be increasingly the pawn of lobbyists, interests and single-issue pressure groups.

Graham Thomas's excellent chapter shows how essential it is in a "fused" constitutional system for the Prime Minister to be a committed parliamentarian. Before 1940, PMs were simultaneously Leaders of the House, since when it has been downhill all the way. For the current PM, "the box that counts is the television set rather than the despatch box".

Lord Wakeham describes why his commission recommended that the upper house should continue to be primarily an appointed chamber, claiming that "any system of election to the second chamber would be unlikely to produce people who were broadly representative of British society". Another contributor, Geoffrey Howe, has even argued (elsewhere) that members of the Lords should be appointed by lottery, as the ballot box has paradoxically led to a situation whereby party leaders are more powerful than Stuart monarchs. Meg Russell points out that the unelected House of Lords "now more closely resembles the pattern of general election votes cast than does the House of Commons". Given the consensus view that the revitalised Lords is exercising its scrutiny function far better than the Commons, it is hard to understand the continuing calls for Lords reform.

One area where Baldwin's book wins is the growth of media power - Bogdanor ignores it, whereas Baldwin includes a useful chapter by Times columnist Peter Riddell. However, it is disappointing that Riddell offers no suggestions as to how the beast might be tamed. Perhaps it is difficult for a Murdoch employee to advocate limits on media cross-ownership and guarantees of editorial independence, but Baldwin, in his concluding chapter, might have referred to Ivor Jennings's analysis of how past irruptions of political power have been legitimised by informal constitutional convention. If this worked for the TUC and even the BBC, then why not the rest of the media?

This book will serve as a useful undergraduate-level introduction to the British constitution at the start of the century, but I went away feeling disappointed. Perhaps it is only natural that those who earn their living through politics - either as practitioners or educators - will be disinclined to rock the boat by boldly stating that parliamentary democracy no longer works. Baldwin claims that Walter Bagehot was one of the architects of the "classic liberal" view of our constitution, upholding the supremacy of Parliament. In fact, Bagehot was of the view that "efficient" government (in 1867) was by secret cabinet committee and that Parliament was in danger of joining the monarch on the "dignified" benches.

One of the consequences of "modernisation" has been that MPs have even more time to devote to constituency matters; most of them are now professional politicians, and holding the Government to account is certainly not a route to re-election and preferment. Now that international development policy is decided by pop stars, school-meals policy by celebrity chefs, railway policy by UBS Warburg and everything else by the McKinsey consultancy, is it not time to question the complacent conclusion of this book that the Commons "is gradually becoming more effective as a mechanism for the scrutiny and control of the executive"?

After all, the Baldwin/Forman chapter shows the doctrine of ministerial accountability to be more honoured in the breach than the observance - Beverley Hughes's real crime was misleading the presenter of Newsnight , not lying to Parliament. Party membership has dropped from around one in ten in the 1960s to one in 100. As Austin Mitchell puts it in his chapter: "The parties that dominate the lives of backbenchers are decaying at the roots but paradoxically getting more powerful in Parliament." Now that the House of Lords is seen as more representative than the Commons, alarm bells should be ringing all over the land.

Keith Sutherland is the author of The Rape of the Constitution? and The Party's Over .

Parliament in the 21st Century

Editor - Nicholas Baldwin
Publisher - Politico's
Pages - 458
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 1 845 103 4

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