In praise of Parliament

George Watson defends a much-maligned institution that is simply the best political idea mankind has had

September 16, 2010

May was an election that nobody won. But one possible outcome is that Parliament won, and people at long last will notice what it is.

The ignorance, after all, is vast. Britain has been a parliamentary state since 1689, when it had the first revolution in modern history to matter. After half a century in higher education, I have yet to hear of anyone researching political literature or lecturing on oratory as a literary art. You will not hear many native accents in the queues outside the Palace of Westminster, and the House of Lords is only spoken of at dinner parties if the talk is about how it might be reformed. If you mention that it has the best debates of any legislature on earth, the talk will shift rapidly to the weather. Nobody wants to know.

They are wrong. Sustained stability is wonderful. A state based on talk rather than violence, for three centuries and more, is a miraculous thing. A state that exported that idea to every continent is a fabulous thing. A state that once listened to Chatham and Gladstone and Churchill deserves an epic poem. It exemplifies the best political idea mankind has ever had, and it is time somebody said so.

Notice what parliamentary government is. It is not necessarily democratic, though it can be, and wisely leaves the execution of power to those who know what problems are; it is not government by a Cabinet, and prime ministers do not easily get their way; or government by a political party, even when one party has a majority in the lower house; or power for civil servants, who warn, interpret and (above all) draft; or the expressed wishes of the public, even in a referendum. Parliamentary government means what it says. So there should be a new graffito: Parliament rules, OK?

So what is Parliament? Not a load of layabouts or crooks, and the media should stop pretending it is. The expenses scandal encouraged people to think members were embezzlers out for what they could get, and it is high time to stop it. The suggestion that people go into politics for the money is laughable. Taking advantage of allowances is no disgrace, and it may be no more shocking than letting your accountant avoid tax. If the regulations are too loosely worded, tighten them.

The monetary rewards of public life are strikingly modest. The bunch-of-crooks myth is hypocritical as well as ignorant. The late Nancy Seear, Liberal leader in the Lords, once remarked that cynicism is the lazy man's excuse for ignorance.

Politics is a noble profession, and deep in their hearts people know it. Parliament means Queen, Lords and Commons, and Edmund Burke called it a triple cord that no man can break. He was right. No man ever did, in three centuries. Not Louis XVI, or Napoleon, or Hitler. Not bad going for layabouts and crooks.

Parties do not exact obedience, and to join is not to share responsibility for what they do or propose. I have been disagreeing with mine for decades, off and on. Not that anybody noticed. But then I was not elected to Parliament. Parties are there to enlarge the possibilities of rational disagreement, a way of finding someone to listen. Join one and find out. Parties are fun, and I don't mean parties where you stand around with a glass in your hand. You can have much more fun than that.

Governments do not have to resign when voted down in Parliament, except in votes of confidence. They are not limited to the advice of their own followers, and anyone who has watched the Commons at work will be impressed by the courtesy with which amendments are traded across the floor. It is not all gladiatorial. You do not need to be in office to legislate, and you never did.

Consensus is nothing to be ashamed of, and it runs deep. It had better. This is the land where troops do not fire on crowds, and to be serious is to engage in the search to keep it so.

I remember years ago travelling across France from a conference with a lady from the Foreign Office who quizzed me about the Liberal view of this foreign crisis and that. I asked if they often wondered at the Foreign Office what Liberals think. She looked at me with the disdain of someone who has just seen a small snail in the salad. "We always wonder," she said.

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