Thursday 16 December 2010

Whose power is it anyway?

It looks as though tuition fees will remain in the news for a while yet.  The Lib Dems, in particular, seem to be determined to keep digging.  Their members in the House of Lords apparently consider that the promise made during the general election was a pledge given by a series of individual candidates, and not a party commitment, so that they are free to vote as they choose.  Another argument for the democratisation of that institution.
Their MPs, of course, managed to split three ways in the vote, the back benchers in particular.  Ministers simply fell in with the long-standing convention that they were duty bound to either support the government or resign.
It’s an interesting convention, and one which seems to have been adopted, pretty much without question, by the devolved institutions in Wales and Scotland.  I think it deserves a bit more challenge than that, and I don’t see why we should tamely adopt conventions just because they've been around a long time and happen to suit those who want to govern us.
The effect of the convention is that a member of a governing party who was elected on a particular set of personal pledges to his or her constituents, and general party commitments to the electorate as a whole, is in fact expected to vote not in accordance with either of those sets of pledges but in accordance with the decisions of the leader of his or her party – even when those decisions are contrary to either or both of those sets of promises.
From that perspective, it’s a rather odd notion of democracy; it seems that ‘government’ trumps both ‘party’ and ‘electors’.  (Opposition members, of course, accuse government members of a lack of principle for doing exactly what they themselves did when in government and will do again if ever re-elected to government.)
I wonder if the roots of the convention don’t lie somewhere in the murky origins of the unwritten constitution of these islands.  It’s rarely put in quite these terms, but the constitutional position is that total power is given to the monarch by God (hence it’s the Archbishop who actually does the crowning), and the monarch exercises that power through HM Government.
But the sky wouldn’t fall in if we reversed that entirely and started from an assumption that power belongs to the people and is merely loaned to our elected members and governments to exercise on our behalf.  The natural expectation would then be that individual members owed their first loyalty not to their government and leadership, but to the people who elected them and the principles and policies on which they were elected.  

It would be a lot less comfortable for governments, but I can't say that I'd lose a lot of sleep over that.  It would mean that they'd have to win the arguments, not just use their muscle; and it might help ordinary electors to feel that they had some influence.


Cibwr said...

Interestingly in Scotland the constitutional convention is that the People are sovereign - not the monarch.

But yes I agree. Though prepare yourself for the argument "well we had good intentions but imagine our surprise when we got into government and we found that the cupboard was bare, its not our fault that we have reneged on our promises its all the fault of the last government".

Spirit of BME said...

Your penultimate paragraph has a problem in that you can not be partly pregnant .If sovereignty rests with the people you have a Republic ,the divine guidance given to the monarch ( the English National anthem is all about this relationship) ceases to have meaning as does the post itself. The USA in its creation faced that issue head on, hence “We the people” – slaves of course were property and not people in this definition!!.
I just love the BBC who reports the dodgy voting in elections for Head of State’s when they fail to mention that subjects of the Crown never have the chance even to hold an election as the monarch gets the job from God with a sprinkling of star dust. Even sadder is that Plaid Cymru AMs and M.P.s swear an oath (or attest) to the legitimacy of this God given power.

John Dixon said...


"Your penultimate paragraph has a problem"

I don't think it has a problem at all; but I entirely agree that "If sovereignty rests with the people you have a Republic". No problem.