Thursday 30 April 2015

Legislating isn't governing

Much of what has been and is being said about the situation which will arise after the election is predicated on the assumption that governments must command a majority in the House of Commons, and if no party has such a majority in its own right, then it has to take steps to guarantee the support of one or more other parties.  It isn’t entirely true, though.
For sure, there are one or two key votes where a majority is necessary for the continuation of a government.  Passing the budget and fending off votes of no confidence are the two obvious examples.  But these are far from being everyday occurrences.  As a general rule, the executive can govern without much need to refer anything to the legislature.
Power to ‘govern’ isn’t – and never has been – vested in the House of Commons.  It is, instead, passed by the sovereign directly to ‘her’ (not ‘our’) ministers, and is generally exercised in Whitehall, not Westminster.  Governments and Ministers have to work within any rules or constraints set down by legislation, of course; and a government without a majority might find it challenging to introduce new legislation or amend existing legislation without being certain of a majority. 
Having said that, most clauses of most bills are singularly uncontentious.  Whilst the impression which the parliamentarians like to give us is of a fierce line by line fight on each and every act of parliament, that picture bears little relation to reality.  A government without a majority would and could still get a lot of non-contentious legislation through parliament; it’s only the most politically contentious issues which would cause a problem.
This was precisely the position facing Alex Salmond and the SNP between 2007 and 2011.  They managed it on an issue by issue basis; and by avoiding proposing any legislation that they knew could never pass (which is why they had to wait until 2014 for the referendum).  But it worked.  In fact it worked very well, and the Scots clearly believed that they had a competent and effective government.
The problem which the pundits and politicians are getting so exercised about isn’t that a minority government can’t work – it’s that it’s something that they’ve never given enough thought to, because they’re hung up on the macho image of a ‘strong’ government steamrollering its programme through parliament.   The idea that a government could quietly get on with governing, and tone down its legislative programme to that which they can get through, is a strange concept to them even though it’s long been the norm in many other countries.
Governing isn’t legislating; and legislating isn’t governing.  It will do the UK no harm at all to develop a better understanding of that distinction.  It might even provoke people into giving a bit more thought to what parliament is for.  Although, on reflection, that might be at least a part of what’s worrying them.

No comments: