Tuesday 15 January 2019

Who elects the government?

There’s nothing at all unusual about the way in which politicians have reacted to the apparent rewriting of the rules by the Speaker; those who are happy with the outcome of the vote which he allowed are praising him, and those dismayed by it are criticising him.  There’s something less than entirely honest about supporting whichever process gives the ‘desired’ result, but it’s a natural tendency.
Some of the responses seem to be more than a little ‘over-the-top’ but are all the more revealing for that.  For me, the idea that allowing MPs to amend motions placed before them is some sort of ‘coup’, and ‘threatens the ability of the Government to govern’ exposes just how supine the elected legislature has become.  It also illustrates just how arcane the procedures of parliament have become - and the idea that some motions are ‘unamendable’ and that the government controls the timetable of the legislature both serve to limit the power of the legislature.
It’s worth bearing in mind that, in the UK (and the National Assembly in many ways apes this approach), we do not elect a government, only (part of) a legislature; the government is then drawn from that legislature by whoever the monarch appoints as Prime Minister (usually, but not necessarily, the leader of the largest party).  In effect, for most government activity, ministers then exercise their powers on behalf of the crown, not parliament; they only need parliament to approve their budget and any changes to the law – and a government can, in theory at least, govern for years without changing any laws if it so wishes.  What the Speaker has done has handed back some power from those we don’t directly elect to those we do directly elect, and he’s been able to do so because so much of the procedure of parliament depends on ‘precedent’ rather than on formal rules – the idea that decisions on process taken by one Speaker bind his or her successors for eternity.
More importantly, the row exposes to examination the curious relationship in the UK system between the Executive and the Legislature, and I, for one, don’t much like what I see.  There are several reasons why parliament has allowed itself to become the servant rather than the master of the government – it’s an arrangement which has suited governments of all parties, and because the Executive is drawn from the Legislature there are always plenty of ambitious legislators eyeing a role in government.  There are a lot of aspects of the US system which I don’t like, but in principle, the idea of electing the Government and the Legislature separately has a lot of attractions.  In many ways, the UK system has become much more ‘presidential’ over the years, but in an essentially undemocratic fashion.  Why not go the whole hog and separate the Executive branch completely from the Legislative branch?  We could call it something like ‘giving back control to parliament’.

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