Friday 2 February 2024

Mathematics, Pure and Applied


In response to a question from the soon-to-be-former MP for Ynys Môn, the soon-to-be-former Leader of the House of Commons expressed her shock at the plan to increase the membership of the Senedd. Following a quick sum which demonstrated that she does at least have a basic command of primary school arithmetic, Mordaunt pointed out that if the size of the House of Commons was based on the same ratio of members to population, there would be 2,058 MPs. She should probably stick to carrying swords – at least then she’d only have to demonstrate the limits of her understanding once every coronation. And silently, at that.

Whilst the outcome of her quick calculation is mathematically accurate, several other things are equally true based on a similar calculation. If the ratio of elected members to population in the UK parliament mirrored the Scottish parliament, there would be 1,591 MPs, if it matched the Legislative Assembly of Northern Ireland, there would be 3,221, if it matched Portsmouth Council (which covers Mordaunt’s constituency) there would be 13,569, and if it matched my local community council, there would be 765,113 MPs. And there are corollaries, of course – if we take the House of Commons as our starting point, the Senedd should have only 32 members, Portsmouth Council should have 2 members, and Town and Community Councils should be abolished. As an exercise in pure mathematics, about the only sphere in which it’s rational to divorce the numbers from all meaning and start comparing apples and oranges, it’s mildly interesting. But in the real world it’s pointless and irrelevant.

The question is, or should be, what is the best number for the membership of a particular elected body, taking into account the population, responsibilities, demographics and geography. And the truth is that there is no ‘right’ answer to that question. Mordaunt’s response – typical of a Westminster MP – is based on the unstated assumption that Westminster has it right. Of course. The body charged with looking at the numbers of members of the Senedd considered a number of what they felt to be comparable legislative bodies across the world, but even doing that contains an implicit assumption that those bodies might have got it right. Ultimately, it’s a matter of opinion, and opinions will differ. Mordaunt, like the soon-to-be-former MP for Ynys Môn, clearly feels that 96 is ‘too many’, but the cynical amongst us might think that they’d say much the same if it was proposed to reduce the number to 10, or even 1.

Few politicians – especially those in an institution which considers itself to have absolute sovereignty over everything, even to the extent of declaring the truth to be untrue – like the idea that some power might be held elsewhere. Fortunately for them (to say nothing of the rest of us) their ‘soon-to-be-former’ status means that they won’t have to worry about it for long.

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