Weak constitution

25 Jun 09
PHILIP JOHNSTON | John Bercow’s election as Speaker has been seen as the triumph of the common man over the old Etonian. In reality, Parliament is in serious danger.

John Bercow’s election as Speaker has been seen as the triumph of the common man over the old Etonian. In reality, Parliament is in serious danger.

There was a time when to have been to Eton was a portal to power and influence. Now, attending the school that supplied 19 former prime ministers – and educated the man who might well be the next occupant of Number 10 – can be a handicap. In the contest to become the new Speaker of the House of Commons, the characteristics that most counted against Sir George Young would once have been considered advantages: he is an Old Etonian baronet who went to Christ Church, Oxford.

He was beaten to the post by the son of a taxi driver who went to Essex University. Leaving aside some of the political shenanigans that were going on (such as Labour MPs exacting revenge for the way Michael Martin was forced out) John Bercow was seen as the ‘modern’ candidate. His demotic antecedents were considered by many MPs to be more in keeping with twenty-first century Britain.

Furthermore, he is said to be emblematic of the wider reforms that are needed to rescue Parliament from the fusty institution it has remained, with its arcane language, men in tights and old-fashioned ways.

This, at any rate, is the narrative that surrounds the elevation of Bercow; and it is complete rubbish. His background is less privileged than Young’s but, measured against that of his predecessor, who grew up in a Glasgow tenement, it was positively middle class. Bercow does not represent a social advance, any more than Young, had he won, would have been a nineteenth century throwback.

But a dangerous conclusion is being drawn from the great scandal that has engulfed the Commons and was responsible for Bercow’s unlikely elevation. It is a growing belief that we should throw the constitutional baby out with the expenses bathwater. Gordon Brown has already set out an agenda for reform that involves scrapping the Act of Settlement, disestablishing the Church of England, opening up a debate about proportional representation for elections to the Commons and electing the House of Lords. Even if an argument can be made for one or all of these reforms, to tear down a constitutional edifice so painstakingly constructed over many centuries would be madness.

Brown does not have the mandate to pursue such a radical agenda; and there are signs that even though he survived the recent attempt to dislodge him, he will be gone by the end of the year – allowing a new leader time to prepare for an election next spring.

It is arguable that the modernising fetishism of New Labour is responsible for the mess in which the Commons now finds itself – which Peter Hennessy, the constitutional historian, has said will take ten years to repair. When Labour took office in 1997, the ‘family-friendly’ reforms changed the hours of sitting and curtailed the parliamentary week. The prime minister used to take questions twice a week but now does so only on a Wednesday. All legislation is timetabled, sometimes to the point where it is not scrutinised at all by MPs.

These might seem inconsequential points; but they add up to a diminution of the power of backbench MPs who increasingly regard themselves less as parliamentarians than as political hacks, a development encouraged by the animus on the Labour side against outside earnings.

The one constitutional change that is needed is to rein in the power of the Executive. And yet, for the first time since at least 1689, the Commons is surrendering the power to run its own financial affairs to an outside regulatory body, something guaranteed further to undermine its status and self-confidence.

The history of our parliamentary democracy is one of tension between the Executive – whether the monarch or the Cabinet – and Parliament. The balance has once again tipped too far towards the Executive and needs to be redressed. This does not require wholesale constitutional reform that risks entrenching the current weakness of the legislature.

If Speaker Bercow presides over the demise of an independent Parliament and the arrival of the full-time ‘modern’ professional MP, then the country may have wished the Commons had opted for the Old Etonian after all.

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