If elected on 12 December, will a new Tory government unleash an attack on some of the democratic traditions we have taken for granted for many years? After all, during the last parliament there were frequent attacks on MPs’ attempts to hold the government to account over Brexit because, as representatives of the people, they wanted to have a final say on the proposed withdrawal deal and taking ‘no deal’ off the table. A case of the Commons ‘taking back control’ you might say.
The Commons elected only two years earlier, reflected the close division in the UK over leaving the EU, so it was no surprise after the election when the government having failed to seek a cross party approach to leaving, acted in the way they did. But it was not just the Commons that sought to take back control, to exercise Parliamentary sovereignty, the courts were also involved. That’s not the way the right wing press saw it over the past three years. Accusations of ‘Enemies of the People’ and ‘The House of Fools’(Daily Mail), ‘EU Dirty Rats’(Sun) and ‘Parliament surrenders to the EU’ (Daily Express) were flung at those who had the nerve to hold the government to account.
In September 2017, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of giving MPs a say over triggering Article 50 – the legal mechanism taking the UK out of the EU. The May Government did not want parliament to have such a say. Two years later Gina Miller was back in court, this time over the decision of Prime Minister Johnson to recommend the Queen to suspend parliament. The Supreme Court found in her favour, ruling that the decision to suspend Parliament was unlawful. Meanwhile Boris Johnson went on record as describing parliament as a “nuisance” and a threat to his policy of taking Britain out of the EU by his deadline of 31 October.
Fast forward to the publication of the Conservative manifesto for the general election, page 48 which reads:
“After Brexit we also need to look at the broader aspects of our constitution: the relationship between the government, parliament and the courts; the functioning of the Royal prerogative; the role of the House of Lords; and access to justice for ordinary people. The ability of our security services to defend us against terrorism and organised crime is critical. We will update the Human Rights Act and administrative law to ensure that there is a proper balance between the rights of individuals, our vital national security and effective government.”
Fair enough? Not according to Sean O’Grady writing in the On-line Independent on 25 November. He warns: “I think they’re going to scrap the remaining practical rights and prerogatives of the House of Commons in an act of spite.” Referring to the parliamentary procedures used by the Commons to take back control over the order of business of the house and making ministers accountable for their actions he warns that a: … “Johnson administration, if elected, is going to stop all that malarkey. They will also – it is more or less explicit – interfere in the judiciary and restrict the powers of the Supreme Court to rule on issues such as the prorogation of parliament. There has been talk – not in this manifesto admittedly – of making the judges politically accountable, by being ratified via hearings by parliament, in the way they are in the United States. They have not forgiven Lady Hale and her colleagues for their ruling that the suspension of parliament in the autumn was unlawful, null and void. Neither would I be surprised if they pack the Lords with new and obedient Tory peers.”
The manifesto also says that: “The failure of Parliament to deliver Brexit – the way so many MPs have devoted themselves to thwarting the democratic decision of the British people in the 2016 referendum – has opened up a destabilising and potentially extremely damaging rift between politicians and people. If the Brexit chaos continues, with a second referendum and a second Scottish referendum too, they will lose faith even further.” And how will these changes be brought about? The manifesto continues: “In our first year we will set up a Constitution, Democracy & Rights Commission that will examine these issues in depth, and come up with proposals to restore trust in our institutions and in how our democracy operates”.
The problems go wider than this. No doubt the commission would undertake a public consultation which it would consider, but it would be foolish to deny serious public concerns about parliament’s disconnection with many sections of the public and its failure to speak up for many of those it represents. The expenses scandal that erupted over ten years ago and shook the political system to its foundation lives long in the public memory. And as Chris McLaughin editor-at-large pointed out in the summer edition of Tribune: “Nine years ago, a two year inquiry by a specially appointed speaker’s conference on Parliamentary Representation concluded that: ‘at present few people think that MPs understand, or share, the life experiences of the people they represent’, That report lamented the ‘under representation of groups, such as women, ethnic minorities, LGBT communities, as well as the decline in people voting in elections…”
If they do form a government post 12 December, will the Tories’ new commission take seriously and review the recommendations made in 2010 by the Speaker’s Conference or will they use it to strengthen the powers of the executive over parliament and maybe even the courts and further curtail our civil liberties in the interests of ‘effective government’?
After all it was only in April that the Hansard Society’s audit of political engagement reported that the UK public was increasingly disenchanted with MPs and government and ever more willing to welcome the idea of authoritarian leaders who would ignore parliament. Almost three-quarters of those asked said the system of governance needed significant improvement, and other attitudes emerged that “challenge core tenets of our democracy”, the audit’s authors stated. The study, compiled annually by the democracy charity, found that when people were asked whether “Britain needs a strong ruler willing to break the rules”, 54% agreed and only 23% said no.
These findings taken with Johnson’s record and the proposals set out in their manifesto should sound alarm bells.