Derided, despised, its inhabitants dismissed as out of touch and self-seeking, what is to be done about parliament? Condemnation is easy but misleading. There is a powerful counter-argument: the current generation of MPs have never worked harder for their constituents, are more rebellious and their scrutiny of the executive is increasingly effective, or, at least, irritating to Whitehall.
Invariably missing from this debate is any sense of historical perspective, which Chris Bryant supplies in the first volume of his demythologising history of parliament, Parliament, The Biography: Ancestral Voices. Bryant, a former vicar, successful biographer and Labour frontbencher, engagingly takes on both champions and debunkers.
First, Westminster is not the mother of parliaments. Even John Bright’s phrase in 1865 that “England is the mother of parliaments” was not praise but a protest against the failure to extend the franchise— where several other countries have been well ahead of the UK. Second, British parliamentary democracy is not the result of “some hidden, intelligent design,” writes Bryant, “but a story of the vagaries of chance.” Third, advances in parliament’s position have often been reversed, as in the shifting balance between the legislature and the executive. Fourth, there was never a golden age of independents: parties, not individual parliamentarians, have been responsible for most big changes.
Fifth, today’s parliament is not worse behaved than ever. The Commons was far more disorderly in the 1880s and 1890s over Irish affairs. Sixth, today’s MPs are not the most venal we have ever had. The disclosures in 2009 over MPs expenses appear minor by the standards of the buying of elections in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the sale of peerages and honours a century and more ago.
Bryant sees parliament—by which he means mainly the Commons—as essentially a personal drama “with its rowdy confrontations and angry altercations, its fierce antipathies and deep loyalties, its towering personal triumphs and its very public falls from grace.” Many were “as ambitious for themselves as for the common weal.” It is “a process of evolution, not the tidy or deliberate manufacture of a monolith—the result of the individual endeavours of many thousands of men and women.” In short, Bryant takes a Tolstoyan view, similar to the muddling through view of democracy of David Runciman in his recent The Confidence Trap.
My instincts are with Bryant. Nothing is as bad or as novel as it seems. Politicians are seldom heroes and only rarely villains. Most have good intentions. However, the extent of current disillusionment cannot be brushed aside as just another episode in the discordant and unplanned history of parliament.
After more than a century when the main battles were about increasing public engagement, through the extension of the franchise, the main trend now is towards disengagement with parliament. More significant than the decline in turnout is the declining membership of the political parties that has severed their connections with the public. To be an elected politician is to be different.
Revealingly, the most damning finding about MPs in a recent YouGov poll was hostility to those who had never had a “real” job outside the world of national politics, think tanks, journalism or local government. Just look at the leaders and chief economic spokesmen of the three main parties. Yet these are the very people who are not only most adept at succeeding but also, often, the most effective in exercising the levers of power. We have always had full-time politicians but, with the disappearance of deference, they are now more resented. An under-current of the Cameron years is the clash between the career politicians and many, generally non-metropolitan, Tory backbenchers who have had “real” jobs; an echo of court versus country clashes of three centuries ago.
I am not apocalyptic. There is not a crisis of democracy, or of the state. Most people pay taxes and obey the law, and government still functions. The challenge now for parliament, and for MPs, is to demonstrate relevance: that what happens at Westminster is not just the self-absorbed antics of a cut-off political class but really matters to the public.