MPs are no worse than they’ve ever beenby Peter Riddell / March 27, 2014 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2014 issue of Prospect Magazine
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.