Parliament’s arcane theatricality may embody continuity, but it also reeks of exclusivity. And that's not the only problem...by Rafael Behr / December 12, 2019 / Leave a comment
An enduring image from the parliament that just finished was Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg lounging across the Commons front bench in the posture of an Edwardian rake on a chaise longue. The indolent tableau quickly spread online, in its original form and in thousands of digitally doctored variants.
Rees-Mogg was already familiar as a living caricature of fogeyish Tory insouciance, embodying a fashion with the same vintage as the green upholstery on which he sprawled. But this was a man who was born in 1969, a year later than Kylie Minogue. The antique style is a performance, a shtick, learned and practised for only one stage: the oak-panelled, green-carpeted chamber of the House of Commons.
It is one of the oldest theatres in London and was once the most prestigious, but the show has become a stale pastiche—rather like Rees-Mogg. Some tension is inevitable between the anachronistic form of Britain’s legislative business and the demands of modern government, but only recently have the two begun to look incompatible. The rhetorical ornamentation, obscure vocabulary, the costume drama at the opening and closing of the session: all this always seemed peripheral to the substance. It was vulnerable to tender ridicule, but also somehow reassuring. Continuity with pre-modern ritual symbolised Britain’s supposed immunity to violent ideological lurches. Today, that myth is harder to sustain. The fragility of constitutional arrangements based on distant precedent, habit, mysterious protocol and presumptions of gentlemanly conduct has been exposed.
The UK has undergone something close to a revolution since the 2016 EU referendum. The pro-Brexit side now asserts the “will of the people” as the supreme political authority, a pungent innovation in a parliamentary democracy. The legislature has had to defend its primacy against the radical contempt of those, Rees-Mogg among them, who once embroidered parliamentary sovereignty on the banners for their crusade against Europe. For onlookers, it has been an impenetrable struggle, with arcane procedures and ancient ceremonial powers revived and weaponised. The whole spectacle has raised doubts about the relevance and fitness of parliament as the host venue for British democracy.
The building itself is decrepit. Physical decay at the Palace of Westminster is almost too blatant a metaphor for perceived rot at the heart of British democracy. The Elizabeth Tower that houses Big Ben has been covered with scaffolding and the great bell itself has been silent while the Commons has been gridlocked, unable to deal with Brexit. The entire edifice has been condemned as a fire trap. It is packed with asbestos. The wiring is lethal. Water leaks in; drains don’t work. Toilets routinely fail. The labyrinth of basements, cellars and passageways is infested with rodents.
There is no question about the need for a structural overhaul, but MPs have been reluctant to approve plans that would cost the public purse billions of pounds, and provoke headlines about a lavish upgrade at taxpayers’ expense. Traditionalists worry that even temporary relocation to other accommodation would irrevocably change the legislature’s culture. Would MPs, in a modern purpose-built chamber, still literally vote with their feet, walking through “aye” and “no” lobbies? Might there be enough seats for everyone, so landmark votes do not acquire the febrile atmosphere of the old football terraces? And would it matter either way?
The current chamber is a replica, assembled to mid-19th century specifications after its predecessor was destroyed by a German bomb in 1941. That neo-Gothic model was itself a tribute to the medieval palace that burned down in 1834. The default has always been to look back. Amid the Blitz, a stylistic upgrade was considered, but dismissed. In the debate on rebuilding, Winston Churchill vigorously defended the old “codes and manners” but also the cramped chamber, benches in opposing rows, the feel and character of the place to which he thought British democracy was intrinsically bound. He liked the shortage of space for the intensity it generated: “We have learned—with these so recently confirmed facts around us and before us—not to alter improvidently the physical structures which have enabled so remarkable an organism to carry on its work of banning dictatorships within this island, and pursuing and beating into ruins all dictators who have molested us from outside.”
Modernity has seeped into the Commons incrementally since then. Women are much better represented: the average number of female MPs in every parliament between 1945 and 1979 was 24, but they held 206 of 650 seats during the 2017-9 term; the number of non-white MPs also increased from a handful in the late 1980s to 52 in 2017. But there is still a vapour of long-established privilege hanging around the Palace (quite aside from the preposterous endurance of 92 hereditary peerages in the Lords). Newly elected commoners who are not swaggering posh white men are still struck by the primacy of that beast, and the assumption that parliament is his natural habitat.
The language of speeches is more vernacular these days, but still framed in cyphers—Honourable Members must be described as such, not named. Law is channelled through arcane procedures, codified in 1844 by the Clerk of the Commons, Thomas Erskine May. His name is synonymous with the rule book that can be deployed as a weapon by an astute parliamentarian.
But theirs is a niche trade. New MPs are not generally prepared for the use of Erskine May as a handbook for guerrilla legislative warfare. They might not be familiar, for example, with the 40-day limit on “praying against” statutory instruments under the negative resolution procedure. Such things matter to the democratic process. They might be the last available block to ministerial fiat, wielded under sweeping “Henry VIII powers,” (the name hardly invites democratic confidence). For voters, the arcane rules are all of a piece with the costumed frippery, the giant gold mace, Black Rod and the platoon of Doorkeepers, one of whom has a duty, dating back to 1694, to keep the parliamentary snuff box replenished.
The pageantry is not without constitutional relevance. In a state opening of parliament, Black Rod (formally the Gentleman or Lady Usher of the Rod) is ceremonially refused entry to the Commons, indicating that body’s independence of monarchical whim. The performance is not a safeguard against tyranny but it cultivates a complacent collective belief in a long pedigree of British democracy.
Brexit almost broke the chain. A majority of MPs voted to remain in the EU in 2016. Most then yielded to what they saw as their democratic duty to enact the Brexit vote, but there was still the wide-open question of what, if anything, it meant beyond Theresa May’s “Brexit means Brexit” slogan. After her loss of a Commons majority in the 2017 election, zealots seized the leverage afforded by the closely-balanced parliamentary arithmetic. The effort by moderates to rein hardliners in evolved into a struggle for control of the agenda—literally in terms of writing the order paper for proceedings. Abetted by Speaker John Bercow, the pro-European rebels broke with precedent and started legislating to bind the hands of the executive.
Boris Johnson then raised the stakes, inviting the queen to prorogue parliament—a hard reboot of the legislature. The prime minister wanted a new session to begin dangerously close to the legal point of no return from a no-deal Brexit. The move was overturned by the Supreme Court, whose judges unanimously agreed that Johnson had sought to stymie the constitutional function of the Commons.
Technically, the prorogation was ordered by the crown, on advice from her Privy Counsel (represented on this occasion by Rees-Mogg). In reality, the prime minister knew that Elizabeth II—mindful of her duty to avoid egregious partisanship—could not refuse the request. A royal prerogative power, a remnant from the era when monarchs still directed affairs of state, turned out to be available for misuse by a prime minister prepared to game the convention for cynical and radical ends. The fact that it was inscribed on vellum in the idiom of period costume drama, and defended in that same decorative tone by Rees-Mogg on the airwaves, obscured a quasi-despotic executive power grab. The prorogation ceremony itself, featuring Lords doffing large black caps at the Commons speaker, followed its conventional script, but took place in the middle of the night. Bercow wore the queasy stare of a hostage. The traditional form had acquired a sinister, tin-pot ring.
Johnson had inveigled Queen Elizabeth into an unlawful act. In symbolic terms, he had snatched the crown from her head and wielded it as a weapon against parliament. He had rummaged around in the dressing-up box of the British constitution, plucked out the ceremonial sword of prorogation and used it for partisan aggression in cavalier style not much seen since the 17th century. His No 10 team publicly flirted with more outlandish suggestions, such as “advising” the queen to withhold Royal Assent from unwelcome legislation. Queen Anne was the last monarch to refuse to sign an act of parliament—the Scottish militia bill—in 1708.
That might have been a bluff from the more maverick wing of Johnson’s Downing Street operation, but it should also have been inconceivable in the 21st century. That it was not, that the threat seemed credible, testifies to something reckless in the character of the prime minister and to fragility in the concept of parliamentary supremacy, supposedly the sturdiest foundation of British democracy. Johnson provoked an election (grinding dismally on as I write) in order to settle the question of where authority sits. He is running on an explicitly anti-parliament platform. If he wins a majority it will be a licence not only to ignore dissenting views but also to despise the constitutional niceties that once demanded respect for the official Commons opposition.
There was a grim inevitability about the Brexit crisis eventually reaching the gates of Buckingham Palace. Sovereignty notionally resides with “the Crown in parliament,” an abstraction that functions as long as the crown’s residual power—including the appointment of the prime minister—is locked down by convention. The queen herself studiously observes that self-limiting ordinance. But there is little precedent to guide her or anyone else regarding the processing of a direct plebiscitary mandate.
When the massive but ill-defined instruction to leave the EU was fed into parliament, the normal machinery started to go awry. It was as if an old and bug-ridden computer operating system encountered an inexecutable file. The system crashed. Party loyalties broke down. Conventional whipping ceased to be able to corral MPs into coherent positions, let alone enforce loyalty to leaders. Informal relations between rival whips’ offices to lubricate the flow of non-contentious business—the “usual channels”—were blocked. A system by which two MPs on opposite sides of an issue could agree to be absent simultaneously (“pairing”) stopped working too. The government whips even withheld co-operation with a Lib Dem on maternity leave.
Throughout the often-desperate Brexit process, parliament and its conventions have been treated with contempt. May’s original plan in 2016 was that the Commons not be consulted on future relations with the EU at all. It took a court case to force her to concede that MPs should have the right to approve the triggering of Article 50. It then took a backbench rebellion, in choreography with the opposition and the House of Lords, to force her to concede a “meaningful vote” on any deal. Despite losing their majority in 2017, the Tories clung to control of select committees that should, in a hung parliament, have reflected the new balance of forces.
They simply stopped participating in opposition day debates, and ignored the outcomes of those votes. Such things might not have a direct impact on the average voter’s experience of government, but they represented a sudden—and, for a Conservative administration, notably un-conservative—indifference to the natural rhythms of the legislature. By the time Johnson took the reins, the government had largely stopped trying to legislate altogether.
To constitutional nerds, the spectacle of Brexit gumming up the parliamentary works was morbidly fascinating. To most people, the detail has been boring and hard to follow. For those who urgently want to leave the EU it looked like parliament refusing to take instruction from the people.
This is the immediate backdrop to Johnson’s campaign casting himself as a tribune of “the people” against parliament itself, but the rot goes further back. In the 1990s, the late Labour election strategist Philip Gould used to compare British politics to an emptying stadium, where the players with the ball do not realise that their supporters had lost interest. That problem has—since the financial crisis and the expenses scandal a decade ago—slowly mutated into something more sinister. The hazard is not apathy, but hostility. The inattentive, dispersing crowd is a symptom of weakness in a democracy, but the mob that wants to tear up the pitch is a different order of threat. The risk is not academic. One MP, Jo Cox, was murdered by a far-right activist in the final weeks of the 2016 referendum campaign. Other plots have since been foiled. Online abuse and death threats have become an occupational hazard.
The past decade has seen a rise of anti-political rhetoric that casts Westminster as a place of corruption, alien to the experience and interests of ordinary people—much as “Washington” has long been used as a term of abuse in US politics. The dynamic forces shaping British public life have defined themselves in opposition to parliament, operating outside the traditional corridors of power. The Scottish independence movement exists to take powers away from Westminster. Jeremy Corbyn’s victory in the 2015 Labour leadership contest saw the party’s grassroots members overwhelm its parliamentary representatives. Nigel Farage is the most influential British politician of the past 25 years, exerting extraordinary Eurosceptic gravity without winning a seat in parliament (he tried seven times before declining to bother this winter). Westminster, then, is certainly vulnerable, and should at least be asking itself whether it needs to adapt to survive.
Watched, not loved
But the case for change still needs to be argued, rather than assumed. For there is a way to configure all the unsightly grappling with Brexit as the sign of a system that works. The checks and balances did operate. And, when impasse was total, MPs agreed to dissolution for a general election, the historically normal culmination of critical deadlock.
People started paying more attention too. The BBC’s dedicated parliament channel was launched as an obscure cable service in 1992, and has been, for most of its existence, a curio on the schedules. But on the September day when MPs voted to seize control of the order paper, inflicting a humiliating defeat on Johnson, viewing figures were estimated at 1.5m. One side-effect of parliamentary theatre gaining such prominence is increased awareness of how downright weird it can be. Thanks in large part to YouTube montages and Facebook shares, Bercow’s stentorian manner of bellowing “order!” has helped generate a cult (and international) following for the former speaker, though whether it generated new respect for the House is less clear. His speakership was a strange -combination of modernisation and self-indulgent pomp. He relaxed dress codes but embraced a declamatory rhetorical style that was almost rococo in its loquacity. His reforms and rulings systematically asserted the power of the legislature over the executive, which morphed over time into flagrant anti-Brexit activism.
His successor Lindsay Hoyle, by contrast, won the support of fellow MPs with a small “c” conservative pitch, promising to be less controversial; less of an attention-seeker. He has hinted that, unlike his predecessor, he might wear the gold-embroidered robe and wig that speakers used to don for big parliamentary occasions. His election to the chair at the very end of the session was an expression of fatigue among MPs. Many had already decided not to seek re-election. Of those that might be returned, it was unclear whether the future offered another arithmetically challenged session of scrappy knife-edge votes or a majority government revelling in contempt for the House. Neither option much appealed, or created the confident mood that might fuel an appetite for taking a risk on reform.
From dusty to dust
By the time parliament dissolved for the December election, MPs felt besieged by a hostile electorate. Perhaps we should not be surprised if the institutional culture gravitated towards self-defence, seeking—as after the fire of 1834, and the bombs of 1941—comfort in familiarity, sinking into the anaesthetic cushion of the green benches.
The default is stasis, and—in times of tumult—tradition offers itself as the ballast of memory that keeps the ship steady. But the old hope that convention restrains the unruliest aspects of confrontational politics has surely died. It rested on a romantic idea of the way Britain conducts itself, not a legal one. And romances can sour. They can end.
Parliament’s arcane theatricality may embody continuity, but it also reeks of exclusivity. Traditions handed down generations become hollow rituals for all but the most faithful believers. Parliamentary conduct looks increasingly like the practices of a narrow sect in a weird cathedral.
To spend any time in the Palace of Westminster is to feel a tension between the cultural exclusivity expressed by the building and the universal rights and freedoms it is meant to protect. There is unavoidable dissonance when the chamber that is supposed to guarantee democracy for all citizens is lodged in a place that wears the style of an old gentleman’s club and moves to the rhythm of an all-boys boarding school.
It is easier to demand modernisation than to imagine what it looks like. Churchill was right about the fusion of British parliamentary democracy as practised in the ancient chamber with the architecture of the chamber itself. But a corollary is that a change in scenery could introduce new habits that needn’t be unwelcome. It must be possible to retain some of the gravitas of a venerable legislature without so much pantomime. It should also be feasible to preserve ceremonial elements that honour parliamentary independence while also making the debates more comprehensible to a lay audience.
The requirement to vacate the premises for refurbishment should provide an opportunity to pilot new modes and methods of conducting business. British politics might benefit from a period of more collegiate and temperate debate, which a new setting could facilitate. No one can pretend that public discourse is improved by the confrontational geometry of the Commons.
The current proposal, yet to be enacted, is to transfer the action to a temporary replica of the existing chamber—as if MPs were a rare and endangered species, on loan between zoos, needing a familiar ecosystem to thrive. That seems like a wasted opportunity as well as a waste of money. MPs should not fear a period of enforced modernity in their workplace. It would help reveal what is essential and what is dispensable; what is living and what is dead in the heap of antiquity that passes for our constitution.
The alternative is the conspicuous peculiarity of parliament feeding a wider sense of decay—with the fundamental principles of representative democracy being devalued because the institution itself looks obsolete. There is only so much elastic in tradition. It cannot always be stretched to meet the demands of a 21st-century democracy. There is a danger that public patience will snap.