The bruising experience of Brexit has forced one vital principle to the foreby Thomas Poole / December 11, 2019 / Leave a comment
Eventful parliaments are sometimes given colourful names: the “Rump,” “Barebones,” “Cavalier” and so on. There is a case for doing the same for the parliamentary term just ended. What name to give it is a different matter. Its many critics might take inspiration from the “Addled Parliament” of 1614. So rancorous was it that James I observed on dissolving it that he was “amazed that his ancestors should have allowed such an institution to come into existence”—an attitude that similarly bloody-minded but less fortunate Stuart kings would live to regret.
The parliament of 2017-19 was certainly divided and divisive. In this it mirrored the state of the nation, something we desire in representative political bodies. It failed to come to heel when bidden to do so by the executive. But this is what happens to governments careless of their majority; and insisting that political opponents fold when your position is ascendant is the opposite of democratic. So was this a successful parliament? And what, if any, is its constitutional legacy?
Some say that the answer depends on your frame of reference. Normal rules do not apply when assessing this parliament: since the people settled the Brexit question in the referendum, all politicians became agents of the popular will, making those who do not fall into line betrayers of it. But if this argument works at all, it only does so for the basic decision on Leave or Remain, not in relation to choices between various Brexit scenarios. On these questions, which were this parliament’s prime business, invoking the “Will of the People” adds little, since the will of the people is precisely what falls to be determined through political processes centred on parliament.
A parliament strong due to executive weakness; a veto point, its strength most visible in obstruction but largely incapable of driving its own alternative agenda. These are all true, but only to a point. Unusually volatile, the 2017-19 parliament could also be surprisingly decisive. Controversy surrounds the speaker’s office, the nodal point of many innovations such as the use of the “humble address” (in conjunction with the contempt of parliament process) to pressure government into taking certain actions. But its most important single achievement was the…