by Michael Patrick O'Leary
This article was published in The Nation on January 15 2012
The phrase ‘the mother of parliaments’ is often mistakenly used to describe the legislature that sits at Westminster. The phrase was originally coined by John Bright in 1865 and he used it to describe the nation of England.
People who live in those islands at the north of Europe get a bit confused about nomenclature. The United Kingdom consists of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Britain consists of England, Wales and Scotland. Historian Norman Davies wrote a monumental book called The Isles – the term British Isles also includes the nation known as the Republic of Ireland. Davies’s latest book is called Vanishing Kingdoms. In it he predicts the break-up of the UK. The English “in particular are blissfully unaware that the disintegration of the United Kingdom began in 1922, and will probably continue”.
Notice that Bright did not say that the UK was the mother of parliaments, even though the legislature that now sits at Westminster is a UK parliament. The English Parliament developed its power and influence by limiting the power of the monarchy, even going to the extent of chopping off the head of Charles I (the executioner was appropriately named Colonel Hacker). The monarchy was allowed back in 1660 but Parliament was supreme. All future sovereigns had little executive authority. This continues today as a group of aging people of German origin sit in an expensive gilded cage representing Britishness to visiting tourists.
The 1707 Act of Union merged the English Parliament with the Parliament of Scotland to form the Parliament of Britain. When the Parliament of Ireland was abolished in 1801, its former members were merged into the Parliament of the United Kingdom.
The current Westminster Parliament is a peculiar institution in that it includes members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland even though those components of the UK now have their own devolved assemblies. Indeed, it often seems that the UK is ruled by Scotsmen as there have been so many of them in British cabinets.
The West Lothian Question has been much discussed. Before 1998, all political issues, even when only concerning parts of the UK, were decided by the UK Parliament at Westminster. Issues concerning only those other parts of the UK were often decided by the respective devolved assemblies; purely English issues were decided by the entire UK parliament, with MPs from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland fully participating in debating and voting. Members of Parliament are elected simultaneously in general elections all over the UK. There are 529 English constituencies, which because of their large number form an inbuilt majority in the Commons. However, there have been occasions where MPs elected in England have been outvoted by MPs from the rest of the UK on legislation relating only to England.
The idea of representative democracy is further complicated by the UK’s membership of the EU. Previous articles in this series have looked at how the PIGS EU countries (Portugal, Ireland, Greece, Spain) have had their democracies usurped by EU and IMF technocrats and bankers.
The UK seemed to be bucking this trend. It was not part of the Eurozone. David Cameron has used his power of veto to block an EU-wide deal proposed by Germany and France for treaty changes that would lead to greater fiscal union. Instead, France and Germany will lead the 17 Eurozone countries and at least six other EU nations in a new treaty. Many hailed Cameron’s decision to use his veto as a triumph for British independence. One French diplomat said Cameron was acting “like a man who wants to go to a wife-swapping party without taking his own wife”. This was not about democracy and power for the UK voter; it was a “principled” stand on behalf of the City of London. London is no longer the capital of England or the UK. It is the capital of international capital. The government’s main aim is to protect the financiers rather than ordinary voters.
Democracy as practised in the UK does not seem to help ordinary voters. They wanted to punish New Labour but did not give a ringing vote of confidence to the Conservatives. Cameron had to rely on the support of the Lib Dems, but that support has effectively destroyed the Lib Dems’ electoral future.
Threat to democracy
Ordinary voters did not vote for the vicious austerity measures now being implemented. It is more likely that they would have wanted the banksters who got the country in such a mess to be punished. The mild regulatory measures proposed by John Vickers will not be implemented until 2019. As Robert Jenkins, who sits on the Bank of England’s financial policy committee, points out, the date is distant enough “to allow lobbyists to chip away until the proposal becomes both unrecognisable and ineffective.”
While the government has introduced no meaningful sanctions to discourage a repetition of the crash, it has also failed to repeal the oppressive laws preventing voters from challenging those who caused it. When he became deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg promised that the government would “remove limits on the rights to peaceful protest” but there is no such measure in the Protection of Freedoms bill, which was supposed to have been the vehicle for this reform.
As well as the banksters, another threat to democracy has been the power of the Murdoch empire. Nobody voted for Murdoch, but this ruthless advocate of the market system, opponent of regulation and the welfare state, was able to enter Downing Street by the back door for secret meetings at will for over thirty years, whichever party was theoretically “governing”.
The less regulated the better
Anthony Barnett writes: “In the UK this informal, elitist constitution of ours while lauded as strong because flexible is, in fact, a weakness. Murdoch joined with Thatcher in exploiting its informality to expand their power and in the process further hollowed out its self-belief. They began to dismantle the old regime without any desire to replace it by anything other than themselves, the less regulated the better. The process continued under Tony Blair.”
Peter Oborne, no left wing radical, argues that a new “ethic’’ appeared under Thatcher and developed further under New Labour. The incorrupt disinterested administrative class of the 19th century was replaced by a political class who are mostly Oxbridge-educated men recruited young into the circuits of political influence. This class seeks personal gain from public office and makes its fortune from “a fusion between the media and political domains”. People like Gordon Brown, David Cameron and both Milibands have little experience of real life as experienced by the Man on the Clapham Omnibus. They go straight from university to think tank to internship to governing.
The English feel proud that their brand of parliamentary democracy has been exported around the world but do not seem to have noticed that democracy is dead in their own country.
Another phrase coined by John Bright was “flogging a dead horse”.