The Descent to Dictatorship
by Edward Spalton
A few years back I was at an evening meeting in a House of Lords committee room. Our chairman was the redoubtable Old Labour peer, Lord Stoddart of Swindon (now an independent). At 7.00 pm the bell rang for the Commons to adjourn. “That's it” said the noble lord “They are all going home in time to put the babies to bed. There's nobody minding the shop now”.
Family-friendly hours were an innovation by “Blair's babes”, ostensibly part of modernising Parliament. Not only does Parliament now usually rise in the early evening; most members do not arrive until Monday afternoon and nearly all are back in their constituencies by Friday, doing the work they used to do there on Saturdays. This is a great convenience for the government. There is less parliamentary time and it is now much more difficult for the opposition to keep ministers out of bed all night and force amendments to ill-thought out Bills. The Lords do their best but the Commons have more or less given up on the real business of revising and amending. Some of the votes are now taken in the fashion of the EU parliament, in special voting sessions – at family-friendly times- completely separate from such guillotined debates as the procedures may have allowed and which very few of the voting MP s will have attended.
Blair's babes turned out to be the Stepford wives of New Labour rather than the monstrous regiment of women they were cracked up to be. It was really embarrassing in the early dawn of the Blair era to hear their breathless sincerity and pure devotion. After the opening of a new school or similar facility in her constituency, a dewy-eyed, new MP would conclude a supplementary question to the Prime Minister along the lines “Is the Prime Minister aware that everyone in Slowcombe-on-the-Mud thinks he's absolutely super?” and Tony would modestly agree.
That was the year zero of British politics and Mr. Cameron, in his haste to be “the heir to Blair”, seems to have accepted the new, revolutionary calendar – a very strange thing for anybody of conservative principles to have done. Whilst there are many odious features of the New Labour era, from its sheer financial profligacy to corruption on a scale unknown since the 18th century, perhaps the greatest evil has been its casual, thuggish, constitutional barbarism. The worst atrocities are the EU treaties which create a democracy bypass around Crown, Lords and Commons but these have been compounded by ill thought-out domestic “reforms”, influenced and sometimes required by these same treaties.
“We don't have a constitution” is the parrot cry of the new men, as they destroy the work of centuries. Of course we do, or rather did. It was just not codified. Whilst there were libraries full of learned books about it, it was easy enough to understand.
The late Sir Ivor Jennings condensed his large work “The British Constitution” into a slim, pocket-sized paperback, called “The Queen's Government” in the Fifties. It was not Janet and John stuff but nearly everyone could understand it. Most of us, I suspect, picked up the rudiments by osmosis from school history lessons. There was no need for instruction in “civics”.
Dumbed down and comprehensive education seems to have put an end to that and to have reached to the highest levels of the political establishment. William Hague was recently heard, demanding “an elected prime minister”. Of course, we have never had any such thing although the presidential style “Prime Ministerial Debates” on television fostered the fallacy. In the middle of the Foot & Mouth disease outbreak, Tony Blair actually referred to “My Minister of Agriculture”. I do not think any of his predecessors would have made such a faux pas. All the ministers are the Queen's, not his.
The new administration is just as thuggish and even more dictatorial in its constitutional ambitions. They are proposing to guarantee themselves five years in power but not just by establishing a fixed term for Parliament. No, they want to raise the bar against the possibility of losing a no confidence vote. If they have their way, it will no longer be enough for a simple majority of MP s to vote against the government. It will have to be an “enhanced majority”, perhaps 55% or maybe 66% of MP s- who knows what figure they will decide on? Will it be a percentage of the whole House or just of the number of members attending? Once the principle is established, you can set it anywhere you like – and so can any successor regime.
This is an utterly monstrous proposal. The financial fecklessness and recklessness of the previous administration will demand very severe and unpopular measures but that should not be permitted as an excuse for such a basic denial of the rights of Parliament. It was not even suggested during six years of total war, so why should our largely self-inflicted crisis be made the excuse for it?
This proposal is reminiscent of another parliamentary regime with problems of economic and political stability – Germany's Weimar republic. The democratic politicians of the centre parties passed a number of “Notstandsgesetze” (emergency laws) which permitted the government to carry on governing and disregard parliament. They were ready-made for the incoming Hitler regime.
Edward Spalton May 2010