John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons, has, in the past week, made a major contribution to the belated evolution of our parliamentary democracy.
He did it from the antipodes, which he was visiting, in a speech to New Zealand parliamentarians.
A typical response back home was ‘a senior minister’ saying sniffily to The Independent: ‘It is very bad manners to offer a criticism of one’s own Parliament when abroad.’ This demonstrates the obsession with form over content that so bedevils growth and change in British culture.
The Speaker’s fundamental proposition is that there an be no real democracy where the government of the day controls the issues that are debated in Parliament. And of course he is quite right.
At a stroke this makes parliament more exciting.
Suddenly, instead of being a lackey to government, parliament as a whole becomes not an opposition but an empowered caller to account – whichever side of the house MPs sit on.
In the recent past, with the Blair administrations the most glaring examples – parliament, angry but impotent, became accustomed to hearing of government proposals and even decisions, only after they had been released to the media.
Speaker Bercow has already made some key changes to parliamentary procedure to start change rolling. He reintroduced the ‘Urgent Question’ – meaning that the house could discuss urgent issues, literally of the day – and that he would summon Ministers to respond.
This way of going about things is more likely to get nearer the truth of matters and intentions, with Ministers not having a long preparation time with teams of civil servants and ‘special advisers’ – aka spin doctors – before answering to the house.
Moving this further into a democratising of the way issues for debate are selected and scheduled, instantly makes parliament a place of direct engagement and authority, with the adrenaline of the capacity for surprise. It could become a living organism not a place where the formulaic rules and which has the semblance of life because of the amount of formaldehyde pumped into its systems.
What this change would underpin is the necessary separation of powers between government and parliament.
Mr Bercow also made a range of specific propositions for change – some, like voting in elections via secure online and mobile phone access, obvious for a long time.
Others are productively provocative – like suggesting a move from geographical constituencies to constituencies based on issues and/or causes.
This might not, alone, be an equitable exchange of systems. However, UK-wide, adopting a dual-mode parliament like Scotland’s, with some [far fewer] constituency MPs and some ‘List’ MPs selected on specialist ability and appointed to nationwide ‘issue’ constituencies, would have a very real value in enabling parliament to put government under helpfully muscular scrutiny.
Given that the operational model of Scotland’s parliament would need little change other than a reassignment of those given seats on the proportionally determined ‘List’, this would be a very constructive innovation for this country to introduce, independent or with devolved authority.
With the Speaker actively promoting much needed parliamentary change, there will be more and profound changes to come.
Each of the established political parties are seeing their membership at an all time low, sinking from their peaks in the 1950s and 1960s [times when the modes of transmitting information and communication were slow and limited compared to today].
At the moment, the Labour party has, marginally, the largest party membership, with under 190,000; and the Lib Dems the smallest with under 43,000.
The far better and immediately informed electorate of today is coming to understand the obstructions to good government and to sustained planned economic development which our hopscotch political system offers. Short term governments endlessly swinging between supposedly opposed party dogmas and of internally inconsistent ability, simply perpetuate a culture of muddling through.
At some unpredictable point, we will turn away from political parties and from our juvenile adversarial system of government.
Speaker Bercow’s insistence on the separation of powers between government and parliament, on the restoring to parliament of the primacy of its calling to account – and his giving it the means to do so – is a hugely significant regeneration and the start of a road that may take an interesting route.