The departing former Conservative MP reflects on his 34 years in the Commons
Parliament has changed enormously over the third of a century I have served there — but three main criticisms of it have not changed. First: it is just a talking shop and a waste of time. Second: MPs are voting fodder doing what the whips tell them. And third: it is too adversarial and we should unite to do what is best for the country.
Looking back, I am convinced that the first of those criticisms is only half-true; the second, no longer true; and the third, the opposite of the truth.
It is true that Parliament is a talking shop, but wrong that that is a waste of time. There are only two ways to govern a country. Either the government imposes the laws and taxes and we have no say in the matter. Or, the way we have evolved in this country over a thousand years, where no law can be imposed, no tax levied unless it has been discussed in principle and detail until it wins the assent of a majority of elected representatives of the people. The two red lines down the centre of the Chamber keep us two sword lengths apart so that we use words, not weapons, to persuade our opponents.
MPs may once have been docile lobby fodder. Back in the 1950s whole years passed without a single Member voting against the whip. But that has been less true in each successive Parliament.
During Mrs Thatcher’s 12 years as PM her MPs cast some 4,259 votes against the government whip. Although we initially compared New Labour MPs unfavourably with shopping trolleys — “which have a mind of their own” — during Tony Blair’s 10 years they cast some 6,520 votes against him. And in each subsequent Parliament the whips have been less successful in herding their flocks into their lobby. Why? Declining deference by voters coupled with increased communication, thanks to the internet, between them and MPs forces MPs to justify their party’s position to voters. If they find that difficult they rebel.
So governments increasingly have to persuade rather than bully their MPs, or modify their policies, or win over other parties. Overall, this is desirable and makes Parliament a more vibrant and interesting place — though it is odd that few of our commentators have noticed it.
Of course, it could go too far. If MPs abandoned all party loyalty and voted on each issue according to their own preference, stable government would become impossible and electors would have no proper choice between alternative governing parties. A balance between party loyalty and independent judgment is necessary.
The criticism of our adversarial system and desire for us all to work together for a common objective, though well meaning, is the most dangerous criticism. It is virtually a call for a one-party state. Good government needs a vigorous opposition to keep it on its toes. Sadly, because of Labour’s disarray we currently lack that. My greatest concern for democracy in this country is the potential extinction of Labour outside London — unless it can reconnect with its patriotic working-class roots.
Harold Macmillan said Parliament makes its worst mistakes when both front benches agree, still worse when Parliament is unanimous. Certainly, the greatest blunders in my time came when the adversarial system did not operate. The Climate Change Act was passed with just five dissenting votes, of which I was one. All the parties were competing to signal their virtue, which required a disregard for cost.
Throughout the Bill’s passage not one MP discussed its cost even though the government’s impact statement showed the potential cost was twice the maximum benefit. You did not have to disagree with the objective to conclude that we should look for ways of tackling global warming which cost less than the benefits.
When war looms, it is difficult for oppositions to be adversarial. But agreement between the front benches during the prelude to the Iraq war meant the evidence about weapons of mass destruction was not properly examined — even though, as I showed at the time, close reading even of the government’s dodgy dossier and the Blix Report showed there was none.
The most sustained collusion between the two front benches was over the EU. Opposition to the slow seepage of power from Parliament to unaccountable EU institutions was consigned to a brave handful of MPs, ridiculed as headbangers and worse. I tried to highlight the drift of power away from Westminster by introducing a Bill to link MPs’ pay to our declining power. The oddest thing was the reluctance of parliamentarians to admit that their role in many areas was becoming merely ceremonial — just as the Yeomen of the Guard gradually ceased to be part of the regular army. Even ministers who had opposed a measure in Brussels would, in Westminster, “claim responsibility for Brussels legislative progeny in whose conception they had played little part — preferring to claim paternity rather than admit to impotence”, as I told the Commons. Post Brexit, both pretence and impotence will cease. Ministers will be genuinely responsible and accountable for legislation.
There are other areas where Parliament colludes to prevent debate — notably about immigration. To raise the topic is to risk being labelled as a racist. As a result, we will be intellectually unprepared when we extend immigration controls over EU citizens.
The taboo on discussing immigration extended to other areas where its consequences are most marked, such as housing. Governments have made more than a dozen statements about housing without once alluding to the impact of mass immigration. In my experience, most of our social problems and many of our economic problems are caused or aggravated by the acute housing shortage. Yet both front benches pretend that allowing four million extra people (mainly of childbearing age) to settle here has no effect on the availability of homes.
Although I have no intention of retiring from the political fray, having seen Parliament set to regain its powers I can, like Simeon, depart in peace — at least from the Commons.