5/11/05 Do we live in a democracy? I only ask. Of course, we elect people to parliaments - three of them, if you include the Scottish and European parliaments. But what do our elected members do when they get there, apart from harvest expenses?
Last week, the House of Commons asked for an inquiry into the greatest foreign policy disaster in fifty years, Iraq, and then voted by a margin of 25 not to have one. Parliament hasn’t debated this issue for three years.
In that time, three thousand British and American servicemen have died along with several hundred thousand Iraqi civilians. It is a scandal of the greatest possible magnitude and yet parliament seems incapable of doing anything about it.
The Speaker, Michael Martin’s, pedantic ruling about David Cameron not asking the PM about the next leader of the Labour party, said it all. That this obscure procedural issue dominated the week’s business in the House just underlined parliament’s pointlessness. This is a parliament whose who’s function is to fawn. To validate rulers, rather than challenge them.
Yet one of the key roles of any elected assembly is surely to defend the freedoms of the people against over-mightly rulers. Well, last week, he Information Commissioner for England, Richard Thomas, warned that we are becoming a surveillance society. There is now one CCTV camera for ever 14 people. It’s like setting up a television station for every three households, except that there’s only one viewer: the state. What are MPs doing about that?
The police arc compiling a DNA database without any debate about the matter in parliament, let alone any vote. The National Health services is dumping ever more sensitive, and inevitably unreliable, material into the lap of officialdom. The intensive vetting of individuals before they can work with children is hastening the collapse of voluntary associations.
This intrusion is underpinned by legislation allegedly to protect us from terrorism which further restricts liberty. The government will table yet another bill this autumn, to introduce ninety day detention without trial and to put yet more restrictions on freedom of speech.
We are creating a society in which people are afraid to speak their minds in case they are arrested for glorifying terrorism, promoting racial or religious hatred, or indirectly inciting illegality by, for example, reciting the names of the dead in Iraq within a mile of Parliament. But I hear precious few parliamentary voices raised against this.
If parliament cannot defend liberties, protect us from unwarranted state intrusion and refuses to hold the government to account for mendaciously and illegal warmaking, you really have to ask what MPs think they are there for.
It’s as if there is a total exclusion zone around Westminster, and democracy is kept well out of it. In the parliamentary compound, legislators are held captive by an autocratic government which has long since lost the right to govern. Yet, unlike prisonsers in Guantanamo, MPs could do something about it. They are elected by the people, not the government, and could if they chose, challenge its authority. But too many are content to be willing clones.
Of course, we are promised that things will be different under “Gordon”. The Chancellor has, we are assured, seen off challengers and will now be returned as Prime Minister unopposed. Rejoice! rejoice! An end to the Blair tyranny. But does no one see the grim irony in this impending coronation? That we are about to acquire a new Prime Minister without any democratic processes being involved whatever. No election; no debate. It’s more like North Korea. Gordon Brown has intimidated or bought off his rivals - except for the hopeless left wing MP John McDonnell - and will be installed in Number Ten by a kind of laying on of hands.
If we’re lucky, the voters might be invited to endorse the Labour monarch in an election which will be held sometime in the next three to four years. This election will be staged at Gordon’s pleasure, at a time of his own choosing, before which he will shamelessly bribe the electorate with tax cuts and eye-catching spending projects which will be shelved as soon as he takes office.
We are told that Gordon Brown will also seek to reform the constitution, possibly with a bill of rights, and that he will seek to restore trust and respect for parliamentary democracy. Well, all I can say is that he hasn’t made a very promising start. Anyone who believes that Gordon Brown will extend liberty and curb the authoritarian excesses of the executive branch of government, is either naive or blind.
Now, I have a considerable respect for the Chancellor’s intellect and even his vision. Gordon Brown has been an accomplished Treasury minister, perhaps the greatest this century, but he has achieved his ends by ruthless centralised control, as ministers like Charles Clarke and David Blunkett have testified. Does it seem likely that Gordon Brown is going to abandon the habits of a lifetime and loosen the corsets of constraint? Hardly.
There is a serious danger that Brown will be even more centralising and authoritarian than his predecessor. He will take over in less propitious circumstances, for a start, with Labour collapsing in the polls. Facing revolt from the North by Scottish nationalists, and revolt in the south from English nationalists who believe Brown has no right to be Prime Minister because he is Scottish.
Brown has already made a series of key decisions without bothering about parliament or even his own party. He dropped a line into his Mansion House speech in June about going ahead with a new generation of Trident nuclear submarines, even though this would likely breach the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty. Needless to say, there has been no vote about it in parliament.
He also short-circuited any debate about the new generation of nuclear power stations when he added the three little words “including new nuclear” into an article on energy policy in the Times in the summer. Political journalists have been reduced to latter day Kremlinologists; having to scan and deconstruct ministerial statements to divine what the government intends to do next.
The Chancellor has also said he supports the war in Iraq, saying during the 2005 election that he would have “done exactly the same” as Tony Blair. Does this sound like someone who is going to have a light touch in government? Who is going to restore parliamentary accountability? Bridge the gulf between the executive and legislature? Revive parliamentary scrutiny? Protect our liberties from the encroachment by the state?
Brown also announced out of the blue that he supported his predecessor’s 90 day detention without charge for terrorist suspects, a measure which overturns a thousand years of freedom from unjust arrest. Which introduces effective punishment without trial - the equivalent of a six month sentence with remission - for people who just happen to catch the eye of PC plod.
Of course, it isn’t all bad. David Cameron wants us to hug each other and make nice. But we could also do with some righteous anger in parliament right now to ensure that Brown doesn’t continue the old ways. It isn’t about individuals; it is about the will of MPs to honour their job descriptions. They are elected by us to fight our corner. Instead they are hiding in it.