Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Mother of All Parliaments

Gorbals Mick

The amusement caused by the discomfort of the Speaker in allowing the Police to roam freely throughout the Palace of Westminster searching for God knows what is only a partial hoot when compared to all the other commonly accepted nonsense regarding the Mother of Parliaments.

I wish I could find the book called, True Brit. I last read it in the 1970's. It's all about those commonly accepted (but equally commonly fallacious) ideas that British people have about their own country – the ones that are completely wrong, of course. Like, for example, the mistaken belief that the English Parliamentary system is somehow the envy of the civilised world or even a semi-sensible form of government. Neither statement is actually true or remotely sensible.

I just happened to be reading, The Victorians by A. N. Wilson when Michael Martin came a cropper at Westminster and I came across a most entertaining passage. I apologise for quoting it almost in full.

Wilson tells us, “Britain became so used to being governed (in Victorian times – my italics) by what could be called an autocratic consensus or settlement that it was years before the existence of a so-called democracy took hold of the collective political imagination. Indeed it is open to question whether an enthusiasm for democracy has ever counted for much in Britain, if by that is meant such things as a Bill of Rights, a democratically chosen judiciary or an elected head of state. Prime Ministers, Cabinets, civil servants continue to govern Britain with only nominal reference to the results of ballot box or polls. The exclusion of adults from the voting process on grounds of income or gender would now be abhorred by all but a few manic die-hards. But, the electorate, being given the right to chose its government, has seldom shown any enthusiasm for changing the Constitution, the method of dividing power between the two Houses of Parliament, or the composition of the Cabinet, the actual decision-making political body.
Until very recently,the hereditary peers of England sat in the upper chamber as of right; a proportion, at the time of writing, still do so. Their rights and privileges were removed, not as a result of some populist movement, but by modern-minded politicians who felt for whatever reason that enough of that particular system was enough. All the same, whatever happens to the House of Lords in our own day or in the future, we can say that the way Britain was governed remained substantially unaltered from the time of Disraeli to the premiership of John Major and Tony Blair. The electorate has been extended, but elections still take place in roughly the same manner. Thereafter, parliamentary members claim to represent, not a political faction but a place – members are not announced as “The Labour Member” or “The Conservative who has just spoken”, but as (until very recently) “The Honourable Member for Scunthorpe” - just as might have been the case at any time since the reign of Edward III. The Cabinet and the government are still referred to as administrations, their task being primarily to administer the business of the government on behalf of the Crown.
In a sense, Britain retains a largely aristocratic (or perhaps oligarchic would be more accurate) form of government, even though the prime minister and his or her team do not come from the landed section of society. The parties do not, as in other parts of the world (or as in one specific part of the United Kingdom to this day, Northern Ireland), represent single sections of society or single interests. Only very seldom in British history – the most obvious example is the General Strike of 1926 – does the populace appear to divide along purely class lines.”

So, the True Brit idea of a Parliament which is the envy of the world and the basis for all civilised government is really just balderdash. What is truly surprising is that the British voters are so thick as to presume they really matter at all. That's why, for example, we get a neo-fascist “New Labour” government which makes the Tories look like a bunch of left wing loonies.

This system also produces some outstandingly bad polices and politicians. One is almost tempted to say that is it's real purpose.

A. N. Wilson again: “Any observer of the English scene over the last two hundred years knows that . . . the political history of Britain is one of chancellors of the Exchequers who know nothing about money, education ministers who can't spell, bishops with little or no religious faith.”

This is precisely the type of government Parliament is designed to produce. A bunch of boundlessly hopeless amateurs who are supposed to be, in some respects, guided and in others rescued by the Mandarins of the Civil Service – the real government of the country. No wonder Yes Minister remains one of the most popular sit-coms ever made.

Seen in this light, the Speaker's present predicament is as predictable as it is sad.

To Wilson again (regarding the electoral reforms of 1884): . . . how much of a true political shift took place as a result of the electoral reforms of 1884. Did the granting of the vote to 4,376,916 male adults (as opposed to (2.619,435) before the Representation of the People Act appreciably change the way Great Britain was governed over the next few decades? Believers in Parliament might see British history as an unfolding progression of freedoms which, as general election followed general election, more and more people -first the urban males, then the entire working class (males), then all adults, male and female – were empowered. But empowered to do what? To elect representatives who for the most part perpetuated the system that placed them there. . . . If the majority of the population was working class, how did it come about that until the twentieth century there were next to no working class parliamentarians thrown up by this supposedly democratic system?”

Which brings us neatly to the archetypical working class hero, Gorbals Mick and his particular brand of parliamentary oversight.

I think I hear Speaker Lenthall's bones shrieking.

May it please your majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as this house is pleased to direct me whose servant I am here; and humbly beg your majesty’s pardon that I cannot give any other answer than this. Are you listening, Mick?

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