CAN PARLIAMENT TAKE BACK CONTROL? by Nick Harvey & Paul Tyler (print)

The authors write: British democracy has been through an extended nervous breakdown in recent years and has yet to emerge the other side, though it is to be hoped that a general election due in 2024 might prove to be the trigger for a gradual process of recovery.

As if all that weren’t bad enough, Boris Johnson’s opportunist seizure of power – his outrageous Trump-like attempt to prorogue Parliament, his 2019 election victory on a fraudulent manifesto, and the predictable denouement of his downfall in disgrace – was followed by the brief nightmare of Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng, and now Rishi Sunak, a level-headed man in a hopelessly weak position, attempting forlornly to defy political gravity.

Our purpose
The destructive legacy of the Johnson years warrants comprehensive analysis and radical remedy. One damaging feature of that legacy is the further gross deterioration in an already unhealthy relationship between Parliament and government. This is a pivotal intersection of power within the UK constitution, but the legacy will become permanent unless strong remedial action is taken urgently.

How should an incoming government address this quagmire? Our purpose here is to explore this one particular aspect of the constitutional rehabilitation which is now both sorely needed and increasingly viable. With a change of government looking ever more likely, attention is turning to political renewal
However, the Starmer prospectus offered so far has (hugely welcome) ideas for Lords reform and devolution of power from the centre to localities, but not a great deal more. This presents the risk that, once those two subjects were addressed in power, a tick box mentality might lead Labour to conclude that constitutional reform was ‘done’. In that case, the opportunity to shake up our political culture from top to bottom – which Starmer appears to recognise is needed – will be missed.

One lesson Liberal Democrats learned from the ill-fated coalition with the Conservatives was the danger of pursuing change via a ‘business as usual’ modus operandi. Allowing the Tories to operate as if running a single-party government made it much more difficult to impact upon outcomes

Put simply, in a proudly proclaimed ‘parliamentary democracy’ the executive is accountable to the legislature, and not the other way round. Lord Hailsham, in his 1976 lecture, warned of the perils of ‘elective dictatorship’ but things have only got worse since then.

We then consider how governments abuse power: the racket of ‘government by diktat’ which would have made even Henry VIII blush; the Royal Prerogative – ancient powers which invite Prime Ministerial megalomania; the tattered remains of the Ministerial Code; ideological witch-hunts against top civil servants not deemed to be ‘fellow-travellers’; the 112-year wait for a democratic second chamber; and our descent to the point where politics is on sale to the highest bidder, whomever they may be.

We hope there may be interest across parties and beyond. The enthusiasm with which the present Lord Hailsham has encouraged us to add his father’s ‘Elective Dictatorship’ lecture as an appendix to this book may be indicative.

Nick Harvey and Paul Tyler are former Lib Dem MPs. A former CEO of the Lib Dems, Nick has over the last decade advised the Parliaments of Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, Kuwait and Georgia on – among other things – holding the executive to account (he is now CEO of the European Movement) Paul has been Lib Dem constitutional reform spokesman in both the Commons (2001-05) and Lords (2005- 2021), and is a former chief whip in the Commons. The book is also available as a print-on-demand paperback from Amazon. And as  a Kindle ebook.