It is one year to the week since the EU referendum debate shook Britain’s political zeitgeist. Not just because the idea of a referendum on the European Union actually became a possibility, nor because it showed that our voices could be heard in Parliament, but because 101 MPs defied a three-line whip. It signified one thing only – Parliament is back.
I speak of course of Parliament’s increasing assertiveness. The Conservative Lord Chancellor Lord Hailsham once argued that the British political system is, in many ways, an ‘elective dictatorship’, where governments, through their whips, dominate Parliament suffocated backbenchers’ room to scrutinize the government. In contrast, MPs like Enoch Powell and Michael Foot seem almost legendary for their ability to wear down Wilson’s and Heath’s Lords Reform in 1969. Rarer still is the prospect of MPs bringing down a government. In the 20th Century, only two individual MPs – Leo Amery and Geoffrey Howe – have catalysed a Prime Minister’s fall (Chamberlain and Thatcher respectively).
Indeed, prior to the last election, there were few instances where Parliament did assert itself, such as with the Gurkhas, but these were few and far between. Generally, victory against powerful governments is by stoking wide-scale insurrection such as Thatcher’s Sunday Trading defeat. The other way was trickery, like the West Wing Plot in 2006 where Conservative MPs defeated the Labour government on a motion by hiding in an office until the division bells were rung. The government only lost because Tony Blair failed to vote.
Other than Blair’s disdain for Parliament, the Plot showed that to beat a strong government, you had to use underhand techniques because the then-government’s overwhelming majority prevented honourable means of victory. Many bad bills have therefore passed through Parliament without proper scrutiny – the Lisbon Treaty and the abolition of the 10p tax band being the most egregious.
Yet today, things could not be more different. The EU Referendum showed us that whilst the motion was defeated by 437 to 111 votes, as many as 101 MPs treated their whips with impunity. MPs therefore don’t fear the whips as much as they used to. Lords Reform is perhaps an even better example of this as the insurrection was led by normally loyal government MPs like Jesse Norman who abided by their principles without fear of retribution. Nor can we forget the House of Lords’ constant scrutiny of all governments in a variety of bills. Governments are always kept on their toes. Legislation therefore has fewer flaws.
Parliament therefore becomes more important. MPs must keep up the good work and cannot let another expenses scandal stop Parliament’s renewal.
Of course, there are still problems. Bad bills can still pass into law with government support. Good bills by backbenchers can be filibustered by government controlling the timetable. The power of the whips is still too strong for Parliament to be as effective as it once was. Too many laws are made by the European Union thereby limiting our lawmakers power of scrutiny.
But the fact remains that MPs are doing more to hold the government to account. Edmund Burke once wrote that MPs owe us only their industry and judgement. MPs are giving us their industry by zealously and meticulously scrutinizing the government and once again exercising their even more independent judgement.
This can only be a good thing.