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The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow MP, Philip Monahan Lecture (2013)

23 Sep 2019
L-R: President of UCC in 2013, Dr Michael Murphy; Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow MP; Biographer of Philip Monahan and organiser of the annual lecture series, Dr Aodh Quinlivan.

The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow MP, has been a prominent figure lately in debates about Brexit and proroguing parliament. The Speaker came to the Department of Government and Politics in February 2013 to deliver the Annual Philip Monahan Memorial Lecture. He spoke about the relationship between the legislature and the executive and his words are extremely relevant today. He said, ‘A legislature which simply passed laws but had no interest in or influence over the implementation of those Acts and policy more generally would be an unimpressive institution.  A serious legislature must be capable of intensive scrutiny and have the capacity to challenge the executive. Ministerial appearances in the House should be a courteous nerve-wracking experience.’ We have decided to post the full lecture by John Bercow on our web site, as follows ……..

MR SPEAKER’S PHILIP MONAHAN MEMORIAL LECTURE UNIVERSITY OF CORK, FEBRUARY 28, 2013

Ladies and Gentlemen, it is an extraordinary honour as well as a personal pleasure to have been asked to deliver this Philip Monahan memorial lecture.  Mr Monahan was the personification of the public service ideal whose reputation, I know, spread well beyond the Cork area which he served with such distinction for more than three decades.  I am also touched to discover that I am the first British parliamentarian or political figure to be granted the opportunity to address this audience.  I follow in the footsteps of some really distinguished figures and I hope that I can do them and you justice.  The theme of public service is one that, candidly, does not receive the respect that it did and that it should do.

The subject which I have been asked to tackle this evening is the relationship between the executive and Parliament or, put differently, the executive and the legislature. Inevitably most of my remarks tonight will relate to the UK Government and the UK House of Commons but I think that at least some of what I have to say will have broader application.  I claim no expertise in the government and politics of the Republic of Ireland let alone a detailed knowledge of the operation of the Dail but where there are points of comparison between our two parliaments I will mention them.  It is good of you to allow me the chance to muse on this issue which, as you can imagine, is dear to my heart.

I want to proceed tonight in the following fashion.  First, I propose to set out the ambitions which a legislature should have for itself in a modern democracy.  Second, I shall candidly  concede that for much of the period between 1960 and 2010 the UK House of Commons struggled to match those expectations and I will explain why three particular forces combined to secure that, to my mind obviously undesirable, outcome.  Third, I will explain why I believe that in very recent years those forces have been in partial retreat and the UK Parliament has reasserted itself, which I shamelessly contend is a very positive situation.  Finally, I will offer some thoughts as to the wider lessons of the UK experience for other legislatures and for modern democracy.  I will then submit myself to your questions and do my best to provide frank answers.

So let me start with what a legislature in a country such as Britain or the Republic of Ireland should want for itself.  There are many, many, roles which such a political institution can and should perform but it seems to me that there are three absolutely vital functions through which the authority of a Parliament should be assessed.

The first of these is the extent to which a Parliament genuinely performs the function of legislating rather than acting as a mere rubber stamp for an executive which, either by dint of constitutional provision or political practice, in effect controls the legislative agenda.  As the act of legislating is at the very core of what a legislature is meant to be, this is crucial not only for the standing of a national parliament or assembly but to the legitimacy of the wider democratic system itself.

The second relates to scrutiny and challenge of those who hold ministerial office and those who act in their name.  A legislature which simply passed laws but had no interest in or influence over the implementation of those Acts and policy more generally would be an unimpressive institution.  A serious legislature must be capable of intensive scrutiny and have the capacity to challenge the executive. Ministerial appearances in the House should be a courteous nerve-wracking experience.

The third involves representation.  An effective legislature should afford individual parliamentarians the chance to stand up for individuals, sections and the whole of their constituency and to champion causes which extend well beyond those whom they represent. A parliament should be a place where crusades can be effectively undertaken.  The individual citizen should feel that his or her relationship with that Parliament extends well beyond casting a vote once every four or five years.  If not, it is difficult to conceive of how a secure long-term allegiance to the House of Commons will be achieved.

These then are the ideals.  An effective Parliament should be at the heart of the legislative process, should exercise truly meaningful scrutiny over ministers, officials and departments and should be capable of effective representation, both individually and collectively, of citizens.

The blunt truth, however, is that there were many occasions in the half century between 1960 and 2010 in the United Kingdom when these ideals proved extremely difficult to realise in practice.  This was widely noted by commentators and felt painfully by those who had sat in the House of Commons for an extended period of time.  It made Lord Hailsham’s fabled charge that Britain had become an “elective dictatorship” appear to be uncomfortably credible.  Furthermore, although the contrast with other European democracies was rarely made, had it been so it would not have been very flattering.  While the factors which I am about to outline had an impact on all legislatures in the democratic world there were sound reasons to believe that the UK Parliament had been hit hardest.

There were three forces which came together to threaten to marginalise the House of Commons.

The first was the power of political party over the House of Commons. Political parties are a vital aspect of our and of any democracy.  They offer shape and form to our society. Without them, elections might be personality contests rather than policy competitions.  It is entirely right that parliaments are organised around political parties and even the much derided Whips within the House of Commons are fundamental to its operation.  Party is not the enemy of Parliament.

Party is, however, capable of suffocating Parliament if partisan loyalties overwhelm all other factors.  At various points in the past 25 years or so that appears to have happened. It would be foolish not to admit this.  The hyper-majorities won by both the Conservative and Labour parties during this period probably reinforced a sense within the executive – officials as much as ministers – that the House of Commons is at best an irritation and at worse an irrelevance.  Parliament was in danger of being reduced to what Walter Bagehot referred to as the “dignified” rather than the “efficient” part of the British Constitution.  It was more of a museum than a legislature.

The second aspect involved the size, character and complexity of the contemporary State.  The so-called “Golden Age” of Parliament (which was never as wonderful as has been imagined) occurred at the time when the functions of the State were very limited indeed and it was wholly possible for ordinary Members of Parliament to exercise scrutiny over Government as a whole through the chamber of the House of Commons sitting rather fewer days than we do today.  As the State changed in nature from 1945 onwards, MPs individually and collectively found it much harder to comprehend the basics of its structure never mind robustly to scrutinise individual policy positions.

The third leg to this tripod involves the media.  By the late twentieth century in Britain a set of national newspapers had been supplemented by rolling television news.  Though the word media takes the plural, it has in some respects acquired the character of a collective. This new media was also far less deferential in instinct than that of the 1950s and 1960s and part of this irreverence included a diminishing respect for the power and the proceedings of Parliament.  The media is an innately restless animal and, in Britain, an unusually competitive institution.  Immediacy is everything.  This impatient beast naturally focused on the individuals who held ministerial office or who sought to displace them.  It did not find the internal operations of Parliament – First Readings, Second Readings, Report Stages, Third Readings or Royal Assents – particularly interesting except on the relatively rare occasions when there was real uncertainty as to what the outcome of a vote might be.  This mindset had the unintended consequence of reinforcing the perception that meaningful political engagement occurred within the executive alone, or, as an election approached, between the executive and the alternative executive but not within the legislature as an institution.  This was hardly an attractive outcome for those who held the historic ideals of the House of Commons dear.

The media also played a further role within this iron triangle of Party, State and itself.  In many respects it had become an alternative to Parliament in both its scrutiny and representational functions.  It was an alternative forum by which ministers advanced their positions and defended themselves during controversies.  The Today Programme seemed to view itself as a superior forum for inquisition than the chamber of the House of Commons.  The media could also both advance campaigns directly and become the theatre to which those with causes to champion could turn rather than the complicated and cumbersome operations of Parliament.  At its nadir, it seemed as if the sole aspect of parliamentary life of any interest to the media and hence conveyed to the electorate beyond it was that legal blood sport  known as Prime Minister’s Question Time.

As I mentioned, these three forces were at work across all democracies but they did seem to be unusually prevalent in the United Kingdom.  Party loyalties were especially strong and reinforced by an electoral system which was strongly majoritarian in bias and in which the individual attributes of MPs appeared to be of extremely modest consequence.  The UK State, while not larger than those of other European states, had been designed in a strikingly bureaucratic centralised fashion which made it the creature of the executive and disturbingly remote from the legislature.  Finally, the raw aggressive qualities of the UK media made it an effective challenger to Parliament as an institution.

Put this altogether and pessimism about the plight of Parliament was completely understandable.  Neither the internal machinery, the formal rules, nor the prevailing culture within the House of Commons seemed to be remotely capable of offering resistance to the combined armies of party, state and media.  There were times when the House of Commons appeared to be resigned to its fate with the chasm between those members in or seeking to replace the executive and the rest proving brutally stark.  This was a corrosive state of affairs and one which, in my opinion, led directly to the expenses scandal because it encouraged an insularity of mindset and a focus on the personal and the petty rather than a confidence that a career as an MP was to be an effective advocate of the public good. In other words, the House was dying.

The darkest hour is often, nevertheless, the one before the dawn.  The expenses scandal proved to be the catalyst for a wider reform movement within the House of Commons which extended well beyond the establishment of an independent institution to oversee pay and rations.  In the past three years there has been very clear evidence of a revival of the House of Commons as a result of internal change and external developments.  All of them have served to weaken the three forces of Party, State and Media.  They provide the basis for optimism about the future of the UK Parliament.

I will briefly set out the reasons why all three previously rampant forces have weakened.

The power of the political party has not abated completely and nor should it do so.  There have, nevertheless, been some subtle but important changes.  One of these, paradoxically, was triggered by the previous perceived decline of Parliament.  As MPs became frustrated at their inability to craft legislation or impose scrutiny over the executive, many of them threw themselves ever more forcefully into the service of their constituencies.  While purists of Parliament had their reservations about this development, evidence accumulated that the electorate was starting to notice this activity and was willing to reward it politically.  A striking feature of the 2010 General Election was the variety of outcomes and swings in seemingly similar seats with the political appeal of effective incumbents becoming manifest.  The quality of the candidate mattered as well as the colour of the rosette.

That same election also produced a peacetime coalition government of a sort not seen since the late nineteenth century.  The agreement between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats also made it plain that this arrangement would not be a temporary interlude but a durable contract.  Coalition has inevitably changed the character of the political process and Parliament has benefited from this.  Politics has become more unpredictable and many MPs have made the most of this.

Crucially, however, rule changes passed by the House of Commons in March 2010 a matter of weeks before the general election have also had a dramatic impact.  Until less than three years ago, the chairs of select committees and the membership of those bodies were largely determined by the Whips, namely those responsible for ensuring that Government business reigned supreme in the House.  In other words, those charged with undertaking detailed scrutiny of the executive were hand-picked by representatives of that very executive. This was hardly a situation likely to encourage intense and intrusive scrutiny of the executive.  It also limited the extent to which select committees could be an alternative career structure for MPs who did not become ministers.  It further tightened the hold of political parties over Parliament.

All of that has now been swept away.  The chairs of select committees are not chosen by the Whips Office but are elected by the whole House.  A candidate who wants to win such a berth needs to convince at least a section of the Opposition that he or she, if elected, would be rigorously independent in office.  The membership of these committees is now determined by the whole party caucus within the House of Commons and not an elite few tied to the party leadership.  Independence of mind would again be an electoral virtue as candidates approached colleagues and sought support.  Parties have not been neutered but they have lost the hold that they previously maintained.

Parliament has also become more effective in its relationship with the modern State.  This has been achieved by a variety of means.  The first, with which I am proud to be associated, has been the revival of a parliamentary instrument known as the Urgent Question.  The Urgent Question or UQ is a device which enables any Member of Parliament to petition me to summon a Minister to the floor of the House of Commons at but a very few hours notice to answer a question and participate in a mini-debate on a matter that has emerged very suddenly into public notice.  There had been just two UQs accepted in the 12 months before I became the Speaker of the House of Commons in June 2009.  Since that date I have awarded 129 of them and I have deliberately sought to institutionalise the UQ as a central part of parliamentary time.

As a means for the immediate scrutiny of the State and its actions at home and abroad this must not be underestimated.  There is also anecdotal evidence that ministers are now volunteering to make policy statements in and to Parliament and be questioned on them far more frequently because this is deemed a more enticing prospect than being commanded to appear in the House to answer a UQ. The evidence for this is that there has been a 30 per cent increase in the number of statements made in this Parliament compared with its predecessor at the same stage and, I would wager, a much larger increase in the number of questions allowed during those statements. The second change has been a shift in our debates away from extremely general subjects such as “Foreign Policy” or “Defence” towards shorter, snappier and more forensic exchanges on more precise policy matters, which has again made the scrutiny of the state more effective.  It is far harder for ministers to dodge a very specific line of inquiry than it is for them to deal with the relative comfort of the big picture and the broadest strokes of public policy.  I have also sought to ensure that all those who want to participate in these debates have the chance to do so.  As a result, these exchanges are better attended than in the recent past and have become a serious political event.

Finally, here, the newly democratised select committees have felt institutionally emboldened as well as empowered by their new status.  They are now much more willing to be more assertive with the departments which they shadow.  For example, the Treasury Select Committee has been transformed as it holds what are effectively hearings on the proposed membership of the Office of Budget Responsibility, assumes a central role on banking standards in the aftermath of the LIBOR scandal and is seminal in its questioning the incoming Governor of the Bank of England.  Few will forget how the House of Commons Select Committee for Culture, Media and Sport seized the spotlight during the News International saga in 2011.  The House of Commons is not perfect at the scrutiny of the modern State but it has at least armed itself with the relevant weapons.  A further innovation in this regard are the debates chosen by the Backbench Business Committee, another institution created in what we might call in retrospect the “Westminster Spring” of March 2010, which have catapulted matters which Government would almost certainly have hoped to keep off the agenda of the House of Commons into the centre of the stage.  On matters as varied as the Hillsborough deaths of 1989 and whether or not there should be a referendum at some stage on the UK’s membership of the European Union, the House of Commons has been the incubator of real change.  Additional reforms have encouraged enhanced public participation in parliamentary proceedings, brought record numbers of citizens in to Parliament as a place and we now have an outreach programme in which I have willingly played a substantial part. By this programme the House takes itself and what it does out to the country at large.  All of this is light years from a very few years ago.

It is worth fleshing out the different components of that outreach initiative. Some of it involves making the House of Commons itself more open to the public at large through more tours of the Palace of Westminster of more variety and on more days of the week. Some of it involves the House as an institution making its case across the whole of the United Kingdom via a series of regional programmes led by regionally-based parliamentary officers. And some of it involves the personal efforts of parliamentary leaders - myself included - to come out of Westminster and explain what it is we do instead of assuming, as we did in the past, that such an exercise was unnecessary. I use every parliamentary recess and indeed, like today, afternoons when I am not seated in the chair of the chamber, to talk about the work of the House and the direction in which we are now travelling. I have placed particular emphasis on universities and academia which is why it is such a delight to be here today.

Then there is the media.  A combination of internal and external factors has also been witnessed inside the fourth estate.  The British media has changed enormously over the past five years.  Its commentators until recently held a form of oligarchy over opinion.  Journalists appeared to spend their lives interviewing other journalists as to their thoughts about the politics of the hour.  Those outside of this privileged set had difficulty expressing themselves.  The rise of the political blogger and the specialist political website and then Twitter have transformed and often democratised this situation.  We are all commentators now (or at least have the capacity to take up that option).  In addition, the telephone hacking scandal and its aftermath, notably the Leveson Inquiry, have shone a light on dubious practices and forced a fresh and, might I note, slightly more humble media.  The swagger with which it once assumed that it was a superior institution to Parliament for both scrutiny and representation has diminished somewhat.  Furthermore, the media follows the action.  As political action has moved back into the House of Commons via the Urgent Question, the debates triggered by the House Backbench Committee and the hearings and reports of select committees so the essentials of accuracy have obliged the media to relay to the wider world what has been said and what has been done in Parliament itself.

All of what I have described has had a very considerable impact on the relationship between the executive and the legislature in Britain.  I am confident that this is a permanent change and not a deviation brought about by a coalition which is a novelty in my country as much as it has become virtually the norm in the Republic of Ireland.

What, in conclusion before I answer what I hope will be a host of questions, should we learn from all this not just in terms of the House of Commons but for legislatures and democracies more broadly?

I have three very brief points to make in this regard.  The first is that legislative decline in relation to the executive is manifestly not inevitable or irreversible.  The second is that rule changes matter.  The reinvention of the Urgent Question, the democratisation of select committees and the creation of the Backbench Business Committee (to be followed shortly, we are solemnly promised in the 2010 coalition agreement, by a House Business Committee) were truly seminal reforms, they were not the equivalent of rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. The third, perhaps not immediately obvious especially to ministers on a day-to-day basis, is that these changes are also ultimately in the best interests of the executive as well as the legislature.  Robust policy will always survive vigorous scrutiny.  Poor policy will often fall through the cracks if scrutiny of it is inadequate.

It has been kind of you to listen to me talk about the British Parliament for so long.  I want to acknowledge how much those who have embraced and implemented reform in Westminster have discovered by looking at our own devolved political institutions and other national parliaments.  I hope that the recent revival of the House of Commons is a development of which Philip Monahan would have approved.  It is in his spirit that I commend it to this audience this evening.  Thank you.

Department of Government & Politics

Roinn Léann an Rialtais agus na Polaitíochta

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