News services reported this afternoon that the British government (with the approval of the monarch) has ordered that parliament be suspended for 5 weeks – a suspension which appears to be designed to severely (if not completely) hinder the ability of the British parliament to prevent Britain leaving the EU without a deal on October 31st 2019.
This course of action strikes me as an odd course of action for a British Prime Minister which has repeatedly espoused the need for democracy… If you have to prevent people from voting because you know that when they do, they will vote against you; then what you are doing is by definition undemocratic! It is undemocratic even when done in support of a democratically taken decision.
The argument of whether or not the public voted for a No-Deal will go on and on perhaps – but completely outside of that, the decision to suspend parliament to achieve an end is UNDEMOCRATIC.
That is not however, the topic for this blog. The issue raised here concerns whether or not the political system in the United Kingdom is one that the public wants.
Whether or not you consider the United Kingdom to be a democracy (and I do not), the evident fact is, that whatever it is called, the system in place is one which permits that the representatives of the people can be bypassed completely at the request of the Prime Minister.
To a large extent, MPs have brought this situation on themselves when they (quite stupidly) decided to set a date for the departure on the United Kingdom from Europe without any sort of idea where they were going. Nevertheless, the idea that a sitting Prime Minister can request the suspension of parliament so that the course of the country cannot be changed remains an undemocratic power which is granted under the British constitution.
The United Kingdom currently finds itself in a situation where a Prime Minister has been chosen by the registered members (of which there are 180,000) of a single political party. Although this political party is the largest in parliament, it does not have a majority – having only 311 MPs (there are 650 seats in total). The Prime Minister in question has been threatened with a vote of no confidence by his fellow parliamentarians because of his plans, and is now planning to ask the British monarch to suspend parliament – an action which would prevent a vote of no confidence and prevent laws from being passed in parliament. Since in the British system, the monarch is empowered ‘by consent’, the requests to the monarch of a sitting Prime Minister are normally granted by default; anything else would itself cause a constitutional crisis around the question of ‘Royal Prerogative’.
Whether or not this undemocratic behaviour by Boris Johnson succeeds, there is perhaps room to review and consider what passes for a constitution in the United Kingdom and to question its suitability for purpose.
- Should it be possible for one person to suspend parliament?
- Why is there no mechanism to display no confidence in a government whilst parliament is on holiday?
- Should there be a general election when the Prime Minister changes?
- Why is the delay after a vote of no confidence no fixed – why is the government of the day allowed to choose?
- Should there be an agreed process for referenda?
The first point is possibly the most important; any system that permits that the democratic process can be suspended by one person is in effect a dictatorship. There is nothing democratic about allowing the suspension of democracy – even if it is done by a democratically elected person. This situation is made worse by the second and third points in this case – as Boris Johnson does not have a mandate as Prime Minister from the electorate, only the members of his political party – and there is no way during the parliamentary recess that his authority can be questioned.
Because each political party is free to choose whatever mechanism it likes to decide on policy and governance, it is possible that the Prime Minister become effectively responsible for all major policy decisions of the government. Under such conditions, surely the electorate should have a say in who the Prime Minister is for every change? Anything less can result in the election of Jane Doe – who promptly resigns to allow John Doe to govern. This is bad enough, but when the other members of parliament have no way to object, and when the Prime Minister can request a suspension of the democratic processes – there is substantial room for abuse of the system.
I personally would question the need for a 5-week recess – it is an anachronistic model which does not reflect the need for governance all year round. The minimum number of MPs required for a vote is a quorum (40), a number which should be achievable throughout the year regardless of MPs’ holidays.
In addition to all of which, even were a vote of no confidence passed, then the date of a general election is selected by the outgoing government – the only criteria being that it must be more than 25 days after the dissolution of parliament. There is no maximum delay!! So the government can set a date after Brexit.
It is evident from all of this that the British political system cannot prevent itself from being abused by a dedicated individual. Is that really the system that the public wants?
There is currently a national petition to request that parliament not be suspended, (it gained more than 450,000 signatures in less than 6 hours today alone) – but of course no requirement for the government to take notice. But that’s O.K., we can vote them out at the next election – in 2 years, when the damage has already been done and it cannot be put right!!
For me, and regardless of what happens next – it is clear that Britain needs a new constitution, one which does not allow such abuses.