If there was ever any doubt that Westminster is a relic of an empire that the sun set on a long time ago, then the last year must have removed that doubt. At a time in the United Kingdom’s history when we should be considering the best outcome, not just for today but for generations to come. We have a U.K. Government that is hell bent on driving forward its own political ideology regardless of the outcome for the citizens of the UK and the official opposition in open warfare with itself and ridden with inner turmoil. We have a Parliament that is outdated and out of touch. While the U.K. government is unable to engage in negotiation with both the EU and the devolved powers of the U.K. Is it any wonder that the population is once again disenchanted with politics and politicians.
I was once of the view that Westminster was the issue. The United Kingdom’s Government sat in that place and denied Scotland, the wider social classes and minorities their voice at the top table. I had never put a foot inside the place but I was familiar with it through countless books, television documentaries, news reports, dramas and movies. From a distance and out of the corner of my eye I watched the Labour Party and Conservative Party take it in turns to rule over us. And I got the distinct impression that being in government was more important to them than what they did once they got there.
Careers were built, fortunes made, influence sought and almost unnoticeably, every so often, we rotated the seating arrangement. The citizens of the greatest democracy in the world (because that is what we are told we live in) only had to turn up when asked and vote. The politicians would take care of the rest. The pervading attitude amongst elected members was ‘Trust us, we know what’s best for you.’
I watched as people I didn’t know and was very unlikely ever to meet, took up positions such as Secretary of State for health, transport or defence and below them Ministers, maybe as many as four in a department plus other sundry positions. And to support them civil servants steeped in the machinery of government and loyal to the establishment regardless of its current political persuasion. And of course the ubiquitous special advisors. Bestowed of privilege and powers that nobody ever voted for.
The elected member’s role was to represent their constituents and promote the political philosophies that their parties expounded in their manifestos. This was Westminster to me or to be precise Westminster and Whitehall.
The Westminster I have experienced, in over five years as the Member of Parliament for Inverclyde, is worse than my original fears. And because the system of government is not fit for purpose, it gets abused. Motions are talked out. Votes are cancelled. The difference between fact and fiction gets blurred. The complexities of Erskine May are investigated for loop holes that can be used to subvert the democratic cause not uphold it. And we now have a Prime Minister that thought he was above the law and could prorogue parliament because it didn’t give him what he wanted. We now have a Prime Minister who believes that scrutiny is for lesser mortals than himself.
The difficulty with a critique like this is that it can be critical of the competent and damn the innocent by its broad-brush approach. So, for the record, it is my opinion that there are many MPs who are hard-working, diligent, honest and trust worthy.
Few places beat Westminster and Whitehall for burning the midnight oil. A huge amount of work is completed. Research is undertaken, reports are written, speeches constructed, committees prepared for and conversations continue late into the night. Furtive liaisons take place in quiet corners of the great stone corridors and behind closed doors, deals are done. Work expands and spills out into the cafes, restaurants and bars of Pimlico, Lambeth, Vauxhall and beyond. And all the time media bids are greedily pursued and consumed as fragile egos on all sides are fed.
And the primary achievement over the years is not the provision of a fairer society or a better future, the primary achievement is the perpetuation of an establishment ready and willing to serve the parasitical, narcissistic and the good for nothing else.
The machinery of government is stuffed full of people who are there because they are friendly towards it. They aren’t movers and shakers, they won’t upset the apple cart, they don’t go sticking their noses in where it’s not wanted, they pick up bloated pay cheques for minimal input, they are place-men and the clear majority are men. They are put in position because they are known to be safe. They are blockers. Their curriculum vitae is impressive, if a little predictable, but scratch the surface and you find career opportunists. They stay just long enough before they are found out and then the establishment finds a use for them elsewhere and they move on. The revolving door in full motion regurgitates them at an alarming rate and with eye watering salaries. The career path is set and it doesn’t include many that ever got their hands dirty for a living. It is more likely that it requires the right school, right university and maybe most importantly the right friends moving in the right circles. And again, I apologise for using such a broad brush. There are notable exceptions but without a doubt they are the exceptions rather than the rule.
And this is only possible because of the illusion of power, the illusion of cooperation, the illusion of debate and discussion, the illusion of a robust select committee system. All operating behind a veil of pomp and procedure. Packaged like a sugar-coated pill by sycophants and media darlings. When in truth it stinks of entitlement and superiority and is sustained by faux flattery and rank hypocrisy. But that is not the worst of it. The most alarming thing is Westminster and Whitehall in their entirety decide very little, if anything at all. The power is in the hands of very few and they are not for sharing it. An inner circle can control a cabinet, a cabinet minister can control ministers, and ministers can influence members. When push comes to shove legislation can be voted through with very little scrutiny or debate. Members are guided through voting lobbies and the more reluctant ones can usually be convinced either by peer pressure or whips. Blair’s sofa cabinet being a case in point. The outcome of that disgrace was our involvement in the Iraq war and amidst a very modest estimate of 120,000 casualties there were 179 British service personnel and 3 United Kingdom civilians that paid the ultimate price. Many MPs that took part in that vote have said that if they had been provided with all the facts, they would not have backed the United Kingdom’s involvement. But they weren’t because Blair and his cohorts knew the majority of members wouldn’t stand for it. And if all else fails there are Henry the eighth clauses enabling primary legislation to be amended or repealed by subordinate legislation without further parliamentary scrutiny. This boils down to legislation by proclamation. You won’t see that on a ballot paper.
We have a Fixed Term Parliament Act designed to ensure that parliament is elected for a fixed term of five years. This has two benefits. It ensures that after that time the citizens of the United Kingdom can, if it is their will, change the governing party. And it allows a decent amount of time for MPs to plan and work towards achieving something worthy. Unless of course the Prime Minister decides to push for a general election at any time because it’s politically expedient and he can convince 434 members to agree. Or a vote of no confidence is passed by a majority in the house. Then the 650 seats that constitute the House of Commons are all up for grabs. Except they aren’t. Around 300 seats are safe, they will remain either Labour or Conservative, with roughly a fifty-fifty split between Labour and Conservative. It was as high as 380 but has reduced mainly due to SNP gains and Labour’s incredulous ability to self-harm. This means that both Labour and Conservative can guarantee 150 people a job as an MP. That guarantee can buy loyalty.
The outcome of a general election is usually one of four scenarios. The government returns, the government returns but needs an ally as a junior partner to form a coalition, the opposition forms the government or the opposition forms the government with an ally as a junior partner in a coalition. This amounts to two things. Either business as usual or the members swap seats in the chamber and after a honeymoon period, it’s business as usual. The long and short of it is that rather than have a throbbing Parliament pulsating with radical ideas being debated with passion and conviction, one that facilitates a government driven by the need and desire to fulfil great expectations. We have a system constrained by tradition that limits ideas. Content to make do and muddle through. One that swings between debilitating insecurity and strident self-belief.
We need to facilitate a change in the psyche of the electorate. And the solution will be seen by many as radical and by some as blindingly obvious. We need to do three things.
We need to strip down the honours system and that starts at the top. Retire the Royal family. In the 21st century a hereditary heir to a throne is laughable. The concept of a family born to reign over us belongs in the dustbin of history. The unelected second chamber should be put in the recycle bin. A bicameral system that scrutinises and guides has its place but there are better ways than appointing Lords and Ladies. Citizens assemblies have been used in different forms since ancient Greece. There is a place for them in the 21st century. And handing out royal baubles that honour subjects for a life time’s work does not come close to paying them a better wage or funding the charity or organisation they have dedicated their working life to. Showering rich celebrities and sportsmen with honours is repulsive. The honours system underpins the aristocracy and the class system, it supports the concept of a hierarchical society. It breeds conceit and privilege. It promotes self, rather than society.
Turn the Palace of Westminster into a tourist attraction. Host exhibitions and events in it. It is already a mixture of a museum and an art gallery. The cost to rebuild the existing palace will escalate from three to five to twenty billion pounds and beyond. Before we embark on that exercise of grandiose vanity we should ask ourselves ‘why are we doing this’? The outcome should be a Parliament fit for purpose not some faux gothic façade playing host to daily pantomimes. Dump the ceremonial nonsense and allow the debates to grow, free from the ties that bind us. The UK Parliament should be in a brand-new purpose-built building that is welcoming, easily accessible, designed to fully utilise renewable energy and incorporates environmentally friendly building materials and techniques. A new iconic building could herald a new era of open politics. Rebuilding what already exists simply reinforces the past and hinders progress.
Overhaul the voting system. We need to develop a system that gives a fair voice to the citizens of the United Kingdom. The electoral commission, the boundaries commission, academic institutions and the citizens should be involved in designing the appropriate solution that considers the methodology required to give people a voice in the world we live in today.
These actions won’t solve all the problems but they would be massive steps in the right direction to providing a fairer system of representation. A system fit for the 21st century. Forward thinking and inclusive. One where academia, civil service, industry, finance, civic society and politicians can explore and develop new solutions. Solutions that can be scrutinised, critiqued and improved. We need to get as far away as possible from the self-serving dog whistle politics of today. The sad truth is that it is not going to happen because the establishment that the current system supports and is supported by won’t let it happen. There is no appetite for change at Westminster. The status quo has served it well. Thankfully in Scotland we have an alternative. An independent Scotland can be all the things we want it to be. We have a young parliament that is still open to change. It isn’t tied to the past and we must not let it become set in its ways. The Scottish Parliament in conjunction with civic society, thinks tanks, education and industry can mould and shape our country into the nation that we know it should be, the nation it must be if we are to collectively fulfil our potential. But it can only do his with the powers and responsibilities that come as an independent nation. As the U.K. Parliament flounders and fails we must ask ourselves the question, what is best for Scotland? And then we must be prepared to take on the mantle of a modern, independent, 21st century, Northern European nation, free from the constraints of an outdated, outmanoeuvred and out of touch Parliament at Westminster.
Ronnie Cowan MP (Inverclyde)