The hidden origins of the modern party stitch up

This article originally appeared on the blog of Open Up Now, the campaign for open primaries.This article originally appeared on the blog of Open Up Now, the campaign for open primaries.

This article originally appeared on the blog of Open Up Now, the campaign for open primaries.

I have just finished reading a fascinating book about the collapse in September 2008 of Lehman Brothers. Well informed and informative, it describes in vivid and authentic detail how that banking house careered towards the biggest bankruptcy in history dragging much of the world's financial system into chaos with it. The book is titled A Colossal Failure of Common Sense and is a study of the deadly interplay between personal and institutional greed for both money and power, the desire of those in power to maintain the status quo, the reluctance to recognise inconvenient facts and the willingness of those with "common sense" to become complicit and not ask the key "what if?" questions. It should be required reading for the leaders of our political parties.

It is our political parties that have become a necessity in, but also the kidnappers of, our representative democracy. And it is they that are leading us headlong towards the collapse of public confidence in our parliamentary system. They are doing this, as they have for some time, in three main ways.

They exercise substantial control of parliamentary candidacy by deciding at central or local level who is allowed to put themselves up for election as representatives of constituencies.

They are the self-appointed guardians of the rule that all holders of ministerial positions sit in one of the two houses of Parliament and are members of (or, in rare cases, supporters of) "the party".

They make clear to "their" MPs (via the whipping system and other more subtle pressures) that the realisation of any ambition to have a political career including ministerial office is dependent on supporting "their" government and not "rocking the boat".

By these means the political parties have captured our freedoms and largely destroyed the notions that Government should be subject to the control of Parliament and that Parliament should consist of the people's representatives freely elected. We are, in effect, forced to vote for a party which will create the next government with our MPs reduced substantially to cannon fodder in relation to national matters and encouraged to focus on "constituency matters". Test this by asking your MP two questions, one relating to a purely local matter and the other to a national matter. You will get a prompt response to the former but, very likely, will have to wait for a response to the latter until someone on the MP's staff has checked with "central office" what the party line is.

No wonder that Parliament has become a rather self important cosy club in which intelligent people, forced to engage in a ritualistic death dance with its own arcane rules, are exposed to the temptation of taking concealed reward for accepting a largely frustrating and intellectually sterile role in life. Hardly the centre of a people's democracy! This is not what those who have fought for our liberty over the centuries, and particularly in the 17th century (not so long ago!), intended.

There is a little known event which started us on the path to domination by political parties and the mess they have got us into.

The Act of Settlement of 1701, best known for securing the occupancy of our throne in protestant hands, was also intended to be the final nail hammered into the coffin of royal executive supremacy by the parliamentarians. Following on from a unanimous resolution of the Commons in 1680 and the thinking underlying our Bill of Rights - the expression of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 - the Act of Settlement laid down the principle that no person with an office under the Crown (i.e. no minister) could be capable of serving as a member of the House of Commons. Since the House of Commons already had secured control of "supply" (money needed by government to carry out its policies) this principle was designed to ensure that Government was not only separate from Parliament but also controlled by a Parliament with the means of quickly and directly imposing its will.

That provision of the Act of Settlement was to come into force on the (protestant) Hanoverian succession but long before that happened it was changed in 1705 into a provision that only the holders of offices created after that year could be barred from being MPs. Since all the great offices of state already existed, this change neutered what the parliamentarians wanted.

Had the provision in the Act of 1701 stood, no ministers would have been in and able to manipulate the House of Commons. There would have been no party whips controlled by ministers and no members on the payroll of ministers and "expected" to vote with government - the payroll vote. What would have been the consequence of this? One possibility is that we would have moved to the structure adopted by the rebelling American colonies later in the century with the head (Mr President) of an appointed executive (the ministers) elected separately from the legislature. A true and democratic separation of the powers!

Who pushed for the change of 1705? Surprise! Surprise! It was the emerging political class already organising themselves into the political parties which were to become the Tories (the King's party) and the Whigs (the large landowners' party). Those politicians, with deeply undemocratic instincts, saw and seized the opportunity to take the power which the parliamentarians had wrenched from the Crown. And by ensuring that sufficient of them were embedded in the House of Commons they could claim that they had democratic legitimacy ("we have been elected") and ensure that those with political ambition were required to become first a member of a House of Commons which they substantially controlled.

This was the essence of what they (in horse racing parlance "the nobblers") did and was precisely contrary to what parliamentarians had fought and died for. It was a dreadful defeat and ensured both that Parliament, representing the people, would have a very limited control of Government and that we would only ever have a pale shadow of a truly representative democracy. The situation was made worse by the cynical use the Tories (the King's Party) made of the remaining royal prerogative to create peers (who could be ministers also) and obtain control of the "upper house". This eventually caused a series of constitutional crises culminating in the curbing of the Peers' powers nearly one hundred years ago and a "promise", still not kept, by the political parties to reform the House of Lords.

The political parties have not served the cause of democracy and "we the people" well. They could have done much better - and would have done - had their leaders been less interested in the power that goes with governing us and more interested in helping us to govern ourselves. The right thing for them - the parties and their leaders - to do is to support the cause of popular reform and start by liberating our elected representatives. The primaries route for which Open Up is campaigning is a very attractive way of doing just that.

It is my hope that Open Up, and other reforming campaigns such as Power 2010 which have derived much energy from the hugely successful Convention on Modern Liberty, will succeed. A truly reforming House of Commons consisting of independently minded members should consider carefully why the creators of our Glorious Revolution wanted Government separate and excluded from our Parliament - a Parliament with the last word. I believe that those creators were right and that we should fight for what they wanted. Whether the politicians and their parties like it or not it is time for us, we the people, to become parliamentarians again. This time we must win and make our victory permanent.

About the author

John Jackson is a lawyer who has never practised the law professionally.  He is chairman of Mishcon de Reya and History Today on the Board of openDemocracy and founder of JJ Books.

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