Tom Paine on the House of Commons

Tom Griffin (London, OK): Monday was the 200th anniversary anniversary of the death of Tom Paine, the man who, in Mike Marqusee's words, "inspired and guided revolutions in north America and France, and equally important, the revolution that did not happen in Britain."

As both Brendan O'Neill and Edward Vallance note, Paine's writings retain remarkable relevance to today's political crisis, not least because on his own terms, the British revolution he sought remains unfinished business.

Here is Paine's verdict on the House of Commons in The Rights of Man

With respect to the house of commons, it is elected but by a small part of the nation; but were the the election as universal as taxation, which it ought to be, it would still be only the organ of the nation, and cannot possess inherent rights. When the national assembly of France resolves a matter, the resolve is made in right of the nation; but Mr. Pitt on all national questions, so far as they refer to the house of commons, absorbs the right of the nation into the organ, and makes the organ into a nation, and the nation itself into a cipher.

 So Paine would not have been surprised by the expenses saga. He understood that even a parliament elected by universal suffrage would remain a gentlemen's club without constitutional reform.

His view of parliamentary sovereignty remains as applicable today as it was in 1791:

Constitution is now the cant word of parliament, turning itself to the ear of the nation. Formerly it was the universal supremacy and the omnipotence of parliament. But since the progress of liberty in France, those phrases have a despotic harshness in their note; and the English parliament has caught the fashion from the National Assembly, but without the substance, of speaking of a constitution

 Two centuries after his death, Paine's demand in The Rights of Man for a written constitution enshrining the sovereignty of the people remains the yardstick for any serious measure of democratic reform.

Is parliamentary sovereignty still vital?

John Jackson (London, Mishcon de Reya): The texts of Nick Herbert's public speeches sometimes give the impression of having been drafted first by a well informed assistant, with a sound knowledge of our constitutional history, and then given a ‘going over’ by Herbert to provide a (Conservative Party) politically correct gloss. The result can read in an oddly disjointed – almost Palinist -  way. This is a pity: it diminishes the value of serious attempts to discuss serious questions in a serious way. The public lecture commenting on a decade of the Human Rights Act, sponsored by the British Institute of Human Rights and delivered by Herbert yesterday at the site of the British Library’s Taking Liberties exhibition is a striking example of this.

Despite the disjunctions, some good, and some bad,  points emerged clearly from  Herbert’s lecture.

He was right to:-

  • Warn against the dangers of judicial activism;
  • Emphasise that human rights cannot have meaning, or exist, without popular consent;
  • Say ‘ – in society we have responsibilities to one another.’ and ’- there is a danger that rights become not tools for protecting the individual within society, but advancing the individual against society.’

But wrong to:-

  • Argue that judicial activism has been accelerated by the Human Rights Act which has undermined parliamentary sovereignty and the separation of the powers;
  • Imply that popular consent can only be expressed through parliamentary representation;
  • Suggest that the best way for our society to ‘re-balance’ rights and responsibilities is via a British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities proposed by a (Conservative) government and, following debate, converted by a (Conservative) government dominated parliament into an Act ‘preventing judge-made law’ and restoring ‘the place of parliament’.

Parliament and Europe

This report from the bulletin of the hard working OpenEurope on yesterday's Fabian Society meeting in the House of Commons.  It makes you wonder about all those fine words on the sovereignty of parliament. Perhaps it has now become the sovereignty of passerelle.

At a meeting of the Fabian Society in the House of Commons last night, Labour MPs Michael Connarty, who is Chairman of the EU Scrutiny Committee, and Gisela Stuart debated whether or not there should be a referendum on the EU Lisbon Treaty.  Michael Connarty said he was against a referendum in principle, despite conceding that "It's not that much different from the Treaty for a Constitution".  He also said he had three outstanding reservations about the Treaty, which the Committee will be investigating - on the opt-ins on Justice and Home Affairs, on the yellow card system and on the passerelle clause.  He said he wanted Parliament to have a role in deciding whether or not the UK should opt in to future JHA initiatives which will be decided on by QMV.  He said: "We want the Government to have a procedure that puts that in the hand of the Parliament, because that is what parliamentary democracy is about - it is not left to a deal in the Council, but it is left to a debate that will go to the floor of the House.  People will say the Government will whip it in or won't whip it in - if it's not right you can argue against it, and I think, if it's really bad, you can get 30 members of the other side to vote... and turn it over."

Parliamentary sovereignty is a dead parrot

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): In a sympathetic review of Keith Ewing's lecture this week, Debbie Moss suggests that the Professor is onto something:

Government has to be checked by a reinvigorated sovereign parliament. Ewing is surely right on this point. It must be preferable that our democratically elected parliament prevents the executive from passing statutes that contravene human rights, rather than hoping that judges will step in after the event when many of the measures will have already worked their effects.

Back from Life Support

Jon Bright (London, OK): Frank Field is the latest person to have a stab at the problems of disengagement and governance - releasing the above named pamphlet (opens pdf) through Policy Exchange. "Cumulative social and political changes have undermined the concept of active citizenship" is the pull quote from the Executive Summary, which is all I've had time to read so far. He maintains that disengagement is down to increasingly "rational" voters (who won't be very interested in voting in safe seats) and a decline in strongly held "ideological" voting patters.

Parliament may have undermined its own sovereignty

Moderator: This is a response to a comment left on John Jackson's previous post, which disagreed with his contention that English common law cannot be made superior to Strasbourg.

John Jackson (London, Mishcon de Reya & Unlock Democracy): Initially it was not clear to me what Richard is "completely" disagreeing with. But his follow up comment suggests that he is defending the deep rooted concept of parliamentary sovereignty - the notion that our parliament can do anything it wants, pass any legislation it likes.

You can't say that Shirley

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): I was listening to Radio 4's Any Questions yesterday, in the way one does while chopping onions. Towards the end of the programme ID cards came up. Shirley Williams said that, like the two contenders for her party's leadership, Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne, she would refuse to carry or register for a card and would go to jail if necessary. As she emphasized that her civil resistance would be non-violent, Tory shadow minister Alan Duncan MP exploded with indignation. "You can't!". It was "very sad moment", he declared, "You are a legislator!".

Participation and parliamentary sovereignty

Dan Leighton (London, Power Inquiry): In last Thursday's Times Peter Riddell posed an important if poorly formulated question: Does 'power to the people' mean democracy or just direct participation?

Gordon Brown has called for some new participatory processes. This raises the crucial question of the balance of decision making between citizens, representatives and government. Well done Riddell for highlighting a shift in political discourse, for the way we talk about politics. It raises all manner of questions about the the old and the new. Yet the way he poses it is wrong. It puts the argument in a straight-jacket if, as he does, you define ‘democracy’ as what happens inside representative institutions and counterpose it to ‘direct participation’, meaning citizens having decision making power.

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