Panic on the streets of Westminster

Gareth Young
22 May 2009

You may have read in the Guardian that Gorgeous George has blamed Speaker Martin's fall from grace on English snobs:

English snobbery can do a morris dance of delight at the political demise of the Speaker, Michael Martin. The bigots have put the taigs back in their place.

Amongst those who signed Douglas Carswell's petition for the Speaker to resign were Norman Baker, Jo Swinson and Gordon Prentice, and they are all Scots. In fact a disproportionately high number of Scots contributed to Martin's downfall.

Is it possible that Michael Martin was forced out not because of English snobbery but because he was hopelessly partisan and useless at his job. We are in the grip of a very British constitutional crisis, and at a time when the House needed leadership there was none on offer.

Amid the Westminster panic circulates rumours of a coup against Gordon Brown and the possibility of a constitutional convention.

A Constitutional Convention, eh?  Well, desperate times call for desperate measures. Everyone must realise that a lame duck Scottish Speaker and a lame duck Scottish Prime Minister, neither of whom have a mandate in England, are not the people to lead constitutional reform of the parliament that governs England but which cannot at present even govern itself. Neither is the Ministry of Justice, itself deeply mired in the expenses scandal, particularly well placed to make the running. So, moving swiftly onto Plan B, let's all have a citizens' convention.

Both Michael Martin and Gordon Brown (and Galloway too for that matter) signed the Scottish Claim of Right, and are - by their very presence, and the fact that they are elected in Scotland - an impediment to a popular sovereignty for England of the type that they advocated for Scotland. Only now, at the complete death of deference for the British political class, which happens to coincide with the end of their tenure, are they apparently planning on rushing through reform in England/Britain.

An ‘intense cabinet-level debate‘ is now underway with modernisers within the Cabinet pressing for a referendum on electoral reform for the House of Commons; an elected upper house; spending caps on donations to political parties, and; a widening of the base from which candidates are drawn. These discussions were initiated by the Prince of Darkness, Lord Mandelson, who ‘raised the idea of a British constitutional convention on the model of the Scottish constitutional convention‘.

Shall we take a look at which constitutional issues most concern the public?

2007 Hansard Audit of Political Engagement

As you can see the issue which most bothers the public appears to be the involvement of Scottish MPs in English affairs. But will THEY see that, or will they only see what they want to see?

A raft of research and a slew of polls surveying opinion in England have consistently shown a very clear majority indeed in favour of an English Parliament, which rates more highly as a constitutional issue than Scottish independence or House of Lords reform. As those are the people's priorities and this is the people's Parliament, should we not have a full, proper debate on the merits and demerits of an English Parliament? - David Taylor (Labour MP for North-West Leicestershire); Hansard, 18th Jan 2007

The answer to the above request came from Jack Straw, Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain and Secretary of State for Justice, and his answer was "No".

The Westminster system is, as Galloway well knows, a bastion of snobbery because it is a system that relies on deference: We are sovereign over You the people - We know best. But Parliamentary Sovereignty has been undermined by the events of the past few weeks because the Speaker is to be divested of significant powers and because the House of Commons has demonstrated not only a lack of ability to self-govern and regulate but, crucially, no longer has the willingness, confidence or public trust to do so. There is a crisis of legitimacy. This crisis has not been brought about by English snobbery, it has been bought about by the death of deference. We the people no longer hold our politicians or Parliament in high esteem; we no longer trust their judgement, nor the parliamentary system of which they are the guardians. Michael Martin's departure is admission that they themselves have no faith in the parliamentary system and that they themselves have failed to safeguard our parliamentary democracy. Likewise, the hiving off of regulatory function is signal of the collapse of Parliamentary Sovereignty.

The public no longer buys into the gentlemanly ideal of the ‘honourable' member working to uphold democracy within a sovereign parliament, and neither do the ‘honourable' members themselves. The legitimacy of a political system that was based on trust is destroyed because our parliamentarians have betrayed that trust. Parliament will have great difficulty in regaining it.

What we need now is serious constitutional reform that not only restores trust but which restores democracy too. An elected upper (federal) house to handle reserved matters (shorn of placemen like Moonie and Kinnock - and soon Michael Martin) and an English Commons comprised of MPs who represent English constituencies only.

This is a debate the time for which has arrived. Will they allow the citizenry to frame the questions that the constitutional convention tackles; will there be an English referendum? No, most probably not. Even after their abject failure and their admission that they cannot even govern themselves, they will still try to assert their sovereignty and dictate the terms by which we are governed in order that they can preserve what is left of their gentlemans' club.

Cross-posted from the CEP blog.

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