Whatever the whys and wherefores of the Michael Martin expenses row (the Speaker of the House of Commons, who has been accused of abusing the code of conduct on MPs’ expenses at the same time as he is leading an enquiry into expenses abuses), I thought the vociferous “hear, hear” of support he obtained from MPs as he cried “Order, order” at the start of yesterday’s proceedings – coupled with one MP saying they weren’t going allow journalists to dictate Commons appointments – smacked of arrogance. What were they actually defending, at the end of the day: their own privileges, including a cushy expenses regime that would never be tolerated in business; or the interests of democracy – parliament and its elected members as representing the will of the people, not to be overridden by a bunch of reckless, cynical journalists? It came across strongly as the former.
The trouble is that MPs do appear to think that parliament’s debates, decisions and procedures represent a forum through which the nation as such is authentically represented and its will is expressed: that parliament’s view of the legitimacy and moral authority of its proceedings still carries the assent and the trust of the people. Clearly, parliamentarians – like many others – are well aware that there is a serious problem of mistrust towards politicians and disengagement from the political process. But they seem to want to pass a lot of the blame for this onto others, such as the media, rather than re-examining the process itself and putting their own house in order.
We like to think we have the world’s greatest parliamentary democracy; but the truth of the matter is that our government isn’t very democratic, in the sense of representing people power. Parliament generally seems more like a rubber stamp setting a seal of approval on policies and laws driven by the executive, for which often little understanding or assent on the part of the public either exists or is sought. In this way, the scrutiny of parliament is a poor substitute for genuine public consultation, in the sense of a concerted effort to inform people of the details of proposed legislation and to win their support. There is no need for the executive to do this when it can simply rely on the Commons majority of a compliant government party commanding an ever smaller minority of the popular vote.
Not only does the government not need to strive to achieve popular assent for its decisions, it is also not answerable to anything such as a nation. It is no wonder that the people are disengaging from Westminster politics when they no longer identify with, and as, the nation the Westminster parliament supposedly represents. Not only are the people – reasserting their various identities as English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish – different from the one that parliament sees itself as representing (the British people); but also parliament no longer represents the people of Britain in a uniform, unitary way. Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs defend the interests of their constituents and nations insofar as these are affected by the Union government; and they also vote on English matters in certain policy areas where they cannot influence policy for their own constituencies and countries (because these have been devolved to separate national bodies). By contrast, all the parliamentary votes cast by English MPs do relate to their own constituencies; but no distinction in kind is made between what are truly England-only decisions and which matters relate to the UK as a whole, so as to legitimise the participation of non-English MPs in the same decisions.
In other words, although the responsibilities of all MPs are the same (Union-wide and England-specific policy and laws), the non-English MPs are not accountable to any electorate on the England-only matters. Instead, they are elected by non-English people who select them on the basis of the parties’ policies for the Union as a whole, i.e. on which set of policies will be better for them, their local areas and their countries. So legislation and policies for England are supported by MPs elected by non-English voters whose voting decisions are influenced by non-English priorities. Meanwhile, English voters have only one vote for both Union-wide matters and England-specific issues; in contrast to their Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish counterparts, who can choose between two distinct parties and programmes for their own country and for the Union as a whole. This inequality and distortion of representative democracy is covered up by a pretence common to all the parties, whereby, in manifestoes, policy statements and parliamentary debate, everything is treated and referred to as a generic British matter, even if it is English only.
This means that England is governed by a British parliament that is not accountable to it: it includes Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs not elected in England; and the English MPs are not elected on the basis of English manifestoes, as half the policies are UK-wide, and the half that are England-specific are not represented as such – not differentiated from the UK even though in reality they are.
So the Union does not exist any more – if the Union is defined as a unitary parliamentary democracy in which every person’s vote is equal and brings the same degree of representation, and in which parliament is accountable to all to the same extent. The will of the English people is not represented by this parliament – even less, that is, than is the will of the other more fairly represented nations of the UK. Instead, we have a growing divide between the will of the people and government power: British power is exercised over the people of England by parliament; rather than English power being exercised for and by the people of England through parliament. And parliament and the executive are indeed enamoured of this British power: the idea of being in charge of Britain as a major ‘world power’ – militarily, economically and culturally – boosted by the magnificence, traditions and privileges of Westminster and Whitehall that hark back to, and appear to prolong, the glories of Empire. Who can participate in such rituals and bask in such splendour, and not be carried along by the glamour of real power and the myths of British parliamentary democracy, especially as parliament is so unaccountable to the electorate and divorced from their real priorities?
In this way, MPs persuade themselves that the bills and policies they support express the will of the nation: swept along by the democratic process, they unwittingly or deliberately ignore the fact that that process is no longer in alignment with the people’s needs and choices. England is, in perhaps three senses, ‘over-ruled’ by Britain. Or another way of putting this is that the British parliament and state mis-represent England: represent England insufficiently democratically, and misrepresent England and the governance of England as if it were a unitary process of British governance for which they had a transparent mandate, which they do not. As I have described this elsewhere, this is an appropriation (a mis-appropriation) of England and English democracy to Britain: England should belong to the people of England; but instead, it’s been made the property and, as it were, the province of the British state – no longer a country in its own right and rights, but governed by a state and by representatives of other UK countries that are not answerable to it.
What are the ramifications beyond the Westminster village of this dispossession of England as a democratic nation? Are we English secure in the knowledge that our country is in the safe hands of leaders who care about England and its rights, and do not wish to exercise unrepresentative and disproportionate power over it? Well, no. Do we feel, more fundamentally, that the government and the political process belong to us – well, not exactly: we’ve become accustomed to putting up with a British government that very often looks after the interests of national and sectarian minorities (whether the working class, traditionally, under Old Labour, middle-class England under the Tories, and Wales and Scotland under New Labour) rather than seeking the backing of a clear majority of the English population for policies relating to England.
More pervasively, do we feel the nation and even the local areas we live in really belong to us; that we actually live in England rather than in some parallel universe of Britain where major decisions are taken by central, and also local, government that we haven’t elected, and all the signs and symbols of the state are those of one that is not fully ours? Do the streets belong to us; do communities, media, official / PC language, social administration and the public sector – indeed, all public facets of our lives? Are they English?
Is the much-famed obsession of the English with privacy and domesticity in one respect a reflection that we do not feel that the public domain belongs to us; that our country doesn’t belong to us? How much of the alienation of many young people can be traced to their not feeling that their education, upbringing and experiences have given them a sense of belonging where they live or that they have a stake in society? And how much of this is to do with that society being shaped by the British values of personal aspiration and success, rather than cherishing individuals as they are: often flawed and damaged but capable of re-building community and healing the hurts caused by the relentless pursuit of competitiveness and economic growth? And how much is the lack of pride and care we so often show towards our surroundings and neighbours to do with no sense of mutual belonging and dependency?
Such things cannot be restored by a British government alienated from, and unaccountable to, England; that does not even call it by its name. But England can recover its pride – if first it empowers its people.