Saturday, June 09, 2007

What hope is there?

At an otherwise pleasurable dinner last week, I had an ill-tempered exchange with my neighbour, an entirely inoffensive lady and doyen of the local Conservative Association. She made the mistake of venturing the opinion that the test of a good MP was how well he (or she) looked after their constituents, and responded to their needs.

In my own lofty way (some say arrogant, but I can't imagine why), I dismissed this out of hand, declaring that the constitutional role of MPs was to hold the government to account. It was because, I said, that the MPs spent so much time running around after their constituents – and so little challenging ministers – that we are so badly governed.

There is, of course, a half-way house, in that some of the constituents' concerns point up failings of government, which the MP can then follow through. But by far the bulk of issues referred to MPs concern not central government but local councils, the failings of the local National Health Service, or other matters that are in the gift of local agencies to resolve.

Needing to get re-elected, MP nonetheless diligently address these issues, thus becoming a cross between referral services and a highly paid social workers. As a result, they spend very little of their time actually dealing with the business of government.

It was interesting, therefore, to read Charles Moore's Saturday column in The Telegraph today, where he advances the thesis that "MPs [are] ignored because they have lost power".

Needless to say – the lofty response again – Moore is utterly wrong. MPs have not lost power. They have given it away. Parliament, as any constitutional lawyer will tell you – and not a few of our forum members – is supreme: anything MPs, collectively, decided to do by way of legislation, they have the power to do.

Should they decide that the UK should leave the European Union, therefore, they could make it happen. Should they refuse to accept any diktat from the government, quashing a government law or refusing to pass a bill, they could do so. If they desired the government to spend money on a particular programme, they could force the issue, just as they could starve any pet scheme of the government of funds. That they do not is because, collectively, they choose not to do so.

Why that should be the case is, of course, the subject of much questioning and discussion. Most people are genuinely puzzled as to why MPs, who expend such great energies in gaining their place in the halls of power, seem be so unconcerned at giving away so much of their power to the European Union.

There is no single explanation for this though – the reasons are many and varied, and the surrender has taken place incrementally over a long period, diluting its impact.

One of the important reasons, however, we tried to explain in an earlier piece, but perhaps its very simplicity prevents its wider recognition and acceptance.

At its most basic, the thesis was (and is) that so much of the business of government – the exercise of power – is so utterly tedious that MPs are quite happy to leave it to others.

Power it is to make 37 million motorists drive cars with rear-view mirrors of rigidly defined dimensions – power on a level that Hitler could only have dreamed about. But it is not the sort of power which most MPs are interested in exercising or worried about losing. Such matters can be left to the technocrats, and it is of little concern whether they are national or transnational – or any combination.

The essential issue here is that most MPs are not natural legislators, much less bureaucrats. They tend to be – by the very nature of their calling – political animals and, in particular, party political. Their driving force is the party political joust – getting "one over" on the other side.

As importantly, their power (and status) is not measured by the number of technical legislative instruments they have shepherded through the system (or blocked) – but by their standing in the party hierarchy, their closeness to the leader and their prowess at the never-ending party political duels.

Then, above all, they must be elected and remain elected. Thus, while the lofty purists (such as myself) see MPs in their role of holding the government to account, in truth, keeping the constituents (and the local party) on-side are far more important to the careers of most politicians.

Furthermore, what applies to the European Union also applies to other issues. Regular readers will have seen this blog's attempts to promote a debate about FRES – the Army's biggest procurement programme in living memory. Anyone even dipping their toe in the issue, however, will immediately appreciate the complexity and the range of knowledge required to understand the issues.

Those facets, range and depth, immediately exclude the issue from the ken of most politicians and again they are happy to leave the decisions to others ... the "experts". Above all, they are superficial creatures, masters of "the big picture", but uninterested in the detail. "Give me the bottom line", "one side of one sheet of paper" and "bullet points" are the currency of MPs when they seek information. The "sound bite" existed long before it acquired its name.

Where that leaves us is difficult to estimate but those who have troubled to read Charles Moore's piece will be none the wiser. His clever little suggestions to improve the situation are just that - clever little suggestions, of no lasting merit.

Perhaps the real problem is us: that we expect MPs to act as nannies, sorting out our tiny little problems – hence my irritation with my fellow dinner guest. Or, more importantly, we fail to understand how powerful MPs really are, and thereby do not insist that they use their powers. But then, if the likes of Charles Moore, king of the clever-dicks, does not understand this, what hope is there for lesser mortals?


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