Saturday, February 02, 2008

Mote and beam

The editorial in The Daily Telegraph today is absolutely right, of course. "There should have been only one story in Parliament this week," it intones: "the ratification of the European Constitution, now called the Lisbon Treaty." It then tells us that the adoption of this text will fundamentally and irrevocably alter the temper of the nation.

But it then moves on to tell us that: "…as far as the country is concerned, by far the bigger story has involved MPs who employ their wives."

To an extent, perhaps, but it is also the case that the leaders of the pack have been the media, and the signs are that the Sunday press will be in full feeding frenzy tomorrow, as they clear their pages in order to "out" those MPs who employ wives and relatives. Yet it is those same newspapers, The Daily Telegraph included, who have given no space at all to the debates in committee on the treaty ratification.

However, the Telegraph editorial develops its theme to suggest that, "the two stories might, oddly, be connected." The constant, low-level anger that voters now feel for their representatives, it says, owes a good deal to the sense that MPs are parasitical. It continues:

The powers they once exercised are now wielded by quangos, judges, Whitehall bureaucrats and EU officials. Ceasing to be authoritative, they have become contemptible. In consequence, voters get much more upset about their salaries and expenses than they did a generation ago.

We are in a vicious circle. The less people respect their parliamentarians, the less prepared those parliamentarians are to defend their privileges. A House that has been demoralised by scandal and contumely is readier to surrender its powers than one that is confident in its supremacy.
Here, the paper does have a point, but it is a very superficial analysis. What it carefully omits is the role of the media which, in its pursuit if the trivia, constantly fails to report the more serious aspects of parliamentary work, itself contributing to the impression that the House of Commons is one long soap opera.

Balancing this, though, the reason why media is giving the Lisbon treaty proceedings so little coverage (like this blog) is that it is simply reflecting the general view that ratification is a done deal. And, in the nature of things, what you cannot alter, you tend not to worry about.

There, the Parliamentarians have only themselves to blame. While they rest on the doctrine of "parliamentary sovereignty", they have been in the forefront in giving it away. As the assiduous Dr D R Cooper recently pointed out (kindly sending us an e-mail), he wrote to The Telegraph on this very theme.

Before MPs resume their debate on the Treaty of Lisbon, he stated, they may care to look at its Declaration 17, which claims that EU treaties and laws have "primacy" over the laws passed by their own Parliament. Then they should look at Parliament's official website, which states that it is "the supreme legal authority in the UK".

From this, writes Dr Cooper, it seems a logical conclusion that the laws it passes must have "supremacy" in the UK - but how can that be so, if EU treaties and laws have "primacy"? Unless there is a subtle distinction between "supremacy", and "primacy", which is perfectly clear to the fine minds in the House of Commons, even if it would elude that of the man on the Clapham omnibus.

Therein lies exactly the point made by The Telegraph editorial. Since MPs have been so keen to divest themselves of their power, it is not surprising that they become increasingly irrelevant until all that is left is the soap opera.

With that, the paper avers, they have lost their self-belief. It concludes: "If they became what they once were - the nation's supreme assembly, a senate of men and women determined to give expression to the aspirations of their electors - voters might mind less about their salaries. Giving those electors the referendum they promised at the last election would be an excellent place to start."

We can only say Amen to that.

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