Parliament’s power surge
Bob Diamond, the chief executive of Barclays bank, is not a man inclined to bend to the public mood. ‘There was a period of remorse and apology for banks,’ he told MPs this time last year. ‘I think that period needs to be over.’ His remarks presaged the coming confrontation between Diamond and Parliament over the Barclays bonus pool. He may think the bankers’ period of remorse and apology should be over but MPs and the public do not.
The Labour leadership, sensing a political opening, is determined to have the Barclays bonuses debated on the floor of the House. We will soon find out where this Diamond scores on the Mohs scale of hardness. Stephen Hester, the chief executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland, renounced his bonus rather than have it be the subject of a vote in Parliament. Diamond is likely to face the same choice. Barclays, unlike RBS, is not majority state-owned, but it was kept going by an implicit state guarantee and it still benefits from one — or so an intellectual ally of Ed Miliband argues. That makes its behaviour an appropriate subject on which Parliament can express a view.
A few years ago a clash between a master of the universe and Parliament would have been an uneven contest. Parliament was an institution in decline, its powers draining away to the executive, Brussels and the courts. The Commons chamber even seemed at risk of ceasing to be the forum for national debate. The BBC consigned Yesterday in Parliament to the chamber of broadcasting relics, Radio 4 Long Wave, where it joined Test Match Special and The Daily Service. But rather like Test Match Special, Parliament is undergoing a period of revival, what one might term a new golden age. To be sure, there are no orators to match Pitt or Fox, but since the last election the Commons has reasserted itself. It is once more the cockpit of the nation. For the first time in 20 years, it seems to be growing in power and influence.
Perhaps the first example of the House’s re-emergence was its refusal to accept a European Court of Human Rights ruling that prisoners should be allowed to vote. Initially, David Cameron decided that Britain had no choice but to comply with the decision, even though he thought it wrongheaded. Parliament thought otherwise. A declaratory Commons vote in February 2011 led the government to appeal against
the verdict. This vote may well have set in motion the process by which Britain leaves the jurisdiction of the Strasbourg court: not bad for a backbench motion.
The Commons also flexed its muscles when it came to News International and the phone-hacking affair. In a sign of the renewed power of the parliamentary bully pulpit, the mere threat of a Commons vote on News International’s proposal to take full control of BSkyB was enough to persuade the Murdochs to pull the bid. The Murdochs again found themselves on the wrong side of a newly assertive Parliament when they declined to attend a select committee hearing into phone hacking. In a sign of the
Like Test Match Special, the House of Commons is undergoing a period of revivial institution’s growing self-confidence, the committee responded by reviving its right to summon witnesses.
In historical terms, though, the most important recent parliamentary vote was on the EU referendum motion. At first glance, this seems odd. It was a non-binding backbench measure, and it did not pass — indeed, it never had a chance of doing so, given that both Labour and the government were opposed. But when 81 Tory MPs defied a three-line whip and voted for it, their actions changed the calculus in No. 10 about how to handle the European issue. It was this new approach that led to Cameron vetoing a proposed EU treaty back in December.
Several factors have combined to breathe new life into parliament. First, no party has a majority in either house. When Ed Miliband was wandering the streets of Davos debating whether to force a Commons vote on Hester’s bonus, he knew that the motion would have a good chance of gaining the support of the Liberal Democrats, splitting the coalition and giving Labour a chance of victory.
Then there is the creative destruction wreaked by the expenses scandal. At the last election, the scandal contributed to a huge turnover of MPs. Those who arrived in 2010 are acutely sensitive to the charge that they are just as bad as the last lot. In general, therefore, they are more independentminded than their predecessors. Forty-seven per cent of the Tory MPs elected in 2010 have already rebelled. Nor did the members who survived the expenses scandal remain unchanged.When the public think the letters MP after your name are a mark of dishonour, there is no longer any point in staying in Parliament for the prestige; even for veteran parliamentarians, status now means you have to achieve something. The breakneck pace of the new government’s first months in office owed much to this new mood.
But perhaps the most important reason for the revival of Parliament is that the politicians themselves have begun to appreciate it again. For years, the trendy notion that Britain was a ‘young country’ led to ambitious types turning their noses up at Parliament and its traditions. One senses now a greater understanding of its place in the constitution.
The next session will see an intense debate about Parliament’s role and the balance between its two chambers. The coalition intends to make the House of Lords 20 per cent elected, with more elected members in the coming years if Parliament wishes it. Already, other items in the government’s legislative plans are being scrapped or delayed to clear the necessary parliamentary time for this bill.
On this issue the executive can confidently expect an extremely hard time from the legislature. We might not find a 21st-century version of the Enoch Powell–Michael Foot double act that defeated Dick Crossman’s plans for Lords reform. But we will see MPs defending the rights and prerogatives of the Commons with far more vigour and conviction than they would have had just a few short years ago.
‘It’s probably somewhere underneath his cash pile.’
SPECTATOR.CO.UK/COFFEEHOUSE For the parliamentary revival as it happens.
the spectator | 4 february 2012 | www.spectator.co.uk Charles Moore
The present Queen succeeded to the throne 60 years ago this coming Tuesday. Her father, King George VI, had died at Sandringham in the night. Pursuing a ‘Where were you when…?’ line of inquiry, I asked my father what he remembered. An undergraduate at Trinity, he was walking down Sydney Street, Cambridge, when he saw the news hoarding ‘the king is dead’. Oddly enough, he told me, his own father (also at Trinity) walked down Sydney Street on 23 January 1901, and into the Cambridge Union. There he found that a telegram — then the fastest means of news — had just been posted, announcing the death of Queen Victoria the previous evening. As he emerged from the Union, he found a silent crowd of townspeople gathered, waiting for news. They looked at him interrogatively, and he gave them a nod to indicate that the Queen was dead.
My father also recalled passages of Churchill’s broadcast to the nation on the night of the death of George VI, including the phrase that the King had died ‘after a day of sunshine and sport’. The sport was shooting. As Churchill told his doctor Lord Moran, though not the nation: ‘It was the perfect ending. He had shot nine hares and a pigeon a hundred feet up, and then he dined with five friends and went out in the night. What more could any of us ask?’
The other phrase my father quoted from the broadcast was the last: ‘I, whose youth was passed in the august, unchallenged and tranquil glories of the Victorian Era, may well feel a thrill in invoking, once more, the prayer and the Anthem GOD SAVE THE QUEEN’. In his diary for 7 February 1952, my grandfather wrote: ‘So I have lived in six reigns.’ It is extraordinary to think that the period from the death of Victoria to that of George VI was almost ten years shorter than this Queen’s reign. To get a sense of the vast span of change the present Queen has encompassed, imagine that she reigned from 1892 to 1952, through all those convulsions, instead of from 1952 until now. One day, more than 50 years hence, some leader may speak of the ‘august, unchallenged and tranquil glories of the second Elizabethan era’, without sounding ridiculous.
Ihave always been interested in what Americans think of the British monarchy. They might easily be unfriendly. After all, the States became United in opposition to the British Crown, and the constitution guarantees ‘to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government’. This is deeply believed, and I have met Americans who politely but strongly disapprove of our monarchy on principle. But on the whole, Americans tend to see more clearly than we the advantages of our system for us, if not for them, and they are ready to be charmed by it. The American Sally Bedell-Smith has just published an excellent and authoritative book about the Queen (Elizabeth the Queen, Random House). Without pushing the point too hard, she suggests that the Queen’s encounters with America may have helped her handle problems at home. Take the famous attacks by Lord Altrincham (John Grigg) and Malcolm Muggeridge in 1957. They marked the moment when the exaggerated adoration of the young monarch soured, and the Queen was seen as stuck in a ‘tweedy’, ‘tight little enclave’ of advisers. She was, said Mugg, ‘a generator of snobbishness and a focus of sycophancy’. The attacks struck home. The Queen and Prince Philip went to north America that October and, in Washington, asked to visit a supermarket, which they had never done before. There they marvelled at trolleys and checkout counters, and chatted to the customers. This was considered miraculously friendly and informal. In New York, an enthusiastic crowd of 1.25 million threw ticker tape, confetti and torn-up telephone books all over them. Macmillan wrote in his diary that the Queen had ‘buried George III for good and all’. But the wider reaction at home was, as the Daily Herald put it, ‘Why does she have to cross the Atlantic to be real?’ She learnt from all of this.
As debate rages about the use of riches in hard times, it is good to report that Jonathan Ruffer’s plans to save Auckland Castle, the palace of the Bishop of Durham, are back on track. Last year (see my interview with Mr Ruffer, 2 April 2011), he offered to buy the castle’s Zurburan paintings of Jacob and his Sons, for £15 million on condition that they stay there, and that the castle become a centre of Christian culture and a haven for all those who help the poor in the north-east. Before Christmas, however, the Church Commissioners were insisting on £1.7 million for the leasehold, and Mr Ruffer, feeling that the project would die if the Church started to take money out of it, walked away. Luckily, the Church Commissioners relented, and the deal will be done in April. For all its rhetoric, the Church finds it just as hard as banks to surrender money when it thinks its own interests are at stake, so Mr Ruffer, though he works in the world of Mammon, has been doing God’s work. One hopes that the Commissioners, as they sell Rose Castle and Hartlebury Castle, will profit (not necessarily financially) from the lesson of Auckland.
My nephew George, who is autistic, came and stood close to me, clearly pregnant with a difficult thought. After some hesitation, he asked: ‘Charles, what colour is God?’ This was not a racebased inquiry, I hasten to explain, but arises from the fact that George is very interested in gradations of colour, and also in God. I explained that we could not really know, because no one has seen God, but, because He is associated with light, you could say that He was white or gold. ‘Gold!’ said George eagerly, ‘Dark gold or light gold?’ I thought probably light gold. There is something about theology which leads children to ask penetrating questions. The same can be true of autistic people. George said to his mother recently: ‘God makes the wind and God makes the rain but He doesn’t have a surname.’ The Old Testament could scarcely have put it better.
the spectator | 4 february 2012 | www.spectator.co.uk