- Alan Smith suggests some changes to the system
The United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy: the function of parliament is to enable Her Majesty’s Government to conduct its business with the broad consent of the people. This is achieved by the people choosing representatives to go to Parliament to deal with the Government on their behalf.
Currently the constitution is experiencing great strain because of the referendum on leaving the European Union and the fixed-term parliament restriction introduced during the 2010 parliament. There is, possibly, a role for referendums. However, their use should be limited to giving the people an opportunity to stop the Government from doing something that could not easily be reversed (such referendums would have been useful when significant powers were being transferred to the European Union). However, a referendum to instruct a government to do something that neither it nor the House of Commons wants to do would be futile, as has been demonstrated by the efforts to implement Brexit. It would invite the reply that Humpty Dumpty received from his piscine correspondents: ‘We cannot do it, Sir, because—.’
At the beginning of the 2010 parliament, with a major economic crisis to deal with and no party having a majority in the House of Commons, it is understandable that the Conservatives had to give their Liberal Democrat partners a guarantee that they would not cut and run, and therefore the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was implemented. The mistake was not to limit it to that Parliament. The idea had been around for some time, of course, favoured by constitutional theorists who favour a neat model over the need to deal with reality. Consider the Houses of Commons elected in 1950, 1964, and February 1974. Would it have been desirable for them to have continued for four years, come what may? A theoretical argument against fixed-term Parliaments is that a House of Commons, as representatives of the people, should have the right to decide at any time that, as constituted, they were unable to deal with the current problems and that their membership should be refreshed by a general election.
One argument for a fixed-term Parliament is that it would reduce the power of a prime minister to dissolve Parliament and call a general election when it was in his interests and those of his party to do so, regardless of the interests of the country. However, there is a way round that problem.
I would suggest two related reforms. First, establish a convention that a prime minister who is leader of his party should not be removed from the leadership without losing a vote of confidence in the House of Commons, where the names of those voting are recorded. Second, to balance the first suggestion, Parliament should not be dissolved without an affirmative motion to that effect being passed in the House of Commons. Thus a majority party could remove its leader without that leader having the sole power to bring about the dissolution of parliament; in addition, the monarch would be protected from the dilemma of choosing either to allow a prime minister who had been defeated in the House of Commons from having a general election or else to select someone else to form a Government from the existing House of Commons.
It would be difficult to avoid the question of the remuneration of MPs. In my opinion, an MP’s salary should be set at a level that is not so high that it becomes an easy way to make a fortune, but not so low that he has to borrow his bus fare home after a constituency function. In order to compare the salary of MPs with others it is necessary to separate from his salary the expenses necessary to perform his role; this includes the cost of office accommodation both in Westminster and his constituency and also separate residential accommodation, either in Westminster or else in his constituency for those MPs where the distance between the two is sufficiently great. The latter point would be more significant if the Commons were to abandon ‘family-friendly’ hours and be prepared to harass the Government by sitting late into the night when necessary.
There are suggestions that the time MPs spend in Westminster and in their constituencies should be monitored. It is surely up to each MP to decide how to perform his role; if his constituents don’t like the way he does it they can show their displeasure at the next general election. Similarly MPs should be free to have outside jobs. For a voter it is the way an MP carries out his role that is important, not the proportion of his time that he spends on it.