Parliamentary Reform: What Would Tom Paine Do?

A slightly revised version of my post over at Liberal Conspiracy.

‘To be a successful candidate, he must be destitute of the qualities that constitute a just legislator, and being thus disciplined to corruption by the mode of entering into Parliament, it is not to be expected that the representative should be better than the man.’

Thomas Paine, Rights of Man Part the Second (1792)

The bicentenary of the death, on June 8 1809, of Thomas Paine, England’s most famous republican polemicist, falls at a time when our political leaders, and much of the media, tell us that Parliament is on the brink of a revolution. However, viewed in the context of historic radical movements, the ‘big change’ heralded by David Cameron really amounts to small potatoes.

The furore over MPs’ expenses has thrown up a number of proposals for political reform. From Gordon Brown’s call for an independent audit unit, to Alan Johnson’s proposal for a referendum on proportional representation, to Cameron’s and Clegg’s arguments for fixed-term parliaments, our politicians are suddenly all engaged in a game of ‘more radical than thou’.

Just how radical they truly are is a moot point. Fixed-term parliaments, for example, rather than being a political neologism of the Youtube generation, have been a staple demand of British radical movements going back to the Levellers of the mid-seventeenth century.

(Cameron has, in any case, been typically slippery about the fixed-term parliaments, saying this is something that the Conservatives would consider as an ‘option … when there’s a majority government’. One wonders just how much consideration will be given to this option should the present opposition be elected with a massive parliamentary majority.)

Even those proposals of a more recent vintage, such as those over electoral reform, have essentially involved dredging up the 1998 report of the Jenkins commission. Johnson’s reactivation of AV+ represents less what the Electoral Commission has called ‘a breath of fresh air’, more the fetid stench of political flop sweat.

If this desperate debate demonstrates anything, it is that British political discourse has for a long time been bereft of serious, informed discussion of constitutional reform. Nothing offers greater evidence of this than the utterly unwarranted applause for Douglas Carswell’s proposal for ‘open primaries’ – a plan so unworkable that it has now been taken up by Tessa Jowell – which rests on a complete misunderstanding of how the American primary system works.

But the fundamental problem with all these proposals is not simply the constitutional ignorance of most British politicians. It is that though a more transparent expenses system, fixed-term parliaments and electoral reform might deliver change in the short to medium term, these proposals offer no long-term remedy for the root cause of the ills of British democracy: Parliamentary sovereignty.

We’ve tried fixed-term Parliaments before: the 1641 and 1694 Triennial Acts guaranteed new elections every three years. But both were fundamentally compromised by subsequent acts of Parliament – most famously the Septennial Act of 1716 which required new elections only every seven years and which ushered in the notoriously corrupt Hanoverian electoral system.

There is surely, as Paine remarked, an irreconcilable paradox ‘in the idea of vitiated bodies reforming themselves.’ Until some check is placed on Parliament itself setting whatever rules it sees fit – whether over MPs’ expenses, the length of parliaments or the nature of the electoral system – reform will remain ultimately subject to the whims of the majority party.

It is time, as Paine said, to lay the axe to the root of this rotten tree. We do not need a one-off referendum on piecemeal electoral reform. We need a convention to deliver substance at last to that phantasm, the British constitution. For, as Tom Paine noted over two hundred years ago, ‘a change of ministers amounts to nothing. One goes out, another comes in, and still the same measures, vices and extravagances are pursued. It is signifies not who is minister. The defect lies in the system.’


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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. “One wonders just how much consideration will be given to this option should the present opposition be elected with a massive parliamentary majority.”

    Probably not much considering how a massive parliamentary majority changed Blair’s mind about PR, but I wonder how many people even remember that far back. The Tories talking about bringing back Ken Clarke and actually bringing back Michael Howard suggests that it took less than 10 years for most people to forget all about the Major government.

    I think your post demonstrates how party politics is all about false extremes and false centres. The Lib Dems can portray themselves as liberal, and even radical, by wanting to lock us up without charge for 14 days instead of 28 days or 42 days. I’d like to vote for a truly radical party but I don’t think there is one. Even the Greens look a bit bland and mediocre to me.

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