The French writer Montesquieu came to Britain in the 18th century and studied our political system. His observations became the basis of his seminal work, The Spirit of the Laws, and, misunderstanding the British system of the time, he formed the theory of the “separation of powers”, between the legislative (Parliament), executive (the king) and the judiciary. He wrote of the necessity to separate these branches of the government as:
“When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or in the same body of magistrates, there can be no liberty; because apprehensions may arise, lest the same monarch or senate should enact tyrannical laws, to execute them in a tyrannical manner.”
Over 250 years later, our system of government is still the fused one which in fact existed at the time of Montesquieu’s visit. The executive controls the legislature through the power of the whips. The insistence by Parliament that the king’s ministers be MPs so as to keep a check on them has become the exact opposite, the queen’s ministers keep a check on the MPs, either by invoking loyalty to the party, the prospect of a ministerial or committee post or other nefarious means. Government MPs have become neutered, occasionally finding a pair but never really subjecting the executive to the kind of in-depth scrutiny it requires. Select Committee reports, which do scrutinise the executive, are very rarely debated on the floor of the House and frequently fall into oblivion. MPs are scared of governments, when governments should be scared of MPs.
“In recent decades Prime Ministers have exercised a growing domination over the political system, insufficiently accountable to Parliament or the people. We will curb this excessive concentration of power.”
Nothing about defusing power, which lies at the root of the current problems. The Prime Minister is powerful because he, by the rules of our parliamentary democracy, is the person who can command a majority in the House of Commons. It follows that if the PM can command a majority, the PM controls the entire House, with infrequent rebellions by backbench government MPs.
The best way to stop this is simple, the executive’s mandate should come from another source, the ordinary citizens. The legislative and executive branches of government should be elected separately, the voters should not be giving MPs a dual mandate (to represent them in Parliament and to support the government, if they are of the winning party). MPs should have one role: to represent their constituents in Parliament. The executive should have a separate mandate: to govern by the consent of the people, directly choosing the head of the government. The executive should not leech off the electoral mandate of MPs to support their position.
There is one obvious problem with this – if the executive, with all the powers it must necessarily be given, no longer depends on the legislature for its life, how can the executive be kept in check between elections – how do we stop an elective dictatorship? Of course the legislature will still be the prime legislative body and so the executive will still require the consent of Parliament for its bills.
But what about administrative abuses, patronage or corruption? With a separate mandate, the PM will no longer be a member of parliament and it would be expected his ministers would not be either. His ministers should, however, be confirmed by a simple majority of the Commons. The long dormant impeachment procedure should be emphasised, perhaps by a positive vote in the Commons confirming its existence, possibly with new rules. It would apply, of course, not just to the PM, but to ministers also.
On a day to day matters, ministers would still be required to attend question times and, when a government bill is being debated, advocate the government’s position. The only difference is they would not be able to vote in the lobbies. Parliament would be capable of forcing the appearance of any minister, if necessary by threat of arrest for non-appearance.
The executive would thus become controlled by Parliament and ordinary citizens, but it would depend on MPs being ready and willing to face up to the executive when party loyalty conflicts with parliamentary responsibility, but that tension could only be removed by the abolition of parties themselves. And that would hardly strengthen democracy.