Lord William Wallace writes: How do we renew our battered democracy?

This is as huge a constitutional crisis as anyone could imagine. A Prime Minister without a parliamentary majority has attempted to avoid parliamentary scrutiny by closing Parliament for all but the last two weeks before we are due to leave the EU, with or without a deal.

The Supreme Court has defended the sovereignty of Parliament against a Prime Minister who lacks a parliamentary majority. Lady Hale’s judgement was very firm: ‘the effect [of this unlawful prorogation] on the fundamental democracy of our country is extreme’. Parliamentary accountability – the continuing process of dialogue and scrutiny of government policy – is ‘at the heart of Westminster democracy’.

The meaning of democracy itself is under challenge. Andrew Bridgen [right-wing Tory Brexiteer] reacted on the BBC to the verdict by claiming that the 2016 Referendum should still override Parliament: that ‘the will of the people’ as expressed 3 years ago gives Johnson the right to suspend Parliament. Parliament versus ‘people’: democracy reduced to single-issue decisions swayed by populists. Democracy, Liberals reply, is about much more than voting: it’s about the rule of law, the protection of minorities, a continuing dialogue between government and citizens at national and local levels, and about regular scrutiny of the actions of government, to hold those in power to account. ‘The people’ are a mythical group conjured up by tabloids and populists; the hedge-funders and offshore capitalists who funded the Leave campaign and the successive incarnations of Nigel Farage’s party play to the fears and grievances of the left behind and elderly without offering any constructive remedies for their needs.

At last, we can all talk about constitutional reform and win popular support. Liberals and Liberal Democrats have found it very difficult, over decades, to win an audience for the case for political or constitutional change. Reform of the Lords has dragged on for years painfully slowly (yes, we tried when in government, without support either from Conservatives or Labour); talking about voting systems bored journalists and switched voters off. But now no-one can avoid the issue. Audiences for the Parliament Channel have shot up. Families are even arguing over whether referendums or elections are more democratic, and whether Boris Johnson is or is not a legitimate prime minister. So people will listen, at last, when we make the case for renewing our battered democracy.

The current British political system has broken down. The entrenched position of the Conservative and Labour Parties, defended by our voting system and the funding advantages these parties benefit from, is crumbling. The relationship between Parliament and government will have to be defined more carefully, and the role of Parliament strengthened. The Supreme Court has become a factor in policing the largely-unwritten rules of national politics. So we can argue the case for wider change. We cannot rebuild trust in British democratic institutions without a more open voting system, without a more diverse Parliament (with both Houses elected) – and without bringing more money and power back from Westminster and Whitehall to nations and regions, and beyond them to local councils.

The Labour left and Conservative right will resist moves towards a more open democracy. Labour politicians want to take power so that they can push through radical economic reforms from the national level without parliamentary committees and opposition representatives holding them back. Conservatives wasn’t to shrink the state and slash regulations and social protection, again without submitting their proposals to careful scrutiny before they are pushed through. We can now claim to be in favour of taking back control: through Parliament (and through re-invigorated devolved and local governments), on behalf of the diverse communities of British citizens who constitute our United Kingdom.

* Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords.

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16 Comments

  • Tony Greaves 24th Sep '19 - 2:11pm

    Well said, William. We are the only people with anything like a well thought-out set of proposals for constitutional reform, which is now at the centre of the agenda. Are we going to promote it, and ourselves as the only people able to carry it through – or are we yet again going to fudge it on the serious grounds that “no-one is interested”? (They used to say that about the EU as an issue and look what that has done for us!)

  • Peter Martin 24th Sep '19 - 2:51pm

    “….and the role of Parliament strengthened. ”

    Look, it was Parliament’s choice to have a referendum on EU membership. No-one forced them to have it. No-one forced Parliament to vote, in 2015, by 544 to 53 in favour of the principle of holding a referendum. Only the Scottish National Party opposed the Bill. No-one forced them to have a simple choice of Remain or Leave on the ballot paper.

    Maybe you really mean the role of Parliament should be weakened by preventing them voting for referendums?

  • Cometh the hour, cometh Jo Swinson, William Wallace and Tony Greaves – all sure-footed and on top of the right arguments. My main worry is that in a General Election money will pour into the Conservative Party and the unions will do their duty by Labour. It might still deliver for the Tories even if they ditch Johnson.

  • Laurence Cox 24th Sep '19 - 5:45pm

    @Peter Martin
    The in/out referendum promise was in the 2015 Tory manifesto. The Tories won an overall majority in the 2015 General Election; they were entitled to put forward what was in their manifesto to be passed into law and, because they had a majority, they could force it through parliament using the Whip.

    Now, I agree that Clegg should never have advocated an in/out referendum when the Lisbon treaty was being agreed; it was far from the only mistake he made. We should have had a referendum on approving the treaty as other countries like Ireland did and which Blair had promised, not the option of an in/out referendum. Had the Lisbon treaty not passed as a result then there would have been no in/out referendum as it allowed countries to leave the EU unlike the previous treaties.

  • You could stop battering it.

    You could implement the democratic instruction from the people in the 2016 referendum.

  • nigel hunter 24th Sep '19 - 6:07pm

    Is Johnson going to stay and fulfill 31st Oct? He could do this to reward his Leave backers.He does Brexit, the country goes to the dogs and the hedge funders cream the money. He wins the election on Parliament v people gets his 5 years of changing the country. If he looses he becomes ex PM with loads of money he wins either way,the country does not. With Labour refusing to vote remain I fear the worse.

  • Peter Martin 24th Sep '19 - 7:48pm

    @ Laurence Cox,

    Since when have Lib Dems voted for policies simply because they were in the Tory election manifesto?

    You’re saying that you had rather the Lisbon Treaty hadn’t been ratified because Article 50 allowed countries to leave? You’d rather that countries be trapped inside the EU against their will?

  • Peter O Peter busy fighting yesterdays battles and grievences, give it up man try to drag yourself into the 21st century and face the problems you voted for. Surely you have the answers for the problems you’ve voted for.

  • Roland Postle 24th Sep '19 - 8:56pm

    “So people will listen, at last, when we make the case for renewing our battered democracy.”

    I hope this is even half true. There is a danger that we’ve crossed over from complacency about a system which seemed to most to be muddling along okay, straight to a level of cynicism about the way the system gets gamed such that no party will be trusted to reform it in a fair way without simultaneously gaming it for themselves. ‘Tis true though that Lib Dems long and consistent history of calling for reform may be an antidote to that distrust. Finding as much cross-party support as possible will help too.

  • The only legitimate “democratic instruction from the people” is the instruction to elected MPs to go and represent a certain number of people in Parliament (a process which involves using their brains and their judgement, for which we pay them). Cameron fooled people into thinking it could be otherwise and that is why Parliament has struggled to cope cope with the consequences. In the renewal of our democracy (which must include a written constitution – as Professor Hennessy made clear yesterday) there is a very good model for a constitutional convention in the history of the Scottish Parliament. Meanwhile the clear message from the Supreme Court is that Parliament must not be impeded from doing its job and the people’s legitimate representatives must do it.

  • Sue Sutherland 25th Sep '19 - 1:22pm

    Thank you very much for this article Lord Wallace. We in the UK have been rather complacent about our democracy for decades, thinking ‘it could never happen here’. The Brexit mess is a result of that complacency. Peter expresses one side of the mess, asking us to implement the referendum’s democratic instruction but our democratic processes define a referendum as advisory. As a result there is no recourse to legal challenge about the way the campaigns were conducted because the referendum was advisory and at the same time people have been told that their decision would be implemented. So a referendum was conducted in a casual way and MPs are expected to implement an ‘out’ decision with no guidance as to what this means and no confidence that people knew what they were getting the country into. Parliamentary democracy is ranged against a referendum in an argument about which is the more democratic.
    This should not have been allowed to happen but our system relies on gentlemen’s agreements and is vulnerable to those with power and influence. I agree with our revoke policy but it should be accompanied by a commitment to a royal commission, or whatever independent or all party enquiry can be established, to investigate our democratic system and establish a written constitution, which resolves the question of how to conduct a referendum in the future, and ensures a fairer way of voting.
    The tragedy is that people were misinformed about the status of a referendum so no one is right and no one is wrong in this argument which will carry on until our democracy is clarified.

  • Looking further ahead, what about the General Election in 2024? I hesitate to suggest this, it looks daft and deeply depressing . But what if we choose to give Johnson his GE a.s.a.p.? There is a fair chance, the world being as cross and silly as so much of it is . . .there is a good chance that Johnson would win a very early GE, however well we collaborate with other parties. Horrendous!

    BUT, that would leave it to a Tory HMG to clear up the mess. Their villainy and incompetence would both quickly become apparent, and those two horrors would combine with the bungled calamities of their No Deal Brexit to send them into the 2024 GE without any claim to either competence or good will: voters sage and voters angry would combine to snuff them out for ever. Remember how Harold Wilson’s party, sensibly elected, later got the blame for the Conservative mess that got Labour in? Should we consider gritting our teeth and turning the tables?

    Five years is a long time : but looking back, it is already three years since that ill-conceived and fatal Referendum set us on this dismal path. And five years should be long enough for the parties of the Centre and the Left to get their own and their collective acts together, to design and promote the civilising revolution that Lord Wallace is rightly calling for. Or would the tory damage really be too great by then for any recovery for the UK? Perhaps it would.. . . . .

  • Sue Sutherland, thank you for your very sensible observations and suggestions on the whole idea of referendums, with your conclusion that “The tragedy is that people were misinformed about the status of a referendum . . . “

  • Peter Hirst 25th Sep '19 - 5:25pm

    The people must play a part in a renewed constitutional settlement. This is our best opportunity to refresh our governance and ensure this startling series of events cannot repeat itself. A Citizens’s Assembly, taking information for experts in these issues is the way forward, even if it takes longer than some might wish.

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