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Queen’s Speech - Debate (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:58 pm on 21st October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Norton of Louth Lord Norton of Louth Conservative 5:58 pm, 21st October 2019

My Lords, the gracious Speech is welcome in identifying a range of measures of domestic importance and not focusing exclusively on Brexit. However, Brexit is the fundamental issue facing the nation. A combination of unique developments has resulted in the debate surrounding Brexit putting our constitutional fabric under intense pressure.

The debate on Brexit is toxic and it is binary. We are used to the politics of justification, with each side able to engage with the other. What we now have is the politics of assertion, with each side shouting at the other and not being interested in the response. The language is stark and often takes the form of accusation and abuse. The nature of the debate is exacerbated by, and contributes to, the tensions that now exist and which pose a serious threat to the Westminster model of government. Those engaging in the debate are so consumed by the moral superiority of their policy goal that they treat our constitutional arrangements as secondary to achieving that goal.

At the heart of the Westminster system is the concept of accountability. There is one body responsible for public policy—the party in government. Collective responsibility ensures that it is a united entity, accountable between elections to Parliament and at elections to electors. Parliament scrutinises and challenges the Government but does not seek to substitute policy of its own. MPs have always privileged party above the interests of the House of Commons. Party, however, has facilitated accountability. We are in an exceptional situation where no one body is accountable. Electors cannot hold themselves to account for the outcome of a referendum. Electors cannot hold to account a transient majority comprising an ad hoc amalgam of parties and independents in the House of Commons.

The position we are in derives from the collision of two concepts of democracy. We had an exercise in direct democracy in the form of a referendum, and an exercise in representative democracy the following year, producing results not clearly compatible one with the other. The House of Commons has sought to wrest control of public policy from the Government. That, as I have argued before, is not “taking back control”: you cannot take back something you did not have in the first place. Because a transient majority cannot be held to account, it is an exercise in power without responsibility.

It is a unique situation and it is important that we do not seek to generalise from an N of one. We need to stand back and make sense of what is happening, not rush to judgment with calls for reform of the constitution. We hear calls for a written, or codified, constitution. It is not clear how, had we had one, the present situation would be any different. It is not so much an answer as a displacement activity.

The gracious Speech has the merit of not rushing to judgment and advancing any constitutional reform. I welcome that. I also caution the Government against listening to those who, in their failure to grasp the principles of our system of government, advocate change to bodies that produce decisions with which they disagree, be they the courts or this House. Perhaps my noble friend Lady Williams will confirm that the Government have no plans for changes to our constitutional framework and that Ministers will comply not only with statutory obligations but with the expectations and moral obligations imposed by conventions of the constitution.

Our system of government is sound, but recent events have undermined popular support, especially for the House of Commons. The most recent Hansard Society Audit of Political Engagement showed that only 25% of those surveyed had confidence in the Members of the House of Commons in handling Brexit; 73% had not very much or no confidence. Furthermore, 42% of those questioned agreed with the statement:

“Many of the country’s problems could be dealt with more effectively if the government didn’t have to worry so much about votes in Parliament”.

That is a remarkable finding, impossible to imagine in earlier years.

The challenge for parliamentarians, especially Members of the other place, is to recognise that the solution lies not with constitutional reform but with their own behaviour. They are part of the problem. They need to become part of the solution. That requires a degree of balance and self-awareness that has been sadly lacking.