Fixed Term Parliaments; Reform Needs To Go Much Further

A few weeks ago I wrote a post on the unwholesome contract between the royals and senior politicians which lies at the heart of our unwritten constitution. Briefly, the monarch retains certain powers which in practice are exercised by Government, sometimes directly and sometimes via the Privy Council. In exchange for these so-called prerogative powers the monarchy gets to retain its remaining wealth and privileges. The royal prerogative thus allows the Government to exercise arbitrary control of dubious legality without the authority of Parliament. In a 2007 report, Gordon Brown’s government attempted an audit of these outrageous anti-democratic powers and concluded that their extent was effectively unknown. One, however, was known for certain: the ability to dissolve Parliament and appoint a new Prime Minister which gave the incumbent a great advantage. It allowed him or her to take full advantage of serendipitous events (a small war, for example) to catch the opposition off-guard and call a snap election.

The 2011 Fixed-term Parliaments Act changed all this and removed the power for the first time. It was sometimes claimed by opponents of the Coalition Government that the 2011 Act was a dark deed intended to shore up an unpopular administration for 5 years. Against this two points must be noted. Firstly, fixed term Parliaments were also a 2010 Labour Party manifesto commitment (along with starting work on a written constitution). Secondly, with the dual powers of dissolution given to Parliament nothing has happened thus far which would not have happened under the old system. It is, however, interesting to speculate whether a Fixed Term Parliament played a part in the Government deferring to the Commons over bombing Syria in 2013 (the first vote, which it lost) knowing that it could not take advantage of a temporary patriotic surge in popularity! The present concern is with the opposite problem. With the recent transfer of power from David Cameron to Theresa May and the appointment of a wholly new Government without submitting a manifesto and subsequent test at a General Election there are objections raised about the democratic legitimacy of the present arrangement. But this transfer would have also happened under the old prerogative arrangement!

Unfortunately there are other anomalies which the 2011 Act did not address. Some of these are highlighted in this excellent 2010 report from the Constitution Unit at University College, London. Importantly, although the focus has been on the term of Parliaments, other election and transition arrangements need to be formalised. The writ for calling an election is currently issued by government ministers rather than an independent body such as the Electoral Commission. Similarly the monarch under advice appoints the incoming Prime Minister who decides the date of the first sitting of Parliament. This must be regularised by making the first sitting a fixed time after the election during which an ‘Investiture Debate’ decides who forms the Government and implicitly appoints the Prime Minister. As the UCL document affirms, these changes would actually insulate the monarchy by further distancing it from possible electoral controversy. But in this case the concern is with misuse of arbitrary prerogative powers not by the monarch but by a Government or Prime Minister.

With numerous difficulties confronting our democratic system including poor representation, lobbying, corporate control of media outlets, etc, fixed term Parliaments might not have been top of the list of remedies. But Fixed Term Parliaments have been demanded by reformers since the 17th Century and my main criticism is that it did not go far enough! Clearly I continue to demand the removal of the monarchy in this country. In the meantime any steps taken to regularise and remove arbitrary powers are welcome. This would include the posited War Powers Act following two votes in the Commons on bombing Syria!

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