A Progressive Alliance; Short Term Expediency, Not a Long Term Prospect

progallIt has been a long time since British politics was in such a confusing state. The old certainties have collapsed and there is doubt whether Labour really represents working people or that the Conservatives represent traditional shire interests.  So it is perhaps unsurprising that the most hotly contested political events in recent years have been the Scottish and EU referendums with their simple straightforward choice, Yes or No, In or Out.  But with the ascendancy of right-wing libertarianism allied to an aggressive alt-right populism, it is understandable that opposition parties should rethink their strategy.

The defeat of Zac Goldsmith in the Richmond by-election was an event which I warmly welcomed. The argument that he should be supported as a man of integrity in triggering the by-election seemed small compensation set against a London Mayoral campaign where Goldsmith at times mounted deeply unpleasant racist attacks which helped feed a growing climate of intolerance.  But the issue I have is with the use of the term Progressive Alliance to describe the coalition of Liberal Democrat, Green and Women’s Equality Party which triumphed in Richmond. Progressive Alliance can only serve to add to the fog of confusion regarding the platform on which the candidates are standing.  Missing from the coalition was the Labour Party, apparently divided as to the strategic advantage of entering into pacts with other parties.

The Danger: Ineffective Liberalism and a Discredited Centre-Ground

So what is the problem with Progressive Alliance? To be a progressive you must advocate improvement or reform, as opposed to working to maintain the status quo.  But improvement or reform can take many different paths and even when limited to the anti-Zac parties there will be a multitude of approaches as implied by the use of  ‘Alliance’.  In Richmond the Progressive Alliance very effectively mobilized a strong anti-Brexit feeling on the part of the electorate.  But remaining in the EU currently represents the status quo and even arguing the case that remain represents a progressive position leaves the problem of how to deal with the broader disaffection with institutions such as the EU.  It is argued (such as in this letter by Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas) that the core principle of a Progressive Alliance is the election of as many candidates as possible who support a change in the voting system to Proportional Representation. PR really does represent a progressive position which aims to end a deeply unrepresentative system which gives enormous power to a single party agenda based on the wishes of a minority of voters (37% voted Conservative in 2015). But in fact PR is also the aim of UKIP, a major player in the pro-Zac (no pun intended) coalition.

Continue reading “A Progressive Alliance; Short Term Expediency, Not a Long Term Prospect”

What Thomas Rainborough Said Next; More Crucial Lessons We Need to Learn

rain
Thomas Rinborough

In a recent post I considered a comment by Thomas Rainborough from the 1647 Putney Debates and explained just why it articulates a crucial point still relevant today. Rainborough was expressing an egalitarian ideal not just in terms of wealth but in terms of the election of representatives. As a recap here is the essential core of his speech:

..I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he;

All progressive contemporary thinking accepts in some form this basic idea of equality. To place the quote in a wider context you can read an expanded version of his speech on this Guardian newspaper webpage. So is there really any more we can  learn from Rainborough’s speech from over three centuries ago? I think plenty. Lets start with Rainborough’s central point of just who is eligible to vote. For much of English and British history you needed to own property before you could vote in an election. But Rainborough says:

I do think…the main cause why Almighty God gave men reason, it was that they should make use of that reason, and that they should improve it for that end and purpose that God gave it them.

As the qualification for voting in elections, Rainborough was specifically detaching the requirement for possession of physical property and substituting an inalienable personal quality of every person, namely the ability to reason.  Yet today the homeless are not encouraged or given support to vote, despite expecting them to adhere to the laws passed by Parliament and Local Authorities.

Political Equality: Reality Falls Short of Expressed Values

Effective disenfranchisment of the homeless (through a mistaken perception that you need a fixed address to register) is a clear case where political process falls far short of the supposed ideal of political equality. Other examples are the introduction of Individual Voter Registration which disenfranchised up to 800,000 people in the UK along with the distortions delivered by a First Past the Post electoral system which gives disproportionate power to a minority of voters (37% at the last election). Similarly we can point to the recent US presidential election where the Electoral College system gave Donald Trump victory despite losing the popular vote.

Continue reading “What Thomas Rainborough Said Next; More Crucial Lessons We Need to Learn”

Banker Mark Carney; Secret Plans Show an Instinctive Avoidance of Accountability.

During World War II, much to the annoyance of his leader Clement Attlee, Aneurin Bevan insisted on holding Prime Minister Winston Churchill accountable for his actions. His reason was twofold; firstly believing that it was absurd to fight an authoritarian regime to simply abandon it at home and secondly, the belief that no matter how effective Churchill appeared to be, mistakes and inefficiencies were possible. I think Bevan was right

So the recent reports of Bank of England Governor Mark Carney holding confidential dinners with investment bankers and finance directors should ring alarm bells. The rumours of ‘secret deals’ as reported by The Independent newspaper is unacceptable. But as a banker, Mark Carney is naturally inclined to avoid accountability. Take two of the international groups which Carney is a senior member (for now),  the European Systemic Risk Board (ESRB) and the G20 Financial Stability Board. Neither of these bodies have any form of democratic accountability. Incredibly, the ESRB which has responsibility for avoiding another 2008-style crash is run by the European Central Bank (ECB) along with individual National Central Banks, the very people who failed to see the disaster in the first place. The ESRB, of which Carney is a Vice-Chairman, makes politically sensitive decisions and the fact that it that merely reports to the European Parliament is dangerously misrepresented as accountability. Lack of proper control means these bankers cannot practically be fired, demoted, reprimanded or subjected to a pay cut!

Make no mistake, Carney is either being disingenuous or simply naive in  claiming he is not behaving politically. The idea of an independent Bank of England is a fiction and the role of Governor in particular is highly political. But in any case the demand that banks and regulatory authorities should be independent has somehow come to imply that these bodies are unaccountable. For all the populist nonsense about him being a ‘rock star banker’ he is a public servant paid by you and me and we have a right to know what he is telling these financial special interest groups. This is especially so when his audience wield considerable influence as donors of the Conservative Party. Irrespective of the issue of Brexit the stench of oligarchy is strong and inevitably provides more fuel for extreme right wing advocates . Carney tries to dodge accountability under the guise of acting in the best interests of the nation but as Bevan would clearly have understood, this must be demonstrated openly.

Senator Bernie Sanders is Right About Oligarchy; But the Warning is Over 2 Thousand Years Old!

We humans pride ourselves on our ability to learn and adapt. So it must be a triumph of greed over intellect that well we fall into the same traps despite being warned about them for over two thousand years!!. Nowhere is this more stark than with the rise of oligarchy, the problem where a small group of people gain control of a country or an organisation. Writing as long ago as the 4th Century BC the philosopher Aristotle identified oligarchy as a deviant form of aristocracy and pointed to  two specific aspects which concern us at this time.  Firstly he regarded wealth as the important issue in the rise to prominence of a few powerful rulers.  Secondly, he regarded an oligarchy as ruling solely for its own benefit (hence deviant), disregarding the plight of the poor and dispossessed.

So its worth spending a little time finding out what we can learn from the beardy old Greek thinker. Aristotle warned that rule by the few alone (just like the rule of an absolute monarch or unrestrained democracy) is unstable and liable to collapse. In fact in America and Europe today the power of the few has grown markedly while the power of democratic forces have been consequently in decline.  In the US this is exactly the danger which former Presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders has been warning about.  As a result, aside from the election of Trump, it has brought about an increased threat of instability and authoritarian government in almost every western country.

But we can learn a lot more from those old Greeks.  For a start, Aristotle was writing from experience of oligarchic rule which mobilised sages, poets and artists in the maintenance of their power.  Discussing public speech in a republic, Barry Strauss noted that:

The Sophists, with their corrosive relativism, taught rich and talented young greeks that power was better than truth.  Socrates [Aristotle’s illustrious predecessor] sat out the civil war in Athens between democracy and oligarchy at the end of the Peloponnesian war’.

Who were the Sophists? They were peripatetic intellectual coaches who taught the children of wealthy ‘excellence’ in order to gain power and fame. So little difference from our modern day Eton, Harrow, Oxford or Cambridge, apart from the fact that the students travel to them rather than the other way around!  Strauss’s point about corrosive relativism is telling with ancient poets and artists now being replaced by journalists, branding and PR experts employed in media outlets.  Today we call it ‘post-truth’ journalism, beloved of both the hard copy media such as The Sun newspaper and online outlets such as Breitbart. Socrates may have ‘sat out’, as Strauss puts it, the civil war in Athens between democracy and oligarchy, but such disengagement is not advisable in the modern age or we may experience the reappearance of the find the mass slavery of his time.

In the Spirit Level book Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett pointed out how initial wealth inequalities become entrenched into a class system.  They state:

Over time,  crude differences in wealth gradually become overlaid by differences in clothing, aesthetic taste, education, sense of self and all the other markers of class identity. Think for example of how the comparatively recent emergence of huge income differences in Russia will come to affect class structure.  when the children of the new Russian oligarchs have grown up in grand houses, attended private schools and travelled the world they will have developed all the cultural trappings of an upper class.

Apart from Russia, there are many examples of this happening, especially in the United States.  Already some members of the Democratic Party speak of persuading the Clinton daughter Chelsea to stand for President thus proving that at least some are intent on repeating the disaster of Hillary’s candidature. The only saving grace is that the Trump family look to be making the same mistake with daughter Ivanka raising eyebrows with her presence at some early high level meetings alongside her father. To the great surprise of almost no-one, rather than ending the Washington oligarchies, Trump is simply replacing them with new forms including his own family.

In the UK we have lived with this reciprocal arrangement of wealth and power for a long time.  The House of Lords, once the bastion of aristocratic power (though to what extent they fulfilled Aristotle’s claim of wielding power with the poor in mind is, to say the least, doubtful) is rapidly in the process of turning into a seat of oligarchic power. The fact that the transformation is not yet complete can be seen in their flat rejection of George Osborne’s punitive Tax Credit cuts.  But time is short and reform is now desperately urgent in the over bloated chamber.  The scandal of rewarding corporate donors with seats in the Lords is a well-known scandal.

So can we do anything about oligarchy as individuals. Unfortunately this is where the Greek experience can no longer help us since their solution was to apply their advice to prevent oligarchy arising in the first place and civil war is hardly a recommended remedy. But we are not powerless. Firstly, we can overcome ‘post-truth’ politics by looking at a variety of news media, combined with twitter and other online sources. Also, combine it with what you actually see in your daily life. Are people sleeping rough, what are NHS services like, and so on.  Then draw people’s attention to it.  Secondly, there is an idea gaining ground that voting changes nothing.  But tell that to Trump’s supporters! Make no mistake the current economic system was facilitated by politicians. Claiming they are powerless is a convenient distraction from this simple truth. A different system can be instigated by electing more egalitarian-minded politicians. Ownership of news media can be restricted and the rules on corporate board composition can be changed. ‘Too big to fail’ banks can be broken up. In reality it will take an international change to bring about profound and lasting improvement, but the UK with the City of London means that we can punch way above our economic weight in controlling corporations. So, whenever possible vote for a representative in any General or By-Election whom you think represents the best chance of change irrespective of their party. Vote for an individual, not a party. Finally join and support a party whose aims are to being about the end of oligarchy. Don’t be like Socrates the philosopher, don’t give up and sit this out!!

A Life to Live; Thomas Rainborough’s Quote is of Profound Importance Today

In 1647 Leveller Thomas Rainborough (1610-1648) made this statement:

…I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, Sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under.

I consider it one of the most profound statements on political philosophy uttered in the English language. Here’s why.

Rainborough was a Colonel in the Parliamentarian army during the English Civil Wars. As a leading member of the radical Levellers group he took part in the momentous 1647 Putney Debates, a series of discussions, sometimes stormy, between the grandees of the New Model Army and the Levellers regarding a new constitution for England.

Although often discussed in terms of wealth inequality, Rainborough’s choice of the phrase life to live has far greater scope and is fundamentally important today. When international bankers such as Goldman Sachs or JP Morgan can invite Theresa May or Hillary Clinton to their events or Charles Windsor as heir to the throne can simply invite the Prime Minister of the day around for tea, ir represents an influence which the poorest he cannot even contemplate bringing to bear on the UK Government. It is true that we must beware of ascribing too much of a modern interpretation to Rainbrough’s. statement. the possibility of votes for women (poorest she!), for example, would not even have been considered at that time.

Yet as a claim for an inclusive society where decisions of the powerful can be contested his quote is as powerful as ever and entails what political thinker Philip Pettit calls the ‘eyeball’ and ‘straight talk’ tests. The eyeball test means all members of a society should be able to look each other directly in the eye as equals while the straight talk test means that we can all express our reasonable opinions to those in power without fear of recrimination. Sadly many western societies are failing these tests.

Consider, for example, the current political upheavals which politicians such as Bernie Sanders in the US attribute to the rise of oligarchical power. It has been noted that contrary to popular opinion oligarchies often control governments without the direct use of money, although they are closely connected. What initially starts as unequal wealth slowly morphs into the subtle means of control characteristic of a class system. Money buys the children of the wealthy smart new clothes, a childhood in fine homes, access to exclusive education where networks can be formed and travel across the world. This breeds confidence and slowly the class structure emerges as exists in Britain, has emerged in the United States and is now emerging in Russia. An expectation, frequently granted, of political and economic influence flows from this added confidence.

So Rainborough was absolutely correct. A life to live involves more than simply wealth inequality no matter how significant that may be.

The Government is Patronising Voters by Laying Claim to a Chartist Legacy

peoples-charter
People’s Charter 1838

On 13th September 2016 BBC Newsnight ran an item on the proposals for changes to Parliamentary constituencies issued by the Boundary Commission for England . One of the interviewees was Chris Skidmore MP, Minister for the Constitution, who referred to the People’s Charter of 1838 to lend legitimacy to the proposals. During the course of the interview he made the statement:

‘The Chartists, who are heroes to some people on the Labour benches’.

Unwarranted Legitimacy

It would be positive, but possibly naïve, to think that the 19th Century Chartists should be heroes to all who claim to be democrats, meaning not only all the Labour Party but MPs of any party, including the Conservatives themselves. But there is a problem. The Chartists demand for equal sized constituencies and a much wider suffrage was an integral part of the demands for comprehensive socio-economic reforms to alleviate deprivation and oppression suffered by most working people at that time. Then, as now, political reform was was an essential corollary to social reform and it is disingenuous of Mr Skidmore to merely pluck one of the six points of the Charter and ignore the spirit of the movement behind it.

Skidmore can get away with appropriating Chartists aims for a narrow political point because of the lack of knowledge about our radical history which I posted about a few weeks ago. But it may surprise him to learn  that genuine support for Chartists and other radical groups is far from unknown within his own Conservative Party. Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli expressed sympathy with Chartist aims and in 2013 David Skelton of the Conservative Party’s Renewal group published this call for greater education about the history of radicalism including Levellers and Suffragettes as well as Chartists.

The issues surrounding the Boundary Commission proposals which the Government is determined to pursue are complex,  including disputes over how to measure the size of a constituency.  There have been claims that it represents gerrymandering on the part of the Government but I argue that it goes much further than this, serving to distort the very nature of democratic representation while showing profound disregard for social justice. Even allowing for the shrinkage in the number of MPs from 650 to 600 the Conservatives on some estimates would have an increased majority of 22 in the Commons based on the new boundaries. This increase would serve to exacerbate an already unfair system where a Government elected by only 37% of actual voters command a disproportionate amount of power, with an even more pronounced marginalization of Green and UKIP voters To enforce these boundary changes without instituting some form of Proportional Representation as an absolute minimum is undemocratic bordering on reckless.

Political Change is Integral to Wider Social Change

The fact that systems of voting are integrally bound up with socio-economic problems was brought into focus during the Brexit vote where many disaffected people took the opportunity of registering a protest vote. But it is not the job of the Boundary Commission to take wider political factors into account. That is the job of the government and they must not dodge their responsibilities to fairness and democracy. During the 1830s the Chartists chafed against the petty pretensions of the property owning classes which aped the mores of the aristocracy, debasing workers socially as well as economically. Demands for a voice in Parliament had an egalitarian as well as an economic base.   Society has changed radically and deference to the aristocracy has declined, being replaced by the overt greed of owners such as Philip Green and Mike Ashley who debase their workers by flaunting knighthoods, peerages and gross conspicuous wealth. The malaise is now affecting public bodies as this article on the activities of Coventry University and its Vice Chancellor testify. So the sense of injustice persists and Mr Skidmore will be well advised to consider it in his plans. As Paul Mason points out in his book Postcapitalism the Chartists confronted an industrial economy trapped within an aristocratic state. Today we have a low-wage service and knowledge economy trapped within an oligarchic state. Simply manipulating the electoral system to pursue an ideal of fairness within a narrow definition will lead to further instances of protest which may make the Brexit vote appear a mere inconvenience by comparison.

As Sean Monaghan in Jacobin Magazine writes::

A renewed Chartist movement would, for starters, demand the extension of the franchise to all those who lack it. But it would also embrace one of Chartism’s seminal contributions to the history of working-class movements: the necessity of political struggle for popular emancipation.

Government Ministers would do well to remember this rather than cherry pick ideas for narrow party gain.

We Need a Democratic Revolution of Investment Potential

The death of one of the richest men in the UK, Gerald Grosvenor the 6th Duke of Westminster, earlier this year (August 2016) threw into relief the gross inequality of wealth in the UK. The Grosvenor estate was established by Hugh Ardley in the 17th Century, who was no shrinking violet as can be seen from this ‘way to riches’ biography of his life. The outrageous aspect of the Grosvenor estate is that via a system of trusts the Estate pays almost no Inheritance Tax! It is a strong temptation to call for the state to simply seize the Grosvenor Estate and bring it into public ownership.  While I am all in favour of abolishing hereditary titles, such a call actually reveals a much more widespread and deepseated problem with in our current neo-libertarian approach to economics, that of exactly who controls the means of investment. Supposing we did in fact ‘nationalize’ the Grosvenor Estate. That means the Government will possess over £9bn worth of property which will be practically worthless unless the assets are sold.  So an equally important question is not only who controls the assets but who controls the investment potential generated by those assets.  Clearly by avoiding taxes the Grosvenors themselves are actually enjoying the full investment potential of the estate.

Investigating the ownership of investment potential as well as the assets reveals the true extent of the gross unbalanced nature of our society. An example from a different domain is the contract for controversial nuclear power station Hinckley Point C.  The construction of an as yet unproven model of power station is being funded by the French EDF power company but only on the basis that the UK electricity consumer (yes us again) buys the electricity at much above market rates for decades to come. But what if the unproven reactor design requires extensive and expensive modification?  Will the government really hold EDF to its contract and possibly bankrupt the company? The substantial potential returns on the installation are privatised while it appears that the risk is, once again, borne by the public.

But there are other models of investment, some of which operate in the United States which is often held up as a paragon of private owner capitalism.  A closer view reveals a more complex interaction of public and private ownership, a particularly interesting example being the New York Power Authority. The NYPA is a publicly owned power generating company in New York State which claims to be one of the most efficient generators in the US, tasked with developing renewable sources and providing cheap power to not-for-profit organisations and small businesses.   But we can go further than this with the massive potential in Pension Funds and other schemes.  Open up these funds to the control of their investors and a more democratic system of investment becomes possible. The question of the democratization of investment potential is every bit as important as who actually controls wealth with which, of course, it is inextricably linked.

Could City States Be The Solution to Britain’s Obsolete Constitution?

When the history of our present time is written the Iraq War may not be viewed as the most significant ‘legacy’ of Tony Blair for the people of the UK itself. Instead, historians may focus on the policy of devolution and the dangerously unstable constitutional arrangement. Aside from the unresolved and patently unfair West Lothian Question we have a Scottish Parliament which can legislate unless specifically prevented from doing so, a Welsh Parliament which can only legislate unless specifically authorised to do so, and a House of Lords where Church of England Bishops can affect legislation for everyone! Devolution has left a complete mess and singularly failed to achieve Blair’s goal of heading off the momentum for Scottish independence. Part of the problem is an archaic notion of Parliamentary sovereignty which is contributing to a justifiable feeling amongst the people that our Governmental and administrative systems have a lack of control and accountability. While deriving from an understandable impulse, the addition of a specific Parliament for England will only serve to muddy the waters of accountability even further. The whole idea of devolution should be seen as a mistake and a new way urgently sought out of the mess.

Until now the people of the English regions have shown little enthusiasm for federalism within England itself, largely due to the unpalatable and ‘take or leave it attitude’ of Westminster politicians anxious to be seen to be doing something rather than possessing a real reforming zeal. But that is changing and England itself may be starting to show the way forward for our ridiculous constitution. Significant powers are being allocated to groups of local authorities in areas such as Greater Manchester and the West Midlands and prominent politicians are showing an interest in regional governance. Presently, it is not intended to create new assemblies as with London, with mayors comprising the sole directly elected component. To some extent, however, the new mayoralties resemble embryonic regions, or more realistically considering their focus, city-states. To a civic republican the current model is unsatisfactory (I do not want elected monarchies!) but, suitably evolved, it could provide the seed for a properly accountable federal system.

Continue reading “Could City States Be The Solution to Britain’s Obsolete Constitution?”

Theresa May Curtseying To The Queen – What a Con Trick!

May Queen Cartoon
Cartoon by Peter Brooks for the Times Newspaper

Following her (unelected) installation as leader of the Conservative Party, Theresa May duly travelled to Buckingham Palace to be appointed Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Pictures abounded of May curtseying to the monarch which naturally gave satirists and cartoonists like Peter Brooks (whose Times cartoon appears above) a field day.  But things are not all they seem.  In many ways a curtsey or genuflection can be classed with other acts of submission including swearing an oath which I have posted about here and here.  Bending the knee is about making yourself smaller than the other person, implicitly recognising their superior status. But Brooks was not alone in pointing to the shrunken nature of British democracy which allows a new Prime Minister without a popular mandate to be appointed by a Head of State without a mandate on any kind!  An insightful comment was made by Kelly Grovier in an article on the BBC website:

Though the photo may be accented with smiles and the glamour of designer fashions, a stony silence entombs this week’s image. It divulges nothing of what was actually discussed between the queen and the new PM.

This speaks to the wider issue about the secrecy which surrounds the upper echelons of government with Freedom of Information bans, secret weekly meetings between the Prime Minister and Queen and the necessity of obtaining permission from the Palace in certain circumstances to even hold a debate in the House of Commons! The message it sent to the British public was one thing, but to the rest of the world who may well view Brexit as a backward looking and isolationist act, such a picture serves to confirm an image of Britain as an out of date archaic irrelevance. Some posters on social media were quick to pick up on the symbolism and contrasted the stiff obeisance of the photograph with a picture of US President Obama fist bumping a floor cleaner as he walked past.  This reflects a totally different relationship of the Head of State to the citizenry.  There is no way anyone in Britain can truly identify with the Royals as the life experiences are totally alien. While not wishing a US style system for Britain, the fact that a Head of State drawn from the population and who shares at least some of the experiences of the people must be an essential requirement of the job.

A Deliberate Attempt to Deceive

But there are two ways in which the photograph is actually misleading.  At the end of her piece, Grovier makes a second telling  statement: In stooping low, [Theresa May] reaches high.  I have posted before on the fact that the powers of the Queen are largely wielded by the Prime minister in collaboration with her cabinet, termed a ‘disguised republic’ by Walter Bagehot.  So the curtseying picture is not representative and serves to perpetuate the myth of a Queen being above politics and ‘keeping them in control’. In reality the curtsey is almost a thank you by Theresa May for the transfer of power!

Continue reading “Theresa May Curtseying To The Queen – What a Con Trick!”

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!