In the Epilogue to his one-volume gallop through English history Simon Jenkins, having discussed "game changers" such as Cromwell, Walpole, Chatham, Peel, Disraeli, Gladstone and Lloyd George, concludes (p354): "If there is one hero in this book, at least until the twentieth century, it is parliament."
His conclusion could doubtless be debated by historians, but there is no doubt that Parliament has played a crucial role in creating our present society. If we are to continue to develop our society on liberal and tolerant lines, parliament, rather than allow itself to be sidelined, should continue to be refreshed, reformed and made relevant to contemporary conditions.
An important first step has been made in this direction by the long-overdue achievement of a fixed term for parliaments. Further reforms are needed to:
*further enhance the power and importance of committees;
*reduce the number of MPs committed to supporting the government because they are on the "payroll";
*turn question time, for ministers as well as the prime-minister, into genuine question and answer sessions instead of a bear-pit exchanges of insults;
*and, of course, electoral reform, choosing members by single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies rather than the present largest minority system.
Jenkins takes the view that England has thrived in the past because, essentially, we have developed through representative democracy, however imperfect, rather than populism or charismatic leadership.
Modern communications technology makes populism superficially attractive, and moves to have directly elected mayors and police commissioners place the emphasis on personalities and encourage the promulgation of simplistic and normally erroneous solutions to complex problems. There is already far too much emphasis on the personality of the prime-minister and too little on other ministers, their policies and collective government.
I hope at least one MP in yesterday's debate had the sense to argue that we should not be having any referendums at all, on Europe or any other issue. Referendums have been correctly described as devices used in less democratic countries to obtain spurious legitimacy. They should have no part in our representative parliamentary democracy.