Friday, 30 August 2013
A reassertion of Parliamentary Democracy.
From 1878 onwards Gilbert and Sullivan's Sir Joseph Porter, KCB, MP has sung:
I always voted to my party's call,
And I never thought of thinking for myself at all.*
as the explanation and condition of his rise to greatness.
So, for over 100 years until yesterday, have our MPs by and large behaved. The only significant exception of which I can think is the vote on the Norwegian campaign in 1940 which brought down Neville Chamberlain, to be replaced by Winston Churchill.
Not any more.
Yesterday's defeat of the government motion on Syria, anodyne as it was, is an indication that the era of parliamentary subservience to an over-mighty executive may be coming to an end. There is, I understand, much talk of the "humiliation" of David Cameron (and Nick Clegg, who toed the coalition line instead of asserting the independence of the Liberal Democrats or allowing a free vote).
Rather than the weakness of the leaders I should prefer to emphasise the re-assertion of the strength of parliament. In fact, I believe Cameron showed strength of character. Instead of the expected obfuscations and prevarications, he declared immediately after the vote that he would accept the parliamentary view: there would be no British military intervention in Syria.
A further step in the direction of democratic accountability is that we are no long prepared to dance unquestioningly to the Americans' tune. There is much huffing and puffing about the damage to the "special relationship." Let's hope we can now put this "fond thing vainly imagined" as Thomas Cranmer might have put it, and surely the cause of much amused embarrassment in Washing-up, behind us and seek such international political influence as we have with our neighbours in Europe and through the United Nations.
Nine liberal Democrat MPs voted against the government's motion (nearly 20% of the parliamentary party, compared with 30, or 10%, of the Tories). I was sorry not to see Bradford's David Ward or Leeds's Greg Mullholland among them, nor party president Tim Farron or former president Simon Hughes. Maybe they were among the 14 who "did not vote."
However, we must not forget that the most important issue at stake is not the state of British parliamentary democracy, nor the standing of David Cameron and Nick Clegg, but the plight of the Syrian people and their neighbours. There may still be a unilateral military intervention by the US which will almost certainly worsen their desperate plight. The need for urgent diplomatic efforts to stop the supply of weapons to all the sides in the civil war, stop the fighting and restore some sort of peace remains the top priority.