Dangerous liaison committees

Tony Blair's appearance before a Commons select committee is another step away from parliamentary democracy.

Sandy Starr

Topics Politics

Tony Blair made parliamentary history this week, by becoming the first UK prime minister to submit to questioning by a House of Commons select committee. And he intends to do it twice a year from now on.

Whenever select committees approached Blair to question him in the past, he always refused – on the reasonable grounds that he is already publicly grilled by MPs once a week during prime minister’s questions (1). So it was a turnaround when Blair approached the Commons Liaison Committee in April 2002, proposing that he appear before it twice a year ‘to discuss domestic and international affairs’ (2).

This change of heart is part of what BBC News refers to as ‘the Downing Street plan to offer an excess of Blair until the appetite sickens and then dies’ (3). Stung by allegations of sleaze, spin and unaccountability – and accused of being all style and no substance – Blair wants to appear transparent and accountable. Clearly, being the country’s elected leader and publicly debating issues with his political opposition isn’t convincing enough. So he has sought to project his desired self-image before a select committee.

Select committees are not partisan; they are comprised of MPs from multiple parties. They exist to discuss specific subjects in a more protracted and less confrontational way than happens in Commons or Lords debate – after which they report back to one of the two Houses on the subjects they have discussed. The Commons Liaison Committee that questioned Blair is a sort of super-select committee, comprised of the chairs of 33 other select committees (4).

New Labour’s interest in select committees reflects the managerial character of politics today. Open political debate about different policies is avoided by all parties, in favour of running the system as it is with a minimum of fuss. When the prime minister’s appearance before a select committee is widely interpreted as a giant step forward for democracy, this is a symptom of the degeneration of British politics.

The Commons system is an intentionally confrontational and partisan system, which forces the governing party and its opposition to debate competing visions openly. Policies put forward are tested in the furnace of debate. If Commons debate is (or at least should be) a furnace, then select committee discussion is a Baby Belling.

The chair of the Commons Liaison Committee opened proceedings by telling Blair he was making a ‘historic contribution to accountability’. Blair wasted no time in attacking the Commons system, contemptuously dismissing prime minister’s questions as ‘80 percent theatre’ (5). The select committee is now Blair’s preferred political forum. ‘There’s no point in me coming before a gathering like this unless I were to open up more than I would during the normal knockabout’, said Blair (6).

If Blair’s newfound sincerity and transparency were genuine, then he would ‘open up’ during the ‘normal knockabout’ of political debate in the Commons – the public face of parliament – instead of during a friendly interrogation by a parliamentary cabal, with the media invited to sit in.

Blair told the committee that ‘there is often so much focus on the issues of process and personality. I think there is a danger that sometimes people feel that’s all we as politicians focus on’ (7). Consider that this statement was made at an event whose main purpose was to convey transparency of process and integrity of personality, and it takes the most dedicated student of postmodernism to untangle Blair’s meaning.

Blair and a growing number of politicians now believe the Commons to be an inadequate forum for politics. But the problem that bothers them lies in the politics, not in the forum. Politics today is lacking in any big ideas or competing visions. As a reaction to this, confrontation – vital to healthy political debate – has been made into a dirty word.

The Commons Liaison Committee argues in a recent report that ‘exchanges in the calmer setting of a committee room should prove more productive and informative. The current operation of prime minister’s questions in the Chamber, with its confrontational exchanges and theatrical style, provides an unsuitable setting for questioning in depth’ (8). This sets up a false opposition between confrontation and substance, when in fact the two things go hand in hand.

Because parliamentary politics lacks substance, politicians are desperately seeking substance in the procedure of parliament. Former UK foreign secretary Robin Cook, put out to pasture in Labour’s second term when he was given the ponderous job of Leader of the House, has discovered a new lease of life with the cause of parliamentary reform – a subject which now seems more dynamic than partisan debate.

The purpose of parliament is to be a vessel for representative political debate between parties. If the vessel seems empty at the moment, then that is a good reason for filling it up again. Instead, it is being converted into an undemocratic bureaucracy, through which the government and the other parties can exercise their managerial politics without proper contest.

Read on:

Tony Blair: man or myth?, by Andrew Calcutt

Image wars, by Josie Appleton

(1) See Fresh grillings for Blair, BBC News, 26 April 2002
(2) Cited in First Special Report of Session 2001-02 (.pdf 288 KB), House of Commons Liaison Committee, p5
(3) Blair the charmer, Nick Assinder, BBC News, 16 July 2002
(4) See the House of Commons Liaison Committee website
(5) Blair faces MPs, Matthew Tempest, Guardian, 16 July 2002
(6) Blair: second term will be different, Guardian, 16 July 2002
(7) Blair faces Commons watchdogs for first time, Jon Smith, Independent, 16 July 2002
(8) First Special Report of Session 2001-02 (.pdf 288 KB), House of Commons Liaison Committee, p5

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Topics Politics


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