Don’t let Covid kill off democracy
The parliamentary row over lockdown rules exposes the need for a democratic revolution.
The row in the UK parliament over the Tory government’s lunatic lockdown rules has revealed the parlous state of British democracy. As in other areas of political life, from the economy to liberty, the coronavirus crisis has exposed and accelerated underlying problems in society.
We now see how the British government can impose the most extraordinary measures ever seen in peacetime – banning family gatherings, interning students and inventing new offences such as dancing or ‘mingling’ – without a parliamentary debate or vote, thanks to the constitutional powers of the Crown. It looks more like a medieval monarchy than a modern democracy.
Parliament prides itself on being sovereign. Yet when concerned Conservative MPs sought to amend the lockdown law this week, the Speaker who chairs debates in the House of Commons refused even to allow their amendment to be discussed. Why? Because he feared that it would break constitutional rules and the dispute would end up in the Supreme Court, where unaccountable judges rather than elected MPs would decide the law.
The problem here is far bigger than the petty authoritarianism of the new lockdown rules. This farce has highlighted the wider issue of the lack of democratic accountability and control in the system.
How did Boris Johnson’s government circumvent parliamentary debate? It introduced the latest measures by imposing statutory instruments rather than passing laws. These special instruments rest on the residual constitutional power of the Crown, which gives Her Majesty’s Government the right to rule like a king in the monarch’s name.
As Mr Speaker Lindsay Hoyle told MPs, statutory instruments cannot be amended in parliament in the normal way. The ‘rebel’ Tories’ only option was to vote down the government’s entire Coronavirus Act – something they were never going to do. It was eventually renewed by 330 votes to 24.
Apparently, the only way parliament can hope to annul a statutory instrument is by passing a motion known as a ‘prayer’ to the monarch. This pleads ‘That an humble address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the [name of statutory instrument] be annulled’. The last time MPs annulled a standing order was in 1979 when they rejected a measure affecting the price of paraffin, which many people used to heat their homes back in those dark ages.
Democracy really hasn’t got a prayer while we’re governed by a system which has our elected MPs crawling through such constitutional barbed wire to grovel to the Crown.
When Speaker Hoyle refused to call the MPs’ amendment for debate this week, he made clear that he did not wish to break the rules and ‘do a Bercow’. His predecessor in the Commons chair, arch Remainer John Bercow, became infamous in recent years for flouting parliamentary rules and conventions as part of the campaign by Westminster Remainers to stymie Brexit.
Yet this latest situation appears quite different. Bercow repeatedly bent and broke the rules to help the Remainer establishment thwart the popular democratic vote for Brexit. On the other hand, nobody voted for the current government’s imposition of lockdown measures. Democracy demands that Boris and Co be held to account, whatever stuffy parliamentary conventions might say to the contrary.
Where Speaker Hoyle was probably right was in his expressed fear that a dispute over the rules would end up in the courts, where judges rather than MPs would decide what was right. The tendency for political issues to be turned into matters for the courts is another increasing danger to British democracy, which also came to the fore during the battle for Brexit. Far too much power is now invested in unelected, unaccountable judges to override the will of the people and parliament – a trend which the idiot left has often cheered, looking to the likes of Lady Hale and the Human Rights Act to succeed where it has failed to win the democratic argument.
We are left with an elected government acting like an absolute monarch, a near-impotent chamber of MPs, a gaggle of top judges eager to assume the authority to rule. And waiting in the wings to intervene when it sees fit, the House of Lords, the most anti-democratic law-making chamber in the Western world.
These are all symptoms of the underlying lack of popular democracy. Our democratic system was ailing long before Covid came along to put it in intensive care. But the coronavirus crisis has surely confirmed the need for radical change. As spiked has argued all along, Brexit – backed by the biggest democratic vote in British history – is only the beginning of the battle to take control from the establishment. The government’s placatory promise to give MPs some more votes ‘where possible’ is nowhere near enough.
To see a snapshot of where things are heading, look at last week’s big briefing by those two rather creepy-sounding government experts, chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty and chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance. They warned that tough measures would be needed to contain Covid this winter and avoid thousands more casualties. There was no elected politician present, and the media were not even allowed to ask questions, such as about where the boffins had got their dramatic numbers of projected deaths. One thing we do know is that the notion that the experts always know what’s best for the rest of us is a potentially mortal threat to democratic debate.
There is no need for hysterical warnings about ‘fascism’ overthrowing parliamentary democracy. An empty suit such as Tory health secretary Matt Hancock would make the most tinpot of tinpot tyrants. No, the dangers to democracy now evident are embedded within the existing parliamentary system. Hancock and Co are attempting to exploit the undemocratic powers provided by that system to bulldoze through lockdown measures in the name of ‘necessity’. We would do well to recall the words of William Pitt the Younger from 1783, when the struggle for real democracy in Britain was just beginning: ‘Necessity is the justification for every infringement of human liberty: it is the argument of tyrants, the creed of slaves.’
If any political ‘necessity’ has been made clear by the response to the coronavirus crisis, it is surely the need for a democratic revolution.
Mick Hume is a spiked columnist. His latest book, Revolting! How the Establishment is Undermining Democracy – and What they’re Afraid of, is published by William Collins.
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