A small death of democracy
Jim O’Neill asks whether the Tory undermining of democracy in Westminster is at risk of being emulated in Holyrood by the SNP.
Countries like the United Kingdom, with its history of democratic change and its general rejection of violent revolution, tends to see change in small increments rather than in massive lumps. Exceptions include the Attlee government and the Wilson government, both of which made great leaps forward in social change and workers’ rights. But Tory governments have tended to try to claw back these changes, bit by insidious bit.
We have seen the welfare state undermined, first by the Thatcher government, which also attacked workers’ rights by fomenting trade union action. The ensuing disruption was used to claw back workers’ rights hard fought for in the sixties and seventies. This action was continued, more subtly, by the Major government, and ramped up by the Cameron government, disgracefully supported by the so-called Liberal Democrats, in particular in their attack on welfare rights. While pretending to be a softer, more supportive government, May and her team have increased the pace of this attack, especially on in-work welfare.
Last week, however, we saw the first disgraceful attempts to undermine the very principles of our parliamentary democracy itself. It has always been a principle of democracy at Westminster, mirrored now in the devolved governments, that parliamentary committees, both Select Committees and Standing Committees, reflect the make up of parties in the House. Bolstered by their bought votes of the DUP, the Tories have now removed this standard provision of Parliament, to give them a majority on all committees, “to ensure that government can get their legislation through”.
The people did not elect this parliament to ensure that Tory legislation can be enacted. They left the parliament hung, so that there can be a real check on the abuse of power that the Tories have now enacted, and so that real consideration and amendment can be given to Tory government proposals, especially in this crucial time of Brexit negotiations and legislation. Thus, the Tories and their side-kicks the DUP have blown a raspberry to the people of the UK and ignored their decision for party political benefit. A small part of our democracy has been suspended.
It was the so-called Great Repeal Bill that gave rise to the second chip away at our parliamentary democracy. The bill was advertised as simply a procedural move to translate European law into British law. But when the bill was published the legislation was clearly much more extensive. Not only did it translate European law into British law, but it also gave powers to ministers to change these new laws by administrative fiat. These are known as the Henry VIII provisions, after the decision by the then Parliament, under the cosh of Thomas Cromwell, to allow Henry VIII to amend or introduce any legislation he so wished, without reference to Parliament.
This, of course, is intended to remove the enormous log-jam of amending provisions to legislation that will clog up Parliament post March 2019. In line with the provisions of membership of committees referred to above, it will be very difficult for the opposition to amend this legislation in committee and they will have to rely on disaffected Tories to restore democracy when the bill comes back on report and for Third Reading. And so, another part of our parliamentary democracy has been stripped away.
In Scotland, to their great credit, the SNP government accepted the will of the people, especially in the formation of committees. However, we still do not know whether that will extend to accepting changes to their legislation made in committee. They showed themselves to be very intolerant of opposition when they had an absolute majority, but now they are a minority government again, we have little to go on since they have only introduced one bill in the past 19 months. Of course their obsession with a second independence referendum, which was knocked for six by the Westminster election, took priority.
Given that Nicola has decided that nationalism is toxic and to focus on the day job, we are faced with a Programme for Government with a substantial workload of bills for consideration. We will now see whether the First Minister is prepared to accept that she does not have all the wisdom and allow committees to amend her bills, or will she use the Report Back stage to overturn all amendments with the help of her Green lapdogs. Now we will see if the small deaths of democracy perpetrated by the Tories at Westminster will leak into Scotland, or if Scotland will remain the beacon of democracy much lauded in our national mythology.