Hollow Men – the sidelining of parliament during the biggest health/economic crisis in modern times

Hollow Men – the sidelining of parliament during the biggest health/economic crisis in modern times

In the film “Mrs Brown” there is a scene in Parliament where MPs are passing around a Tomahawk cartoon showing an empty throne captioned “Where is Britannia?” It’s a reference to widowed Queen Victoria’s long self-imposed isolation and its effect on good governance and support for the monarchy. A similar criticism could be made now – not of her great-great-grand-daughter – but of Parliament. During the biggest combined health and economic crisis of recent times, where is Parliament?

Some Tory MPs and others (see Portillo on Question Time) are now saying just this. According to this New Statesman article Charles Walker MP feels that:

Johnson has needlessly sidelined the House of Commons throughout the Covid-19 crisis, to ill effect. “I’m getting very frustrated ….. We granted the government huge powers [in March]. It is long past time ….. for Parliamentary rule to return.

He is right. For over 6 months the government has been ruling by decree, announcing policies on Twitter or to the media rather than in the Commons, publishing often badly drafted and unclear legislation creating new criminal offences and restrictions on liberty late at night barely minutes before coming into force, with no scrutiny, granting contracts worth hundreds of millions (billions even) of pounds and making appointments bypassing all normal processes ensuring value for money and a fair open recruitment process, avoiding or postponing votes and reacting with ill-disguised petulance to questioning.

Matt Hancock, in particular, has behaved like a latter-day Charles I angrily confronting a parliamentary delegation at Newmarket, with his tantrums whenever an MP seeks to question him. Even the telling off by the Speaker has not dented his or the government’s furious self-regard. MPs are supposed to be grateful that votes will be allowed when and if this is convenient, convenient for the government, that is.

But if Walker, Brady, Baker and other Tories are frustrated at the way the government is sidelining Parliament, they have only themselves to blame. First, by voting for a man who has shown scant regard for Parliament, scrutiny or accountability during his career and despite all the warnings about his fundamental unsuitability for leadership. Second, and far more importantly, by giving the government these huge powers without even a vote when this was wholly unnecessary.

Really? Yes, really. The Civil Contingencies Act 2004 provided the government with all the powers it needed to deal with Covid. Additionally, the Public Health Act 1984 contains a range of powers for dealing with a health crisis and it is notable that many of the regulations which have been passed have been under this Act rather than the Coronavirus Act. There is nothing which has been done which could not have been done using existing legislation, legislation moreover which had been extensively scrutinised, debated and voted on, unlike the Coronavirus Act. There was no need for the latter at all.

Its only advantage is that it allows the government to evade regular scrutiny. The CCA, by contrast, requires government to get Parliament’s approval for regulations under the Act within 7 days; it has to renew its provisions every 30 days. Were there no MPs aware of this critical difference? The government’s concern (perhaps its primary one) has been to avoid scrutiny and challenge, a theme which has run through Johnson’s entire premiership.

It is not simply that Parliament has absented itself. It has ceded control to the Executive with barely a squeak of protest. And when subsequently given the opportunity to vote or challenge the government’s actions, it – including the Opposition parties – has been too scared or unwilling to demand proper accountability, to demand that the Executive treats Parliament and the voters it represents properly. It’s as if MPs have taken to heart the view expressed by one relatively new MP, as written in that article: You can turn up the dial too far on parliamentary democracy”. Oh dear!

Covid was an unexpected crisis. No-one doubts the need for emergency measures. But panic and fear and abandonment of practices which carried on even during war-time do not lead to sensible decision-making. Nor does an emergency justify allowing the executive to bypass the legislation already put in place for just such a situation because it suits them to do so. Nor does it excuse the Opposition from doing their job of scrutinising and challenging rather than nodding everything through. And it’s not as if the government’s approach has resulted in notably successful outcomes.

Examples of what might have been addressed in Parliament had it been properly involved include:-

  • Real scrutiny of the regulations, what they mean (“mingling”?), how to enforce and their impact. We might even have been spared the sight of the police not understanding the laws they’re meant to enforce or the CPS abandoning all prosecutions because of this failing.
  • A debate about the right balance between health and the economy, between different parts of the economy, between different regions and their needs, given their economies and infection rates, and the impact of restrictive measures on different parts of the country. There are, it’s worth stressing, no definitive or easy answers and these will change over time but Parliament is absolutely the place where these matters should be discussed and decided on. (Not amongst a small clique seemingly based around Spectator journalists, their friends and relations.)
  • The North – so beloved of the Tories when “levelling up” is mentioned – is now wondering whether policy has been too dominated by a London-centric elite, whether its needs have been sacrificed or ignored, whether in reality it faces levelling down, again. Northern MPs, even Tory ones, have been ignored. Why? Why not listen to them instead?
  • The testing and tracing system, essential to any effective control of this virus and maintenance of any semblance of normal life, as the WHO has been saying repeatedly since at least March.

Little wonder that the public are confused by the messages, that Ministers from the PM down appear not to understand their own policies, that local Mayors are in open revolt at being ignored, little wonder that affected businesses are in despair, that the science/evidence behind proposed measures is being questioned. Meanwhile, the virus spreads, the economy teeters and people wonder what will happen to their jobs and whether there will be any viable job to retrain for.

Good governance is not just some technical process issue. When it doesn’t exist, it leads to unwise or bad choices; it results in decisions, even good ones, having no or inadequate consent. Its absence frays the bonds of trust with voters necessary for difficult measures to be taken, to be followed and work. Above all, it reinforces a government uninterested in the hard work of effective policy-making and accountability in its arrogance, its disregard for any check or balance, whether from Parliament or the law. It is no surprise that the other three Bills put before the Commons (the Internal Markets Bill, the Overseas Operations Bill and the Covert Human Intelligence Bill) all seek to put the state, Ministers and their agents beyond the reach of the law or challenge, so far nodded through by the Opposition. (You’d have thought one advantage of having as Opposition leader a human right lawyer is that they might understand the dangers of giving the Executive such wide-ranging powers. Apparently not.)

MPs have a choice. They can behave like Eliot’s Hollow Men, allowing their role to be downgraded, not with a bang but with their whimpers. Or they can grow a spine and, to coin a phrase, take back control.


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