What is the point of Parliament these days? “It?s just a talking shop nowadays” say the cynics. But they miss the point entirely. That is precisely what Parliament was always intended to be. The very word Parliament comes from the French – parler ? which means to talk.
There are only two ways to govern a nation. One is for governments to issue decrees off their own bat that citizens must obey without discussion. The other is to consult, debate and seek the consent of the people?s representatives before any law or tax is brought into force. This is the way that we have evolved in England since earliest times.
It is the process of talking and debating, even more than voting in Parliament, which is important. Most governments command a majority and can whip them into the lobbies to support almost any measure. But I know from my own experience as a minister how important it is to win the argument rather than just winning the vote. There is all the difference in the world between a debate in which you succeed in persuading your supporters that your policy is right and a debate at the end of which they grudgingly follow you into the lobbies. No government that fails to convince its own supporters in Parliament that its policies are right will for long retain the support of the electorate.
The strange thing about this government is that, despite their huge they majority, they are both terrified and contemptuous of Parliament. Tony Blair comes to the chamber as infrequently as possible. He reduced Prime Minister?s questions to once a week and adopted a format he hoped would be boring. But he still cannot bear being trounced by William Hague every week. That is why he even introduced an unprecedented half-term holiday this February that rather absurdly began on a Wednesday to eliminate another embarrassing Prime Minister?s question time.
All new government policies must by convention first be announced by a statement in Parliament. Yet time and again ministers are rebuked by Madam Speaker for leaking or announcing policies first to the media. Why do ministers do this? Because that they have established an unprecedented power over the national press and especially the BBC. So they can ensure that any announcement – particularly if leaked to a friendly journalist – will receive an uncritical reception. But if the statement is made to Parliament it will immediately be subject to criticism as well as to praise.
Increasingly that criticism comes from the Government?s own backbenchers. As Tony Blair?s popularity slips many of those Labour MPs who probably did not expect to be elected last time feel that there is little point wasting their one time in Parliament slavishly endorsing policies they privately believe to be flawed.
Recently I have found my criticisms of the Government?s threat to sub post offices echoed from the Labour benches. And when I have criticised John Prescott for endorsing the plan to build 10,000 houses west of Stevenage on green belt land Labour MPs have looked embarrassed at their ministers? weak defence.
So Parliament is regaining its importance. It always has been and, as long as we retain a sovereign Parliament, always will be the ultimate bastion of our liberties and check on the arrogance of government. But that is a big caveat. Because this Government loathes Parliamentary accountability they are all the more eager to hand over its powers to unaccountable European institutions.