Commentary Magazine


Topic: House of Commons

Something Must Be Done

A.A. Gill’s much-forwarded piece in the Times on Britain’s election is a delightfully readable mixture of wrong-headedness, error, and sputtering confusion, with some sensible ideas and superb acidity mixed in. There is a case to be made that the House of Commons is too big — though reducing it would only mean larger constituencies, and thus an even more tenuous connection between MPs and those constituencies. And there is an even better case to be made that, as the expenses scandal revealed, the Commons has been far too concerned with feathering its own nest.

On the other hand, some of his ideas are revealing in their errors. Gill’s worried about the role of the House of Lords, as if the Lords has really been a vital political issue at any point over the past 99 years. He’s angry that the constituency boundaries give Labour a substantial advantage. Actually, Labour’s built-in advantage is between six and 16 seats: it’s real, but it’s not huge. He’s angry that MPs have to concern themselves with “pointless” local matters like “potholes, traffic lights, arguments with the police and admissions to schools and hospitals,” as if these kinds of concerns are beneath the dignity of democratic politics.

And he’s annoyed that he has “never covered an election in a democracy where candidates have been so reluctant to speak to the electorate through the press.” Of course, one reason for that is that public appearances by Gordon Brown tend to alienate more voters than they attract. Another, more substantial one is that political speech in Britain during an election is heavily controlled by law, a fact that sheds some useful light on the merits of the Supreme Court’s recent Citizens United decision.

But when you come right down to it, Gill’s big beef is with Britain itself. He’s wonderfully dismissive of Nick Clegg (“He speaks five languages but can’t say boo in any of them”) and Gordon Brown (“He wrestles with an Old Testament temper, and it’s said that he has no friends. Certainly, none of them have come out to contradict this”), and his dismissal of proportional representation is excellent. Like Edward VIII, he believes that “something must be done,” but he’s not clear exactly what, apart to be sure that Britain’s traditions are at the root of its problems.

This is, frankly, ridiculous. The problem in Britain isn’t too much tradition. It’s the demolition of it. The vast majority of law in Britain is now made in Brussels. Parliament is immeasurably less important to politics than it has been in the past, as evidenced by the American-style debates that Gill praises. The idea that Parliament still works today as it did in Trollope’s age doesn’t bear up under scrutiny for more than a second.

Britain’s fundamental problem is that in a parliamentary system, you need both strong support for the government (otherwise it can be gone in minutes) and strong scrutiny of government (otherwise it’s omnipotent at worst or corrupt at best). The presidentialization of politics means a weakening of parties, and the decline of the Commons means less public scrutiny of government (and of the EU), as well as all manner of petty snouts in the trough. The system is being nibbled away — or gnawed away — at both ends. And predictably, inevitably, hopelessly, the call of the commentators is for more change, faster.

A.A. Gill’s much-forwarded piece in the Times on Britain’s election is a delightfully readable mixture of wrong-headedness, error, and sputtering confusion, with some sensible ideas and superb acidity mixed in. There is a case to be made that the House of Commons is too big — though reducing it would only mean larger constituencies, and thus an even more tenuous connection between MPs and those constituencies. And there is an even better case to be made that, as the expenses scandal revealed, the Commons has been far too concerned with feathering its own nest.

On the other hand, some of his ideas are revealing in their errors. Gill’s worried about the role of the House of Lords, as if the Lords has really been a vital political issue at any point over the past 99 years. He’s angry that the constituency boundaries give Labour a substantial advantage. Actually, Labour’s built-in advantage is between six and 16 seats: it’s real, but it’s not huge. He’s angry that MPs have to concern themselves with “pointless” local matters like “potholes, traffic lights, arguments with the police and admissions to schools and hospitals,” as if these kinds of concerns are beneath the dignity of democratic politics.

And he’s annoyed that he has “never covered an election in a democracy where candidates have been so reluctant to speak to the electorate through the press.” Of course, one reason for that is that public appearances by Gordon Brown tend to alienate more voters than they attract. Another, more substantial one is that political speech in Britain during an election is heavily controlled by law, a fact that sheds some useful light on the merits of the Supreme Court’s recent Citizens United decision.

But when you come right down to it, Gill’s big beef is with Britain itself. He’s wonderfully dismissive of Nick Clegg (“He speaks five languages but can’t say boo in any of them”) and Gordon Brown (“He wrestles with an Old Testament temper, and it’s said that he has no friends. Certainly, none of them have come out to contradict this”), and his dismissal of proportional representation is excellent. Like Edward VIII, he believes that “something must be done,” but he’s not clear exactly what, apart to be sure that Britain’s traditions are at the root of its problems.

This is, frankly, ridiculous. The problem in Britain isn’t too much tradition. It’s the demolition of it. The vast majority of law in Britain is now made in Brussels. Parliament is immeasurably less important to politics than it has been in the past, as evidenced by the American-style debates that Gill praises. The idea that Parliament still works today as it did in Trollope’s age doesn’t bear up under scrutiny for more than a second.

Britain’s fundamental problem is that in a parliamentary system, you need both strong support for the government (otherwise it can be gone in minutes) and strong scrutiny of government (otherwise it’s omnipotent at worst or corrupt at best). The presidentialization of politics means a weakening of parties, and the decline of the Commons means less public scrutiny of government (and of the EU), as well as all manner of petty snouts in the trough. The system is being nibbled away — or gnawed away — at both ends. And predictably, inevitably, hopelessly, the call of the commentators is for more change, faster.

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What a Great Idea

 It has perhaps happened before in American politics but not that I can remember. As the Times reported it,

At a moment when the country is as polarized as ever, Mr. Obama traveled to a House Republican retreat on Friday to try to break through the partisan logjam that has helped stall his legislative agenda. What ensued was a lively, robust debate between a president and the opposition party that rarely happens in the scripted world of American politics.

It made for fascinating television and the media would love for it to become a regular feature of American government. The analogy is to questioning time in the House of Commons, when the prime minister is grilled by the opposition, who have no reason to be polite—or even fair. Great political theater sometimes happens (and great political wit too, something rare in this country).  The State of the Union speech is analogous to the Queen’s speech from the throne (except the Lords, who are seated, and members of the Commons, who stand, don’t jump up and down every thirty seconds applauding wildly—another good idea we might adopt from the British).

As Charles Krauthammer pointed out last night on Fox, the president is half king and half prime minister, head of both state and government. As head of state, he is trapped inside the White House bubble. Perhaps that’s why President Obama was apparently genuinely surprised when he learned that some Republicans regard him as an ideologue. “I am not an ideologue,” the Times reported him saying. When he drew “skeptical murmurs from the crowd,” he insisted “I’m not.” Of course, if you spend half your day talking with Rahm Emmanuel and David Axelrod, it is probably easy to think that hard Left is the path of pragmatism.

So getting out in the real world and taking questions from the Congressmen of the other party on a regular basis would be a useful reality check for presidents both Democratic and Republican. Reporters can’t fill that role. They know that if they are too aggressive in their questioning, they will find their access to White House personnel curtailed. And White House press conferences have become increasingly scripted anyway.

So I hope something like this will become standard, much as debates have become standard in major political races (although the debate formats need to be reformed to produce tougher questions and less scripted answers).

By the way, John McCain promised during the campaign that he would, as president, do exactly this. President Obama might be gracious enough (I won’t hold my breath—graciousness is not his long suit) to acknowledge this.

 It has perhaps happened before in American politics but not that I can remember. As the Times reported it,

At a moment when the country is as polarized as ever, Mr. Obama traveled to a House Republican retreat on Friday to try to break through the partisan logjam that has helped stall his legislative agenda. What ensued was a lively, robust debate between a president and the opposition party that rarely happens in the scripted world of American politics.

It made for fascinating television and the media would love for it to become a regular feature of American government. The analogy is to questioning time in the House of Commons, when the prime minister is grilled by the opposition, who have no reason to be polite—or even fair. Great political theater sometimes happens (and great political wit too, something rare in this country).  The State of the Union speech is analogous to the Queen’s speech from the throne (except the Lords, who are seated, and members of the Commons, who stand, don’t jump up and down every thirty seconds applauding wildly—another good idea we might adopt from the British).

As Charles Krauthammer pointed out last night on Fox, the president is half king and half prime minister, head of both state and government. As head of state, he is trapped inside the White House bubble. Perhaps that’s why President Obama was apparently genuinely surprised when he learned that some Republicans regard him as an ideologue. “I am not an ideologue,” the Times reported him saying. When he drew “skeptical murmurs from the crowd,” he insisted “I’m not.” Of course, if you spend half your day talking with Rahm Emmanuel and David Axelrod, it is probably easy to think that hard Left is the path of pragmatism.

So getting out in the real world and taking questions from the Congressmen of the other party on a regular basis would be a useful reality check for presidents both Democratic and Republican. Reporters can’t fill that role. They know that if they are too aggressive in their questioning, they will find their access to White House personnel curtailed. And White House press conferences have become increasingly scripted anyway.

So I hope something like this will become standard, much as debates have become standard in major political races (although the debate formats need to be reformed to produce tougher questions and less scripted answers).

By the way, John McCain promised during the campaign that he would, as president, do exactly this. President Obama might be gracious enough (I won’t hold my breath—graciousness is not his long suit) to acknowledge this.

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Burke vs. Beck

Glenn Beck is at it again. This time he’s making the claim that America’s two political parties are essentially indistinguishable from one another, that they want to do the same things and head in the same direction. The only difference, he insists, is the rate of the journey. He then suggests, without quite saying so, that it’s time to end the two-party system in America. And for effect, Beck had his staff build two coffins, representing both the Democratic and the Republican parties. (In the world according to Beck, America is about to step into the coffin, thanks to the failures of both parties.)

Beck’s argument strikes me as superficial; the differences between the two parties on issues — including health care, tort reform, taxes, the culture of life, America’s role in the world, and so much else – are obvious and don’t need to be elaborated on. For Beck to put forth the argument he does, in the manner he does, is evidence, I think, of a kind of animus toward political parties (Beck would probably insist that he is not against parties per se but simply against the choices before him now).

Contrast Beck’s attitude toward political parties with those of a founder of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke. In his outstanding biography on Burke, Carl B. Cone writes:

No man of his generation understood better than Burke how natural and how necessary it was for men of similar opinions to work together to give effect to their beliefs. …

Burke therefore lived at a time when a man who possessed a genius for expressing his ideas and who firmly believed in the rightness and necessity of parties might promote their growth. This Burke did not only by his writings but by his activities in and out of parliament as a party man. As a practical politician even more than as the political philosopher, Burke helped devise political practices and conventions without which the modern British constitution could not have come into existence. Burke was an architect of the constitution because he was a party politician. …

As he told the House of Commons on February 15, 1781, “Government is the exercise of all the great qualities of the human mind.” Oliver Goldsmith in 1774 spoke for all who knew Burke when he described him as devoting his best talents to the cause of party. But Burke disavowed Goldsmith’s assertion that he gave up to party what was meant for mankind. In Burke’s mind there was no contradiction. He did not forsake mankind in identifying himself with a particular political party. Given the nature of man and of politics, he had placed himself in a situation the better to serve mankind.

Burke understood that parties were not always right. And I happen to approach these matters as someone who considers himself to be a philosophical conservative before he is a Republican. Yet genuine conservatives understand the important role parties play in organizing people of similar beliefs to do the practical, and often the slow and imperfect, work of advancing an agenda that can eventually be translated into governing. We cannot expect perfection or utopia; what we can hope for is to make progress, a step (and sometimes two) at a time. It’s also worth pointing out that many of our greatest figures in American political history were men who proudly associated themselves with political parties — and the greatest figure in American political history, Abraham Lincoln, helped found one (the Republican party).

Glenn Beck is at it again. This time he’s making the claim that America’s two political parties are essentially indistinguishable from one another, that they want to do the same things and head in the same direction. The only difference, he insists, is the rate of the journey. He then suggests, without quite saying so, that it’s time to end the two-party system in America. And for effect, Beck had his staff build two coffins, representing both the Democratic and the Republican parties. (In the world according to Beck, America is about to step into the coffin, thanks to the failures of both parties.)

Beck’s argument strikes me as superficial; the differences between the two parties on issues — including health care, tort reform, taxes, the culture of life, America’s role in the world, and so much else – are obvious and don’t need to be elaborated on. For Beck to put forth the argument he does, in the manner he does, is evidence, I think, of a kind of animus toward political parties (Beck would probably insist that he is not against parties per se but simply against the choices before him now).

Contrast Beck’s attitude toward political parties with those of a founder of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke. In his outstanding biography on Burke, Carl B. Cone writes:

No man of his generation understood better than Burke how natural and how necessary it was for men of similar opinions to work together to give effect to their beliefs. …

Burke therefore lived at a time when a man who possessed a genius for expressing his ideas and who firmly believed in the rightness and necessity of parties might promote their growth. This Burke did not only by his writings but by his activities in and out of parliament as a party man. As a practical politician even more than as the political philosopher, Burke helped devise political practices and conventions without which the modern British constitution could not have come into existence. Burke was an architect of the constitution because he was a party politician. …

As he told the House of Commons on February 15, 1781, “Government is the exercise of all the great qualities of the human mind.” Oliver Goldsmith in 1774 spoke for all who knew Burke when he described him as devoting his best talents to the cause of party. But Burke disavowed Goldsmith’s assertion that he gave up to party what was meant for mankind. In Burke’s mind there was no contradiction. He did not forsake mankind in identifying himself with a particular political party. Given the nature of man and of politics, he had placed himself in a situation the better to serve mankind.

Burke understood that parties were not always right. And I happen to approach these matters as someone who considers himself to be a philosophical conservative before he is a Republican. Yet genuine conservatives understand the important role parties play in organizing people of similar beliefs to do the practical, and often the slow and imperfect, work of advancing an agenda that can eventually be translated into governing. We cannot expect perfection or utopia; what we can hope for is to make progress, a step (and sometimes two) at a time. It’s also worth pointing out that many of our greatest figures in American political history were men who proudly associated themselves with political parties — and the greatest figure in American political history, Abraham Lincoln, helped found one (the Republican party).

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