UK politicians rebuff wider electorate
This summer, I embarked on a curious project. I wrote, individually, to the 650 MPs in the UK Parliament, asking them to consider the implications of the amendments to the International Health Regulations and Pandemic Treaty currently being negotiated behind the scenes. In Britain, I had been disquieted by the lack of parliamentary scrutiny of the government’s Covid response and, with similar measures being put into international law, the lack of interest from Britain’s elected leaders was striking. The one MP trying to start a parliamentary debate had been ignored and ridiculed. Why the secrecy? Had the MPs even read the documents?
The sudden decline in parliamentary scrutiny is a far cry from the careful policymaking I’d witnessed as a journalist in the early 2000s. Typically, changes of any consequence would be considered by politicians and civil servants before any legislative process was embarked on, the groups most likely to be affected consulted.
Then, if the new policy still seemed a good idea, proposals would be put into a green paper and/or a white paper. Subsequently, a bill might wend its way through Parliament, with three readings in the Commons and further examination in the Lords before ultimately receiving Royal Assent. How very British, this painstaking, plodding scrutiny!
But times have changed, and as the uproar about the Energy Bill demonstrates, it seems as if laws are being passed before MPs realise their implications. So I did not expect much in the way of substantive replies. My project was elegiac in nature: I wanted to highlight, both for myself and anyone interested, the way in which the parliamentary democracy for which Britain is famous seems to be slipping away.
But the replies revealed something I didn’t expect: a significant proportion of Britain’s MPs appear to believe they are forbidden from communicating with the citizenry. ‘There is a Parliamentary protocol that Members of Parliament can only respond to communications from their own constituents,’ claimed Justin Madders, the Labour MP for Ellesmere Port and Neston. The office of Maria Caulfield, the Conservative MP for Lewes, wrote: ‘Due to strict Parliamentary protocol, Maria is only allowed to respond to those who live in her constituency’.
This was odd. I had long been familiar with the convention that MPs only take up specific problems on behalf of their constituents, the part of their work known as casework. It stems from the evolution of Britain’s representative democracy, whereby people in a certain area delegate the authority for decision-making to an elected representative.
But as members of the national Parliament making policy and law, MPs have a dual role. The claim that they were forbidden from communicating with those outside a geographical border was bizarre. I double-checked the details of the convention with Parliament and found that my understanding was correct: there is, of course, no bar on MPs communicating with the wider electorate.
‘Firstly, you may like to note that there is no statutory job description for Members of Parliament and how MPs carry out their duties and the cases that they wish to undertake is a matter for them to determine individually,” wrote the House of Commons enquiry service.
‘The Parliamentary convention which guards against Members of Parliament taking on the constituency work of a fellow MP is a convention and not a rule or standing order of the House and is applied flexibly. Therefore, if an MP is unable or unwilling to act, constituents may approach other Members of Parliament as appropriate.’
As more replies came in, it became clear that the misunderstanding was not confined to a few MPs. In a couple of cases, I sought to clarify the status of my communication as one from a citizen sharing concerns about national policy rather than a constituent seeking help. But Caroline Dinenage’s office doubled down on the mistake, insisting:
‘The role of an MP is to represent their constituents, and as such, it is strict Parliamentary protocol that an MP cannot enter correspondence with constituents of another MP’s constituency.’
Dinenage has form in misunderstanding democratic principles: as the chair of the Culture Media and Sport Committee, she recently wrote to Rumble requesting that comedian and social media star Russell Brand be de-monetised.
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I decided to tot up the number of MPs victim to what I was now calling the Parliamentary Fallacy. Out of 610 replies, some 60 – about 10 percent – displayed a misunderstanding of their role, putting themselves at odds with the description provided by Parliament.
A significant proportion of the remaining MPs demonstrated that they did understand their dual role, attributing an inability to respond to emails about national policy to a lack of time and the need to give constituents priority rather than blaming it on a chimerical ban on communication. Some directed correspondents to their website, where they would outline their position on issues generating significant public concern.
Overall, my impression was that seasoned MPs were more open to communicating with the electorate, with the newer cohort of MPs committing the Parliamentary Fallacy, although I didn’t break down the data to demonstrate that.
That politicians responsible for the governance of the country should be citing a rule that is patently absurd and misleading the public is symptomatic of a shift which goes to the foundational ideas of democracy.
The Parliamentary Fallacy reconstrues the social contract between politician and citizen, shifting it from one of equals in which one party is delegated to act for the other in matters of governance, to an asymmetrical relationship which disempowers both sides. The constituent-citizen is cast into the role of petitioner, begging the MP for help, while the politician prohibited from communicating with the public becomes a functionary who must conform to rules handed down from above. It deprives MPs of the exchange of ideas essential to developing their own policy specialisms and delegitimises the public’s right to hold politicians to account.
An excuse used by some MPs to lighten their workload? Certainly – and one akin to the way officials in dysfunctional bureaucracies use rules creatively to send the bothersome public away empty-handed. But the misapprehension displays a thoughtlessness that speaks of a disconnection from democracy’s foundational values.
In a recent piece for Mercator, Kenneth Grasso draws on the work of political philosopher John H. Hallowell to highlight an under-recognised cause of the trouble democracy is in in America. For democracy to thrive, he argues, it’s not enough just to have democratic institutions; those institutions must be ‘deeply rooted in the spiritual consciousness of the people’. In other words, true democracy is about ideas and values.
The affirmations that inform democracy, in short, cannot simply float in the air. To endure and guide political life, they must be grounded in something deeper than themselves. A written constitution and bill of rights alone are insufficient. “Democratic institutions,” as Hallowell writes, “require a philosophy of life to sustain them.”’ Without such ideas, Grasso goes on, democracy slips away, even while its institutions remain intact.
I think that is what we are seeing in Britain now, the quiet slipping away of democracy. Ours is a tradition of liberal democracy that began in ideas and values, with the rights tradition developed by John Locke and John Stuart Mill both creating and reflecting society’s growing belief in freedom. The commitment to freedom of speech, thought and association were not just the abstractions of an intellectual movement, but values that had taken root in society, principles that the British had decided to live by.
The signs and symptoms of the slipping away of democracy are everywhere. You can see it in the legislation which overtly seeks to remove people’s rights, such as the Online Safety Bill, lauded by the World Economic Forum but widely condemned by rights campaigners. You can see it in the arguments in the public sphere justifying positions on the basis of tribal affiliation, or whether the speaker likes the individual at the heart of the issue or not. You hear it in conversations between ordinary people.
At drinks with neighbours, the subject of the debanking of the podcast Triggenometry – part of a new trend in which organisations and individuals suddenly have their banking facilities removed – came up. One of my neighbours shrugged. It was a fair cop, he said, because the podcaster had interviewed Joe Rogan, who is ‘disruptive’.
The substantive replies to my email about increasing the WHO’s powers also indicated the failure of communication between the electing and elected. Viewed generously, I received four, one a single sentence. The phrasing of the two longer replies resembled each other, suggesting that a formulaic line is circulating behind the scenes.
Siobhain McDonagh’s reply showed she had not read the relevant documents or even the excepts from them in my email. My own constituency MP sent nothing beyond an automatic acknowledgement. Not one addressed the key issues, such as the implications for the democratic principle of informed consent.
There are no guarantees that a democracy will endure: without an ongoing commitment to its foundational values, it will wither behind the facade of its institutions. In a representative system where the population entrusts its elected politicians to protect it against the perennial threats of thoughtlessness, tribalism and vested interests, politicians have a special responsibility. Shamefully, most of Britain’s MPs are asleep at the helm.
Alex Klaushofer is an author and journalist who has written extensively on social and religious affairs and politics in Britain and the Middle East.
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