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Questioning the Effectiveness of the UK Parliament

Mike McCartney

28th August 2021

His does the Afghanistan debate (August 2021) fit into this narrative?

Georges Videl, the French constitutional expert, said of his country’s assembly ‘Parliament no longer has any real role to play in political life’. This is not an atypical view of the effectiveness of legislatures, with many arguing that since they have been usurped by the respective executive branches in the law making sphere, their effectiveness has diminished. Indeed, it is one many in the UK hold, with many feeling that we live in a post-parliamentary age.

This may be a purely one-dimensional view, however, and to paraphrase Mark Twain, we could say with regards to Westminster that reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated.

This is not the space to go into great detail about the legislative function of our Parliament and the increased rebelliousness of the Commons, i.e. how MPs can no longer be considered lobby fodder, and that they are no more than sheep, blindly following instructions of their respective party's managers.

Or, for that matter, to look at how the post 1999 House of Lords (Upper Chamber) has behaved. These features have been well covered elsewhere on this blog, and will undoubtedly continue to be. And there is, of course, the increased effectiveness of the Commons in scrutinising the executive via the beefed up select committee process.

No, here, I want to look at Parliament and its debating function.

Debating and deliberating

Something that has changed when considering the role of the legislature is the way in which members of the legislature perceive their debating and deliberation function. It is true to say that on the one hand viewership numbers for BBC Parliament are tiny, but however small these numbers might be and despite the fact that politicians appear on TV in much less formal shows (a process really accelerated by Tony Blair when he appeared on Richard and Judy and the Des O’Connor show) does not diminish the fact that our national assembly sets the tone for political debate.

Why is Parliament recalled in response to important national developments? Because the people expect it.

Examples (though by no means an exhaustive list) worth mentioning in student responses on this topic include:

  • The Falklands invasion (1982)
  • Black Wednesday (1992)
  • 9/11 (2001)
  • English city riots (2011)

A fuller account of recalls of Parliament can be found here, from the Commons Library:

Which brings us to the debate on Afghanistan this summer.

If you missed it, read about how pressure continues to mount on Boris Johnson as PM here:

But that's not the point of this blog entry. It's to show that even in the 24- hour media age, with multi-platform access to news; an era where newspaper circulation is flatlining, and a time when 'serious' newspapers like the Times would have several full-time lobby correspondents (i.e. journalists who would watch and comment on debates in the Commons) is so long ago, one wonders whether the mind is playing tricks and it's just imagined. It's still the case that Parliament still matters.

Notwithstanding what I've just written, how many times do we see political correspondents start of their report with ‘Today at Westminster…’? Clearly our Parliament remains effective in terms of its debating function.

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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