Last week the Chancellor of the Exchequer published a budget in which a poor population was told it would have to pay more taxes for less public services. The adjustment was inevitable. A previous short-lived government had tried a different policy, on the make-believe that there was prosperity to build on in the economy, and crashed. The opposition could offer no alternative.
The Chancellor blamed outside factors: Covid, the war in Ukraine. But Britain’s decline is prior. The turning point was Brexit. A population turned its back on collaboration and embraced conflict. Economic barriers were erected to the country’s most important trade and labour markets. Since then, Britain has been in social and economic decline, sapped of energy and productivity, now coming to terms with a falling standard of living.
The decline is systemic. Making good decisions and workable policies is difficult. The British system is so arranged that too many mistakes slip through. The government has it too easy and gets away with inadequate planning. Policies in the making do not get adequate scrutiny. The country does not get the governance it needs.
The rot sits in Parliament, and in Parliament in the House of Commons. A government with a majority can do as it wants.
The Brexit referendum decision was made with no other role for Parliament than to say “amen.” In the most consequential policy decision for the country in decades, the House of Commons did no work – nil – to inform itself on possible consequences and led the population in a leap in the dark. I suppose a people may be entitled to shoot itself in the foot, but hardly without ascertaining if blood will flow. The aftermath has been bad news all around: economy, border control, immigration, health care, social care, poverty. There are more food banks than McDonald’s outlets across the country, and that was even before the inflation crisis.
Earlier this year, in another example, the government introduced a policy of removing asylum seekers from the country and outsourcing them to Rwanda for processing. A totally new policy was introduced with zero participation by Parliament. As it happens, a very bad policy: expensive, unworkable and unethical. The system is without mechanisms to protect against mistakes.
As luck will have it, there is a simple solution: give the House of Commons a proper role in pre-decision scrutiny of policy. As the system now works, our elected representatives are passive servants of the government. Let instead government and legislature be partners. Let government policy in serious matters be tested by proper parliamentary scrutiny before being unleashed on the population. No government could then come to Parliament with poorly planned policies – the Rwanda example. No policy could pass through Parliament without careful analysis of workability and consequence – the Brexit example.
The technical way to do this is to give the House of Commons control of its own agenda. Let parliamentary business be managed by a Committee of Speakers. Abolish the post of Leader of the House (the government’s commissar in the legislature). Impose formalised routines of pre-decision scrutiny with most of the work done in Select Committees. It’s not revolutionary, just a matter of making Britain’s archaic Parliament a modern legislature.
For moee detailed analysis, see How Democracies Live.