Wednesday, 5 September 2012

A Small Change with Great Consequences

The substance of yesterday's Cabinet reshuffle will not interest us. The only appointment of note is that of the new Lord Chancellor: the first non-lawyer, apparently, to hold the office since Nicholas Heath, Chancellor under Queen Mary, 1555-1558.

Heath was at the same time Archbishop of York. Now if Dr Sentamu had been given Cabinet office yesterday that really would have been a story - as well as confirming the Plumstead Rectory theory of patronage.

One modern politician, however, has been paying attention. The member for Clacton writes:

The government would today be facing a dozen or more by elections had yesterday’s reshuffle had taken place under the old Parliamentary rules.
I am not suggesting that dozens of disappointed backbenchers would have quit the Commons in frustration at not getting a job. On the contrary, those backbenchers invited to join the government would have been required to resign and fight a by election before taking up their appointments.
Why? Because that was the norm until the 1919 Re-Election of Ministers Act.  Under the Succession of the Crown Act 1707, if you were made a minister, you had to get the approval of the folk who put you in Parliament in the first place.     

We are so used to the idea that MPs are there to spout the party line that it perhaps comes as a shock to remember that it wasn’t always so. MPs were once expected to represent the people who elected them by first and foremost holding ministers to account.  

If an MP was invited to become a minister, they were seen to be changing sides – and had to seek a fresh mandate from the people to be their representative.  Once there was a seperation of powers in this country.

Yesterday, many MPs waited nervously for a phone call from Number 10.  Until 1919, getting a job in government did not only require the whim and patronage of one man in Downing Street.  A would-be minister faced the equivalent of a confirmation hearing – with every voter in their constituency on the hearing panel.   

Of course the old rules didn’t suit the politicians and the powerful. So they changed them.
I am not proposing that we repeal the 1919 Act. But we could do something even better, and allow local voters power to hold their politicians to account via open primary selection and the recall.
Of course, the politicians and the powerful promised precisely that in 2010. But somehow since then they’ve wiggled out of giving us either.

Of course, at Plumstead Rectory we are proposing to repeal the 1919 Act, along with many others. We are not great fans of the Succession of the Crown Act 1707, but undoubtedly the 1919 Act repealed the wrong part of it. We wonder if Mr Carswell is a true believer?

Let us start with small steps. Mr Carswell ought to apply his undoubted political talents to a campaign to re-introduce the re-election of ministers. It might be a salutary lesson to governments of all stripes.

Mr Carswell approves of the eighteenth-century constitution: we at Plumstead Rectory are not so sure, but if there must be political reform, this is surely the right direction.

After all, we are taught that we should stand as much for the privilege of the House of Commons, rightly understood, as any man. And we also know who stands for the true liberty of the people. Redeat.

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