You may think that the Party system, and especially tough ’whipping’ in recent years has diminished the purpose of - and the passion for - Parliamentary debates. We think nostalgically of the ‘great days’ - Thatcher, Churchill, Gladstone, Disraeli, Pitt the Younger - and bemoan the current generation of Parliamentary minnows by comparison to their killer whale oratory. And to some extent we are quite right. 24/7 rolling media, the Internet, televising the House of Commons, a decline in respect for Parliament and its collegiate atmosphere have all played their part in changing what occurs there. But let us not forget that the Parliament pre the 1832 Great Reform Act was quite different to the Victorian one; which was then fundamentally changed by the First World War and universal suffrage. Nostalgic longing for an imagined Parliamentary golden era may be just that.
Parliamentary debate has come into its own twice this week. It always does when MPs are ready to speak up strongly for their beliefs and their passions, irrespective of what their Ministerial betters may think. On Wednesday I was initially supportive of a New Clause in the Defence Bill which was going through its ‘Report’ Stage, which expressed our concerns about the Government’s plans to replace 20,000 regular soldiers with a fully trained TA, 30,000 strong. A group of us have been arguing against what the Government are planning to do for many months now, and this seemed like a chance to translate those concerns into law. The result was a very fine debate, huge pressure exerted on the Government, who feared losing a vote and accordingly made a number of useful concessions to our argument. In the event, I supported the Government against the rebel amendment, both because, had it been passed, it would have had no effect on the reductions in the size of the Army, which are already in place; but also because it would have hampered the reform and growth of the TA, which of course I very much support. The whole event was true Parliamentary democracy at work.
Then on Friday we had the second day’s discussion of the EU In/Out referendum bill which, if passed, will give us all a say on our membership of the EU in 2017. There are some who are opposed to any such referendum (the Lib Dems especially), and others led by an obscure Tory backbencher who thought having the referendum in 2014 would be preferable. Its a madcap idea, since there is very little likelihood that the Nation would vote to leave in 2014, which would knee-cap the Tories at the subsequent General Election. But leaving the substance on one side, it was once again a fine Parliamentary occasion on which, at least theoretically, the Commons could have very fundamentally changed the course of history. The same, of course, is true of the recent vote against military action in Syria.
So rumours of the demise of Parliamentary democracy and fine debates in the House of Commons may well be, as Mark Twain said ‘somewhat exaggerated.’