Weekly Column

Big Ben

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There is something immensely reassuring about the famous ‘bongs’ of Big Ben, which have now restarted after many years of silence. My own parliamentary office looks straight out over the Elizabeth Tower (as it should more properly be known), but you can hear the bongs throughout the palace and across much of central London. (I restrained myself from correcting an American tour guide, who I heard recently describing Big Ben as the “world famous Tower of London”). Big Ben symbolises the unchanging changelessness of our great British constitution and Parliamentary rule of law.Unwritten as it is, our constitution is the product of a 1000 years of history and, no matter who is in Government, citizens can be reasonably assured of good Government and a stable constitution. If you sat down with a clean piece of paper you would not necessarily design it as it is, but then again nor would you design Parliament as it is. Both do a first-class job.So I very much welcomed the Supreme Court’s judgement that the Scottish National Party may not hold any kind of binding or officially recognised referendum on Scottish independence. The fact is that they had one only a few years ago, which they lost. That must be an end to it.Sir Keir Starmer has promised to abolish the House of Lords. That may have a superficial soundbite attractiveness to it. However, hereditaries, political appointees and the great and the good in general who currently make up the House of Lords are in actual fact doing a first-class job of scrutinising the legislation which the Commons send to them and in so many other ways. You tinker with the Constitution or even worse fundamentally upset it at your peril.The primacy of the House of Commons means that when this week I added my name to 50 backbenchers supporting an amendment to the Planning Bill which is currently before the Commons, that action had a real effect and has occasioned a fundamental rethink by the Government. My colleagues and I firmly believe that there should not be centrally set targets which dictate how many houses we should build, when and where. That should be a matter for local people through their duly elected Councillors. We have also been discussing last week’s Budget and again all kinds of backbench opinion has been brought to bear on the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The House of Lords is not allowed to consider financial or budgetary matters – a convention which would doubtless collapse if there were to be a duly elected Senate or Upper House, especially if that House was controlled by a different party to the party in Government.Our constitution, which is the product of 1000 years of evolution, produces good legislation and holds the Government to account. The moment that you undermine that stability is the moment that good Government in the United Kingdom comes into question. The timelessness of Big Ben symbolises the iconic stability of our constitutional arrangements.

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James Gray
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November 24, 2022