Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Speaker’s electoral immunity must end

Amidst the cries for major reform and the tinkering with procedures being mooted as potential solutions to the present political crisis, there is one tradition which has not been questioned. Yet the practice is so anachronistic and archaic that it offends against both Christian revelation and the Enlightenment foundation that all men are created equal; ‘that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights’. There has perhaps been no more succinct or more memorable rebuttal than these words to the religio-political absolutism of the Divine Right of Kings, which sustained the belief that the king was not subject to the will of the people or, indeed, to any earthly body.

Yet this belief is perpetuated for one, and only one, of our members of the House of Commons.

In general elections, it is convention that opposition parties do not field candidates against The Speaker – the First Commoner of the Land - ostensibly because he (or she) is non-partisan. It is as if to do so were perceived as an attempt to depose God’s anointed or to restrict his (or her) powers over Parliament. To challenge this is to run contrary to the will of God and manifestly constitutes heresy. The Speaker presides over the House's debates, determines which members may speak and which may not, and has the power to punish members who break the rules of the House. The Speaker thereby becomes a monarch in his realm. While members may depose him, the people cannot.

It may have been the case that the aspirant Welsh of Cardiff West had nothing to complain of to Speaker Thomas; the white-collared workers of Croydon North-East were happy to revel in yuppiedom during the reign of Speaker Weatherill; and the middle-classes of West Bromwich West were content to be charmed by Speaker Boothroyd. But in Glasgow North East, the constituency of the manifestly partisan Speaker Martin, a scandalous 30 per cent are unemployed and claiming benefits; life expectancy in the poorest areas is just 60.2 years – worse than Bangledesh, Iraq and Uzbekistan. Several primary schools are facing closure, healthcare is manifestly deficient, and poverty abounds.

And yet for the past decade the people have been denied their right to vote for change.

Quite how this fundamentally undemocratic tradition has endured to the modern era and survived the invasive and unforgiving scrutiny of a baying postmodern media is bemusing. How can it be justified in a free and democratic nation that the people who have the misfortune to live in the constituency of The Speaker are deprived of their democratic rights? How otherwise are they able to protest against the party of The Speaker? How can these people have any confidence in a political system or the institutions of government which conspires to deprive them of a voice? How is it that this tradition has never been challenged in the House of Lords, pleaded to the Monarch, or even appealed to our ultimate court of appeal – the European Court of Human Rights?

Interestingly, Article 39 of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights enshrines in law the right of all EU citizens ‘to vote and to stand as a candidate at elections to the European Parliament’, and Article 40 guarantees their right ‘to vote and to stand as a candidate at municipal elections. There is no reference at all to the people’s right to vote in national general elections. The European notion of democratic rights progresses from the municipal level directly to the European: there is no nation state; national elections are subsumed to the regional agenda.

The immunity of The Speaker is an anomaly which Parliament itself must address. Michael Gove observes: ‘In the past Speakers have been chosen to "reflect the mood of the House", the next Speaker has to reflect the needs of the country and that is why the candidates should be making their case to the nation, so we can vote in accordance with popular demands, not parliamentary currents of opinion.

There is no better way for The Speaker to reflect the needs of the country than for him (or her) to be made directly accountable to the people of the country. Those who live in The Speaker’s constituency are invisible at a general election, and so their cries need not be heeded and their concerns need not be addressed either before or after. They are disenfranchised, divorced from democracy, deprived of their human rights.

Parliamentary reform cannot be a spring clean; it needs now to thoroughly disinfect and disinfest. And procedures need to be put in place to ensure that infection and infestation cannot recur. As one small part of this, surely it is time to end this modern-day Rotten Borough and make The Speaker accountable not only to Parliament but to the people.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This would be fine except that the major parties voluntarily choose not to put forward a candidate. There is no rule stopping others from doing so. At the 2005 election several parties did (including the SNP) and received 46.7% of the vote in Glasgow North East. Presumably if there were enough local opposition a 'Get Martin Out' Party could've been formed and could've won. Unless you are suggesting that there should be a law forcing parties to field candidates in every seat in every election I'm not sure what you are calling for.

26 May 2009 at 10:56  
Anonymous TBF said...

I agree, Cranmer. This is tradition but it's collusion between the main parties and it must end. It's not enough that the Speaker's constituents can vote for minor parties - they must be free to vote for the alternative main parties.

Since Cameron has extended the Conservative Party into Northern Ireland, he ought to think about extending it to the constituency of the Speaker as well.

26 May 2009 at 11:11  
Anonymous Morus said...

No Your Grace, I can't agree with you on this one.

It is a feature of the Speaker's need to remain impartial that he or she should not need concern themselves with the threat of a political party taking their seat.

Imagine a Labour Speaker in a Midlands seat right now, being contested by the Conservatives. Could any Speaker remain impartial in their dealings between the Government and Opposition in the House knowing that his own fortunes depended on the poll lead enjoyed by the Conservatives?

By having no major parties running against the Speaker, he or she is better able to arbitrate between them without preference or concern for the impact on his own seat.

The Speaker is not elected unopposed - Independent candidates run against him, and had this one chosen to stay, one might have unseated him. The reason for the convention that major parties do not contest that seat is well-established and correct.

If you do not feel that an Independent challenge to the Speaker is sufficient, maybe it would be better for the Speaker-elect to resign his seat and to be elected as MP to the Titular Constituency of the Palace of Westminster (ie chosen by MPs) - retaining the Speaker as an MP for constitutional reasons, but allowing an immediate by-election and party politics as usual for his constituency.

26 May 2009 at 12:15  
Blogger Cranmer said...


You are right to point out that this is a convention of collusion between the main parties.

Mr Morus,

His Grace is concerned with the democratic rights of the people rather than with the parliamentary convention of The Speaker's 'impartiality'. At a general election, the British people should have the opportunity to vote for all the main parties. Independent challenges to The Speaker in what has become a two-party state are manifestly inadequate.

You comment: "By having no major parties running against the Speaker, he or she is better able to arbitrate between them without preference or concern for the impact on his own seat."

This is precisely the reasoning which permits a prime minister with a seat in Scotland to administer on matters relating to English health and education - wholly without concern for the impact on his own seat. The democratic deficit is unsustainable.

Your proposed solution is worthy of greater consideration: it is precisely the sort of creative thinking His Grace was hoping to elicit by raising the topic.

26 May 2009 at 12:49  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your grace,

I know that you usually give little credence to anonymice but it occurs to me that you are missing the point of Mr Morus post. The Speaker would not have to remain impartial merely in the Commons in the run-up to an election, but also during electoral campaigning in the constituency.

If he were to face a real challenge from a party likely to be elected then there is no way that he could actually defend himself- except to stand before his constituents on a platform of not having a platform. He is unable to offer the partisanship or manifesto commitments required at the hustings or on the soapbox.

Perhaps your Grace has considered this and has a plan?

To my mind there is no way that this could be achieved save by taking the Speaker outside of Parliamentary membership through either:

A directly elected Speaker chosen by the people.

A directly elected Speaker chosen by MPs who, on election, stands down from constituency membership and then acts as Speaker until such time as he either voluntarily relinquishes the role (as now), or is removed by the Commons assembled. Obviously inthe latter case the ways through which this could be achieved would have to be overhauled.

I do not know which of these evils is the lesser, but I do not think that any sane answer with the best interest of sovereign Parliamentary democracy in mind could include a politicised speaker responsible to his contituents AND facing a serious challenge to his status every time there is an election.

I remain
Your obedient Servant

Dr Edward Bouverie Pusey

26 May 2009 at 13:07  
Blogger Cranmer said...

Dr Pusey,

His Grace has no problem with anonymmice who sign their missives.

He does not believe he has misunderstood Mr Morus, whom he holds in the highest regard.

You observe of The Speaker: "If he were to face a real challenge from a party likely to be elected..."

With the increasing fragmentation of political parties and the very real threat posed by some 'celebrity' candidates, the notion of 'real challenge' becomes moot.

It has been observed that Speaker Martin has been neither neutral in his politicking nor non-pastisan in his presiding over the House of Commons. It has taken until now for MPs to do anything about it.

Yet the poor people of Glasgow North East have had to endure disenfranchisement for a decade. They suffer 30 per cent unemployment, their schools are closing and have a life expactancy on a par with Bangledesh. And all this is, you say, a price worth paying in order that their Member of Parliament may more effectively mediate between the competing powers at Westminster.

His Grace has naturally considered the tensions inherent in having a Speaker accountable in some way to the people. Your contributions towards a potential solution are welcome.

26 May 2009 at 14:32  
Anonymous Political Penguin said...

"the middle-classes of West Bromwich West were content to be charmed by Speaker Boothroyd." I take it you've never been to West Bromwich West then?

26 May 2009 at 14:44  
Blogger Christian said...

"All men are created equal"!!!! I thought you considered yourself orthodox Dr Cranmer. How, pray, are any men in any way equal? We are all humans and to that extent we are equal but the gospels make it abundantly clear (as does reason and empirical observation) that men are in no way equal in any other way. Not one has the same level of intelligence, looks, sporting ability or holiness. Indeed, that some are given more grace than others is not only an important Article in the list of 39, it is also a proclaimed dogma of the Roman Church. The idea of equality is insidious and evil, equality is the negation of all justice as it makes those who are not equal, equal. Is there not a hierarchy of the saved in Heaven with the most holy at the top and the least at the bottom? Is there not a hierarchy in Hell in which the most wicked are at the bottom. Indeed, this hierarchy in Hell is part of God's mercy on the damned. Even though they have utterly rejected him he gives these lost souls justice by not treating them all as equally wicked.

26 May 2009 at 16:15  
Anonymous Morus said...

Dr Pusey,

I must confess I had not considered that natural corollary to my argument.]

My though was that a Labour Speaker with the Conservatives in the lead in the polls might subconsciously be of support to the Government in the House as a means of denting the chances of him losing his seat on a Uniform National Swing.

I hadn't considered the implications of the Speaker having to campaign - he would be running as an Independent I presume, perhaps with his old party giving him a free run, but not the other parties - clearly he could not campaign on any record, or say how he would vote on any issue.

It is a strange anomaly, and I suspect the best thing might be to take away constituency responsibilities altogether - but somehow keep him as an MP (like a Titular Archbishop).

A great topic for debate, You Grace - many thanks


26 May 2009 at 17:53  
Anonymous communist said...

Your Grace, you will of course be aware that the European Court of Human Rights is an institution of the Council of Europe which has absolutely nada to do with the European Union. I think you might deny all the good the EU has done.

26 May 2009 at 20:00  
Blogger Cranmer said...

Mr Communist,

His Grace is fully aware of the fact, and nothing he has written avers the contrary.

26 May 2009 at 20:07  
Anonymous communist said...

I am very glad to know that. Some of your blogs and blog members speak about the EU with a Cromwellian ferocity. I am glad to know that you do not deny the EU and the all the good it does...such bigotry is anti-European and unacceptable in a society which is democratic, inclusive and tolerant.

26 May 2009 at 20:11  
Blogger Cranmer said...

Mr Communist,

All are welcome upon His Grace's blog of intelligent and erudite comment upon matters religio-political, especially those who speak with 'Cromwellian ferocity'.

His Grace does not 'deny the EU', for to do so would be illogical: it manifestly exists.

With regard to 'the good it does', His Grace awaits your enlightenment.

26 May 2009 at 20:28  
Anonymous euSSR GO HOME said...

Mr. Communist: I can think of no better thing to be than Anti- european. I do not see that it does any good to anybody: it, and your communism, are Anti-good, Anti-Christ, and therefore Anti-God.

Certainly all any of you do is destroy everything I care about - and that means Britain.

Be assured that I do not wish to be a part of your society, indeed, I flatly refuse to accept you, or to participate in any of your activities. europe is Anti-democracy, practices enforcement of inclusivity, and is absolutely intolerant of freedom of speech, thought, or action in those who disagree with it. If the majority of Britons ever get a chance to vote in a free and fair referendum, I hope they choose our exclusion from your clutches.

Oh - and if your post contains an implicit threat against Cranmer for allowing opinions like mine - then any action on your part will only prove what I have said above.

DOWN WITH europe!!!!!!! euSSR GO HOME!!!!!!

26 May 2009 at 20:47  
Anonymous Essence of Swine Flu said...

That would be demonic possession and not enlightenment.

In our post secular Britain, it is now time for the speaker to be selected from amongst the Bishops of the Anglican Church. (The reformed post secular Anglican Church that is to say).

26 May 2009 at 20:51  
Blogger Frugal Dougal said...

Now that the danger of Charles II arresting MPs and haranguing the Speaker has abated somewhat, I agree that the Speaker must face electoral challenge.

26 May 2009 at 21:01  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A Speaker that faces electoral challenge; hmmm, I will make a prophesy for 20 yrs ahead...Mohammad Patel.

Its only absurd before it happens, ask America.

26 May 2009 at 21:08  
Blogger The Young Oligarch said...

I do not like to contradict Your Grace , however I believe you are mistaken in thinking that the convention of the Speaker being elected unopposed has been honoured .

As Mr. Anonymous points out Michael Martin faced the SNP and other leftists .

In 1997 Betty Boothroyd was opposed by an Independent Labour candidate who gained 23 % of the vote and a National Democrat on 11% .

In 1987 Bernard Weatherill (unusually) faced both Labour and the SDP , who , together , gained 45% .

Even George Thomas was not unopposed in 1979 , nor was Selwyn Lloyd in 1974 (again challenged by the Labour and Liberal parties).

Indeed , if there is a pattern , it seems that the Speaker will be opposed , but only by the main opposition parties if he has previously stood as a Conservative .

26 May 2009 at 21:54  
Anonymous not a machine said...

Its a little confusing your grace i find at the moment.

It is clear that any parliment has to be run , debates properly done ,consultations and representations made. I doubt anyone challenges the wisdom of the basics.

but your post errs towards "legitimate authority" , perhaps others will have noticed how the anti democractic current is reaching into all areas, acting to cleanse the loose dirt and drown the lingering rats.

Whilst some are having trouble understanding this frontal attck on the legitamcay of authority , particulary those of whose who use and love its historic place and values as point of reference, the accuracy of the assault on the problems is improving , as we flush out the enemy positions and decoys.

I hear jaqui smith is to face a privately funded fraud trial, and a local campgain is being organised to ensure she doesnt even stand, the people have had enough at the indugences and lavish twisting of the once sound political system .

if the speaker had done his job and not been the labour party organisation and operations manger , gordon brown would have not lasted six months as the questions on his and his governments clear failiure to make parliment function and disscuss all true facts and matters , would have shown this goverment up for the hoax that it is.

perhaps an emergency law , but i must agree that a speaker has to be an experienced parlimentarian and as such should be selected from the profession , a peoples vote would not improve the quality of the person , as well as the waste of money in organising it.

in my view in parliment it must stay , the trigger however could be placed in the public and enacted by a group of say 50 mps who have to procure 1000 signatures of loss of public confidence !!

the threat to do this , would perhaps the speaker to go quietly without public upset , if he chooses to ignore it then when faced with the proof he would have to stand down !!

27 May 2009 at 02:19  

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