Parliamentary Reform

Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow delivers a lecture on ‘Parliamentary Reform’ at The University of Delhi under the ‘University Lecture Series’.

Thank you very much indeed for that introduction. It is an exceptional and extraordinary pleasure to be here.

This is, I have to say partially to my shame, my first visit to Delhi and hence to India. My embarrassment in this regard is simple. As Speaker of the UK House of Commons I am, unsurprisingly, a passionate enthusiast for democracy and democratic institutions.

Never before to have been to the nation which has long been home to the world's largest democracy is, therefore, a spectacular omission. It does, however, mean that my enthusiasm for being here now is all the more intense and rewarding. It is akin to a devotee of cricket finally arriving at Lords and having a seat for a whole Test match. Although, as this is supposed to be a form of diplomatic trip, the less that I say about cricket, the better.

It is also inspiring to be in India at this stage in human history. You know the facts about the age in which we live and I will neither flatter nor patronise you with them. There are but a few statistics which indicate what we have reason to believe will be the story of this century.

I am 48 years old, which is almost obscenely young by the recent standards of those who have held my position before me. To be precise, I am the youngest Speaker of the House of Commons since 1839. Yet by the standards of these students I am ancient. By the time that most of you are my age in, say, 2040 – India will almost certainly be the most populous nation on earth, at least the third largest economy on the planet and blessed with a political status to suit its size and success. By the moment that you are my age plus your age, in 2060 – India will surely be the most populous country, almost certainly the dominant economy of the world and approaching the political status that the United States had one hundred years earlier. It is an awesome responsibility.

I am happy to make such predictions public in part because I may not be around in 2060 to be criticised if mistaken, but more because I am so confident about your country's future. Prophesy is, of course, a precarious business. It was the American writer Lionel Steffens who, having visited Soviet Russia in 1919, returned to his homeland and confidently exclaimed “I have seen the future and it works”. This turned out, as Steffens himself conceded well before his death in 1936, to be a somewhat premature assessment of the outlook for Communism. I, nonetheless, have few qualms in reaching for similar words today about the faces I witness. I am seeing the future here and it has very kindly taken a couple of hours off to listen to me.

The title of my address is “Parliamentary Reform” which I freely concede may not be the most exciting two words ever to be placed before Delhi University. Yet despite their less than thrilling nature they are incredibly important. To explain why, I need to set out the challenge that parliamentary democracy has faced and will face from its critics and its rivals as a model.

Democracy is a process, not an event and there are several variants of it. The essence of parliamentary democracy, born in Europe and the United States largely in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, is well established. It does not enjoy a monopoly.

There are those who would make the case for either presidential or party democracy on the one hand or plebiscitary democracy, with far greater deployment of direct citizen control via the frequent use of referenda as in Switzerland or a number of western states in the USA, or even post-modern democracy, which has become quite fashionable of late, which would prefer instant polling, focus groups, or other means of soliciting sentiment, to a formal ballot.

At times, parliamentary democracy of the sort witnessed in Britain and India has appeared to be dangerously exposed to a pincer movement by the advocates of these two alternatives.

At one level, the critique offered of parliamentary democracy by these two camps is radically different. Supporters of presidential or party democracy basically contend that parliamentary democracy is insufficiently efficient to be relevant or desirable.

They would assert that the debating chamber cannot move at the speed necessary in an era of globalisation, or with the dexterity demanded of the modern state or with the decisiveness to obtain results. The analysis of the plebiscitary democracy and post-modern camp is seemingly quite contrary.

Their charge is that the traditional idea of the elections which have provided parliamentary democracy with its historic legitimacy is increasingly redundant. The notion that citizens are content, in the early 21st century, to hand through one vote on one piece of paper on one day a blank cheque for politicians to take decisions for four or five years on their behalf is, it is contended, no longer credible. The public are entitled to some version of rolling consultation and the authority of parliamentarians must be cut back to allow them to enjoy this outcome.

But despite the seemingly stark distinction at work here there actually is a common thread of condemnation in operation. It is that parliamentary democracy is insufficiently modern to be plausible during the times in which we live.

The presidential/party thesis is that parliamentary democracy is insufficiently modern to deal with the requirements of the modern state and modern world. The plebiscitary/post-modern account is that parliamentary democracy is insufficiently modern to cope with the character of modern citizens and modern technology.

This is, I have to be candid, a potentially devastating line of argument. It is one that those of us who passionately champion parliamentary democracy have to take supremely seriously. It is also what makes those two apparently dreary words “parliamentary reform” so vital.

For if parliamentary democracies cannot demonstrate that they are capable of and engaged in “permanent reform” then they will be vulnerable to the accurate observation that they are insufficiently modern and in time they will lose influence either to the presidential/party democracy school or instead to the plebiscitary/post-modern fraternity or even, as strange as it seems, both simultaneously. Indeed, it might be said that this has been true for Britain and others for some decades now.

So, parliamentary reform is not merely a subject for members of the parliamentary fan club. It defines what we do, who we are, and whether we are ceremonial or constructive institutions. The worst approach that those who claim to love parliaments can take is to refuse to change.

As the father of modern Conservatism, Edmund Burke famously observed, “The State which lacks the means of change, lacks the means of its own conservation”. If we remain the same, then we will slowly be sidelined by other concepts of democracy.

I think that would be an enormously adverse development and one that must be resisted. To me the case for parliamentary democracy remains robust. Much of what is portrayed as a vice in the way in which we do work is to my mind a virtue. Parliamentary democracy is a more complicated and, I admit, sometimes a more cumbersome enterprise than that of a presidential or party democracy but that is because the mind of the electorate is not quite as simple as those who would have their preferred course taken up tomorrow imagine.

Nor am I convinced that the public wants the kind of eternal election day that those who eulogise plebiscitary or post-modern democracy envisage. Citizens may seek the capacity to veto what they see as entirely unacceptable actions or proposed legislation but they are not restless souls all of whom are determined to micromanage every single facet of politics or public life. To me the unique feature of parliamentary democracy is that it alone is capable of acting as a credible check and balance on each of the executive and the electorate. It constitutes the whole gearbox, not a false choice between either the accelerator pressed flat or the brake squashed hard.

But to achieve that outcome legislatures have to be flexible and fluid institutions. Which is why the cause of parliamentary reform matters so much. It seems to me that there are three essential rules or guidelines to which those who want to see stronger parliamentary democracy should adhere. I will then illustrate this with the recent example surrounding the News International saga.

The first of my three rules is that parliaments have to strike the right balance between their whole and their parts. By this I mean that there are times when parliamentary scrutiny is best advanced through the chamber itself and other moments when by far the best device is actually a specialist parliamentary committee with a much small number of elected representatives.

That balance between chamber and committee has been the source of heated debate over the years in the United Kingdom and in many other democracies. Different institutions have reached different solutions. The most dramatic example of this is probably the United States Congress. In Washington, in the House of Representatives the committee is king and the chamber a somewhat secondary body. This reflects the reality that the House is a very powerful place with specific advantages in what we would describe as “money Bills” built in via specific provisions of the American Constitution and the only way in which a 435 person institution can exercise that influence in the complexity of the contemporary world is by intense delegation to an extremely important committee system.

Even the most enthusiastic student of the House would struggle to identify significant speeches that have been made on the floor of the chamber. The US Senate, by contrast, as anyone who has read Robert Caro’s magnificent third volume of the life of Lyndon Johnson, entitled Master of the Senate, will appreciate, is another animal entirely. There are important committees, of course, but much more parliamentary activity occurs through what we at Westminster would call a Committee of the Whole House and the floor of the Senate has witnessed some of the finest oratory in American history. This is the natural consequence of a strikingly small and intimate body of members – 100 – serving rather lengthy six-year terms.

The evolution of the balance between the whole and the part is, I think, especially interesting in the United Kingdom. For a very long time indeed we have, in effect, wanted to be an institution which was even larger in size than the US House of Representatives - currently 650 members strong - but which had a parliamentary culture very similar to that of the American Senate. This is an extremely challenging combination to execute. In the days when the activities of the State overall were very modest it was possible to act through the whole and rarely in parts. Throughout the course of the 20th century, however, it became increasingly obvious that scrutiny was suffering and hence the quality of parliamentary democracy in Britain was in relative decline.

The process of reversing this has neither been swift nor easy. Many parliamentarians, rightly recognising that their time was finite and that the demands on it appeared infinite, feared that any expansion of the part played by committees would have to come at the price of a reduced status for the debating chamber itself and that was a transaction which did not feel comfortable. Although forms of select committees had existed within the House of Commons for at least four centuries, a full-blown system of select committees shadowing every government department was not established until 1979 and the House of Commons as a whole did not have control over the identity of the chairs and the members of those select committees until last year. There were many reasons for this but concerns about the comparative status of the chamber and committees were undoubtedly an important element of it. Yet it is my view that an effective parliamentary democracy requires chambers and committees which are complementary to each other rather than competitors and with considerable care it is entirely practical to achieve that outcome.

The second of my three rules is that parliaments have to be relentlessly relevant in terms of the subjects that they need to address. If they are not discussing subjects of imminent salience, they risk becoming seen as museums by the country at large. This does not mean that every spare minute of every sitting day has to be filled with whatever is on the front pages of newspapers. Far from it. Topicality must, nevertheless, be part of the package. It is for that reason that I decided two years ago, to reinvent a much under-used power of the Speaker, namely to grant permission for Urgent Questions. The Urgent Question application is a parliamentary device which allows any MP to petition me to insist that a Minister appears in the House of Commons at but a few hours notice to deal with an important issue which has emerged suddenly. The current Leader of the House of Commons, Sir George Young, and his opposite number for the Labour Party, Hilary Benn, have also encouraged colleagues to move away from lengthy debates on very general themes such as “the economy” or “foreign affairs” to slicker debates on more precise subjects which matter to voters. We are thus leading the media, not just following it.

The third of my three rules involves embracing every aspect of modern technology to allow the public to participate in parliamentary proceedings as well as following them at their convenience. We have to be absolutely relentless in engagement via the website or through the likes of facebook and twitter. The Government is currently examining how best to link e-petitions with the business of the House of Commons. These are not and should not be seen as fora that are beneath our dignity. That process of outreach has to travel further, literally, to be as effective as it should be. It means parliament and parliamentarians escaping the immediate confines of Westminster to hold, for example, select committee hearings throughout the United Kingdom and as Speaker I devote a very large proportion of my time in the parliamentary recesses to personal outreach activities, speaking about what Parliament does to a huge variety of audiences. If I were not in Delhi today I would probably be in Derby, Darlington or Derry. This might seem an obvious exercise to you but it is really a very novel one in the UK. The House was until recently a detached sort of property.

All of this came together in the drama which surrounded News Corporation, News International and the so-called phone hacking scandal. There are limits to what I can say about this because I am Speaker of the House of Commons which renders me if not a political eunuch than certainly politically celibate on highly controversial matters and there are several investigations that have been launched or are about to be initiated into multiple strands of this affair. I will reserve my comments for institutional aspects of events rather than the alleged misdeeds of individuals.

The core of my analysis here is straightforward. The three rules which I have set out for effective parliamentary democracy were followed and that is why the episode has been widely seen in the United Kingdom and elsewhere as evidence of a revival in the authority of the House of Commons. The questioning of leading figures at News Corporation and News International, notably Rupert and James Murdoch, took place as it should have done in a specialist select committee hearing with 11 MPs conducting the inquisition. It would not have worked in any other way. The consideration of what if any political responsibility this Government and its predecessor had for supposedly appeasing this media empire in the past took place, as it should have done, in the chamber of the House of Commons. This manifested itself first when I granted a Standing Order 24 application, a provision of our Standing Orders, to allow the whole House to debate as a matter of urgency the wisdom of News Corporation’s bid to acquire outright control of BSkyB. This decision triggered a sequence of events which ultimately led to that company’s decision to withdraw from that takeover procedure. It culminated in The Prime Minister, David Cameron, agreeing to prolong the parliamentary session, making a personal statement on his own position about the whole drama and then answering questions on the floor of the House from some 138 individual MPs. All of this was made available to the public not only through live television but all of the other social and other networking mediums that I referred to earlier. It was, in that sense, close to a triumph. Parliament put itself absolutely centre stage of what had become a massive matter of national importance. The balance between the chamber and the committee system was right. We were remorselessly topical. We were open to the outside world in what we did. I hope it will become a blueprint for how to engage in meaningful scrutiny in modern circumstances. I am sure that a number of my parliamentary colleagues will conclude from it that the debate about extending the rights and responsibilities of select committees at Westminster should remain very live.

I have spoken at some length today and I am keen that I should strike the right balance between the formal text and an informal question session. I will be very pleased to hear from you shortly. I want to conclude by reinforcing my words at the outset about what a pleasure and privilege it is to be with you and to be in India at this exhilarating time. I have come to learn not to lecture. This will be your century soon. Some 150 years ago, observing the expansion of the United States and its apparent Manifest Destiny, Horace Greeley urged those with fewer years than himself to “Go West, Young Man”. I suspect that when I return to London my advice, reflecting the changed gender roles of our age as well as the altered geography, will be “Go East, Young Person”. Thank you very much indeed.

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