Thought Babble

A Tale of Two Parliaments

The Oxford English dictionary is known for its new words of the year list. But do we have any such celebration for reclaiming old words that have previously fallen out of use? If so, a leading contender would be “prorogue” (“to extend in time, cause to last longer”, OED Online, Oxford University Press ). Informally, whether this might also mean an inclination towards roguish behaviour, is best left to the reader’s prerogative.

This behaviour has been on prominent display this week in the United Kingdom following Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to prorogue Parliament until October 14. Amongst the cries to “shame!” and rousing choruses of Scots Wha Hae and Calon Lân, an important question has surfaced: is this democratic?

Interestingly, and largely lost in the media frenzy, is that while MPs are returning back to their constituencies, their counterparts in Wales – members of the Welsh Assembly (Senedd) – have been recalled at the request of First Minister Mark Drakeford. What can we learn about democratic accountability in the UK through the tests put to its parliaments?

In choosing to call for the final whistle on the Parliamentary session, the Prime Minister has received criticism across the political spectrum. Centre-leaning conservatives warned of the dangers of obduracy, to the extent that 21 were expelled from their party; opposition parties swiftly condemned the move; and citizens have expressed dissent through a “Do not prorogue Parliament” petition that has attracted nearly two million signatures. The opposition argues that this is a move against democracy and a silencing of parliamentary debate.

But ultimately, what do the prorogation and subsequent theatrical protests achieve? Indeed, a three-week break was already scheduled for party conference season. For those unfamiliar: politicos, anoraks, politicians, and staff gather in a conference centre in strategically-chosen diverse locations (i.e. not London) to share thoughts and strategies through exhibitions, panel talks, and networking events, polished off with copious amounts of alcohol. Often cloyingly congratulatory, these conferences look like an odd tradition to the untrained eye, and might qualify for the precise waste of time of which Council President Tusk warned. With news chyrons constantly screaming “Brexit Crisis,” where were the opposition parties crying out against three weeks of this sottish self-indulgence? The Prime Minister’s prorogation only takes away ten working days, and as we’ll see 851 working days pass between the referendum and October 31, will these ten really make much of a difference?

While speculation might conclude that the Prime Minister’s reason to prorogue was to stifle Parliament’s voice, what has Parliament achieved in the years it has sat, or the months for summer, holidays, and party seasons that it has previously taken off since the referendum result? Is democratic accountability defined by the quantity of time in which representatives are present in body?

Meanwhile in Wales, Presiding Officer Elin Jones agreed to the First Minister’s request to recall the Senedd, stating that “our Parliament must allow members to represent the views of constituents at a time of such unprecedented constitutional events”. This is the fourth time the Senedd has been recalled in its twenty-year history, and the first arising from a constitutional debate. The democratic optics in this situation are completely the opposite: requiring politicians to return to Parliament and debate a topical issue is representative democracy at its core.

Yet this decision too has received criticism, primarily through the medium of Twitter. Some Leave supporters protested that this was a stunt to not uphold Wales’ referendum result (narrowly voting leave), as the Senedd has “no powers to change anything”.  While it is true that implementing UK referendum results qualifies as a reserved power, Wales has been very active in debating and stating its views, writing to the First Minister, and participating in the Joint Ministerial Committee. It has used all the democratic tools in its power to represent the wide variety of views held by Welsh constituents.

Similarly, former leader of the Welsh Conservatives, Andrew RT Davies, stated that the recall will “achieve nothing” and that “we might as well copy and paste the ‘record’ and just put a different date on it”. And his point is worthy of discussion – the Senedd has, at length and for years, debated Brexit in committees, plenary, and public events alike. What will one more debate on a matter which the Senedd ultimately cannot control achieve? Is it merely a publicity stunt to differentiate itself and its view from that of the UK Government? Is one recall session truly more democratic?

Perhaps this next month of prorogation will, in the respite of Parliamentary squabbling, allow for some time to reflect on the wider constitutional and existential questions of democracy that have arisen during the Parliament’s last sitting. No matter where one’s loyalties to the Brexit debate lies, defining our democracy and clarifying what constituents expect and can expect of their representatives is crucial for us all. Let’s not lose sight of the most vital elements of democracy – accountability, transparency, participation, and representation – that ultimately bind us together as a nation.

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