<<

. 111
( 155 .)



>>

expected of them.
591 Parliament and the responsibility of government


Ours is a system of party government in which political parties present
themselves and their programmes to the electorate, with the object of winning
a parliamentary majority and forming a government committed to the imple-
mentation of party policies. In this system it is an essential function of
Parliament to sustain the government. Parliament is quite di¬erent in this
respect from the United States Congress which is established, on the principle
of the separation of powers, as a separate branch of government with indepen-
dent powers enabling it to check the executive branch. Ronald Butt has written
(The Times, 18 May 1978, p 18):

The essence of effective parliamentary control over government is not simply that the House
of Commons should stop a government from doing things. It is that the Commons should
positively support and sustain the government of the day “ and preferably from the position
in which a clear majority of MPs has been elected by the people to do just that.

In practice it is the majority party in the House of Commons which, in speech
and vote, performs the function of sustaining the government. This underlines
the fact that when we speak of Parliament or the House of Commons doing
things, it is often only a part of the House that is meant. Besides being an
institution, Parliament is a place in which di¬erent political forces, in competi-
tion or in combination, pursue a variety of objectives.
So also when we consider Parliament™s functions of controlling and scrutin-
ising the executive, we have to distinguish between the House of Commons as
an institution and the forces within it. Generally when the House seems to assert
itself as a body against the executive we ¬nd only that intra-party disagreement
on a speci¬c issue of policy has resulted in temporary defections or an ad hoc
combination of members. The select committees which seem to speak for
Parliament in a dialogue with government are only groups of party members
who have temporarily vacated their embattled positions to ¬nd common
ground in scrutinising parts of the administration. Parliament, as Ian Gilmour
says (The Body Politic (2nd edn 1971), p 246), is ˜rather a place than a body of
persons™ “ a place in which backbenchers and opposition parties (sometimes in
strange alliances) can be seen to do the work that, as by a metaphor, is described
as the work of Parliament.
This is not to deny Parliament its institutional character, which it possesses
in law, as an inheritance of history, and in the convictions of some, at least, of
its members who have a sense of being parliamentarians as well as party men or
women. It is important to maintain the idea of a shared duty to ˜watch and
control™ the executive, of whatever party.


(a) Opposition
In the words of the Houghton Report on Financial Aid to Political Parties (Cmnd
6601/1976), para 9.1: ˜The parties in opposition have the responsibility of
592 British Government and the Constitution


scrutinising and checking all the actions of the Executive™. Brian Harrison
remarks more trenchantly that ˜the British two-party adversarial system is
designed . . . to subject government to a continuous barrage of criticism™ (The
Transformation of British Politics 1860“1995 (1996), p 422).
The legitimacy of opposition parties is con¬rmed by law, convention and the
political culture of the United Kingdom. The opposition is recognised as having
rights and is part of the constitutional system “ as much part of it as is the
government.

Ivor Jennings, Cabinet Government (3rd edn 1959), pp 15“16

Democratic government . . . demands not only a parliamentary majority but also a parlia-
mentary minority. The minority attacks the Government because it denies the principles of
its policy. The Opposition will, almost certainly, be defeated in the House of Commons
because it is a minority. Its appeals are to the electorate. It will, at the next election, ask the
people to condemn the government, and, as a consequence, to give a majority to the
Opposition. Because the Government is criticised it has to meet criticism. Because it must in
course of time defend itself in the constituencies it must persuade public opinion to move
with it. The Opposition is at once the alternative to the Government and a focus for the dis-
content of the people. Its function is almost as important as that of the Government. If there
be no Opposition there is no democracy. ˜Her Majesty™s Opposition™ is no idle phrase. Her
Majesty needs an Opposition as well as a Government.

When this passage was written, the ˜two-party system™ “ in which a single-party
majority government faced an opposition dominated by the other major
party “ appeared to be ¬rmly established. A system of adversary politics o¬ered
the electorate a clear-cut choice between party programmes. Since the 1950s the
two major parties have seen a decline in their combined share of the total vote
at general elections, and in 1976“79 the smaller parties were able to bargain for
concessions from a minority Labour Government. Although majority govern-
ment has been restored since 1979, the challenge to the two-party system has
not faded away; a reconstituted third force, the Liberal Democrats, repudiate
the model of adversary politics and have campaigned for a new political system
based on proportional representation (in the form of the single transferable
vote). As we saw in the previous chapter, the Jenkins Commission on the Voting
System recommended a ˜broadly proportional™ system, which would have a ten-
dency to result in coalition governments. The Scottish Executive has been a
coalition (between the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties) since it came to
power in 1999. In the Scottish Parliament no fewer than four parties line up in
opposition to the Executive: the Scottish National Party, the Conservatives, the
Greens and the Scottish Socialists. Any future devolved administration in
Northern Ireland will have to be a multi-party a¬air. Even at Westminster, and
even under the current electoral system, we may yet see the emergence of a gen-
uinely multi-party politics.
593 Parliament and the responsibility of government


Vernon Bogdanor, Multi-party Politics and the Constitution (1983),
p 167
[I]f hung Parliaments were to persist and the strength of minority parties continued to
increase, this . . . would undermine the special status of the Opposition and of its Leader.
The Opposition would lose the privileges which it enjoyed vis-à-vis the minority parties, and
the Leader of the Opposition would become merely the leader of one of the Opposition
parties. The Commons would cease to be a forum in which the allocation of time was deter-
mined bilaterally between government and Opposition; instead the time of the House would
come to be allocated on a more proportional basis. Thus not only would a minority govern-
ment lose its ability to control the Commons timetable, but the opposition would no longer
enjoy a near-monopoly of the debating time of the House. Instead, the Commons would be
organised by a number of political groups of roughly equal status. It would come to resem-
ble a Continental legislature, since it would comprise a number of mutually competing polit-
ical groups. Parliamentary politics would be coalitional rather than adversary.

At the present time the constitution accords a special status to the o¬cial
Opposition which, as Nevil Johnson has written, is to be seen as an institution,
having been ˜institutionalised for the modern electorate as the standing possi-
bility of an alternative government to replace the one in power™ (˜Opposition in
the British political system™ (1997) 32 Government and Opposition 487). Since
1937 there has been statutory provision for the payment of a salary to the Leader
of the Opposition. By the Ministerial and other Salaries Act 1975, section
1(1)(b) and Schedule 2, salaries are now paid to the Leader of the Opposition,
the Chief Opposition Whip and not more than two Assistant Opposition Whips
in the Commons, and to the Leader of the Opposition and the Chief Opposition
Whip in the Lords. The Leader of the Opposition is de¬ned by section 2(1) of
the Act as follows:

In this Act ˜Leader of the Opposition™ means, in relation to either House of Parliament, that
Member of that House who is for the time being the Leader in that House of the party in
opposition to Her Majesty™s Government having the greatest numerical strength in the House
of Commons.

Thus it is by reference to party strengths in the Commons that the Leaders of
the Opposition in both Houses are designated. Any doubt as to the identity
of the Leader of the Opposition in either House is settled conclusively by the
decision of the Speaker of that House (s 2(2), (3)).
The constitutional status of the Opposition also has statutory recognition in
the Intelligence Services Act 1994, section 10, which requires the Prime Minister
to consult the Leader of the Opposition before appointing members of the
Intelligence and Security Committee constituted by the Act.
The status and privileges of the o¬cial Opposition and its leader in the House
of Commons are supported by rules, conventions and practices of the House.
594 British Government and the Constitution


The Leader of the Opposition is normally consulted by the Prime Minister in
the event of a national emergency. He or she and other members of the
Opposition front bench (those who are Privy Councillors) may be informed of
con¬dential matters of state ˜on Privy Council terms™. It is customary for
Opposition members to chair a proportion of the select committees of the
House and in particular to take the chair of the Public Accounts Committee and
of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.
Conventions known as the Douglas-Home Rules (which had their genesis in
1964 in the last year of the Douglas-Home premiership) allow con¬dential
pre-election contacts between senior civil servants and Opposition leaders
on machinery of government questions, in preparation for a possible change
of government. (See Civil Service Guidance, vol 2, no 5, available at www.
cabineto¬ce.gov.uk/guidance/two/contents.htm.)
A number of ˜Opposition days™ are set aside in the House of Commons for
debates on subjects chosen by opposition parties. Standing Order 14(2) provides:


Twenty days shall be allotted in each session for proceedings on opposition business, sev-
enteen of which shall be at the disposal of the Leader of the Opposition and three of which
shall be at the disposal of the leader of the second largest opposition party; and matters
selected on those days shall have precedence over government business.


Smaller parties are, from time to time, allowed an Opposition day by agreement
with one of the two principal Opposition parties. Apart from the formal allo-
cation of Opposition days, the Address in reply to the Queen™s speech at the
beginning of a session allows for debate on Opposition amendments, and time
is always made available for o¬cial Opposition motions of censure.
Discussions continually take place between government and Opposition
˜through the usual channels™ on the arrangement of parliamentary business.


Robert Blackburn and Andrew Kennon (eds), Griffith and Ryle
on Parliament: Functions, Practice and Procedures (2nd edn 2003),
pp 409“11

Supplementing the necessary measure of agreement between the parties on how business
shall be conducted, day-to-day contact is needed. The programme for the next week is
announced by the Leader of the House each Thursday, but is discussed with opposition
spokesmen before its announcement. Amongst other matters on which agreement is nor-
mally come to, after discussion between government and opposition, are the length of
debate on a motion, and whether a bill is to be debated in committee on the floor of the
House or in standing committee. A particularly important area of agreement relates to
the timetabling of bills as they progress through the House, especially in standing commit-
tee when, more often than not, the two sides agree on the number of sittings that will be
needed . . . [On timetabling see above, p 441.]
595 Parliament and the responsibility of government


Important and sometimes controversial discussions take place through the usual channels
on how many chairs of select committees shall be held by the opposition and, particularly,
which chairs. Agreement through the usual channels will also be come to on how long the
respective last speakers (the ˜winders-up™) in an important debate will need. The whips will
consult front-bench Members, and also those on the back benches with a special interest in
the proceedings, and the Speaker will be informed accordingly.
All this does not mean that what takes place on the floor of the House or in committee
is ritualised and wholly predictable. The plans may be interrupted and set aside by some
unexpected event in the House or in the world outside. Back-benchers on either side of
the House may rebel against the arrangements agreed by their leaders and quite frequently
do. Chief whips on both sides of the House have a common interest in limiting such back-
bench unrest and may work together to this end.
The principal actors in the discussions that take place between the two sides in the House
are the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader, and the government chief whip and the
opposition chief whip. These are ˜the usual channels™. The government chief whip, together
with the Leader of the House, is responsible for seeing that the government™s timetable runs
smoothly at all levels: sessionally, weekly and daily. It requires good judgment and careful
execution to ensure that government bills make their way through the Commons and the
Lords to emerge as Acts of Parliament in accordance with the government™s timetable . . .
On a day-to-day basis, there has to be a considerable flow of information between the
parties through the medium of the whips™ offices. The nature of parliamentary business is
such that only seldom is anything to be gained by one side keeping its intentions secret from
the other side. It is in the interests of neither side to surprise the other . . .
. . . Occasionally co-operation between the parliamentary parties breaks down and the
˜usual channels™ are closed for a time . . . Such occasions are short-lived, however. Business
is delayed, pairing ceases, votes are called on trivial matters and everyone™s personal con-
venience suffers. For different reasons, therefore, it suits both sides to come to agreements
and there is sufficient strength on both sides for genuine compromises to be reached.

Matters that are settled through the usual channels to the mutual satisfaction of
government and opposition may be unwelcome to independently minded back-
benchers: Mr Tony Benn once caustically described the usual channels as ˜the
most polluted waterways in the world™ (HC Deb vol 207, col 6, 27 April 1992).
On the Opposition front bench in the House of Commons there is a ˜shadow
Cabinet™ which directs the strategy of the Opposition and organises its tactical
response to forthcoming government business in the House. (There will also be
one or more shadow Cabinet members in the House of Lords, one of them the
Leader of the Opposition in the Lords.) Members of the shadow Cabinet hold
˜portfolios™ corresponding to those of ministers of the Crown. A Conservative
shadow Cabinet (or Consultative Committee) is appointed by the party leader.
A Labour shadow Cabinet is formed by the Parliamentary Committee, consist-
ing of eighteen members elected by Labour MPs together with the Leader,
Deputy Leader, Chief Whip in the Commons and chairman of the
Parliamentary Labour Party, ex o¬cio, as well as the Leader, Chief Whip and one
596 British Government and the Constitution


other member in the House of Lords. An Opposition front bench will also
include other MPs and peers who are appointed by the Leader of the Opposition
as o¬cial or junior spokespersons on speci¬c areas of policy.
The frontbench team speaks for the o¬cial Opposition and its members are
expected to observe a convention of collective responsibility and refrain from
public dissent from party policies. Compliance with this convention may be
enforced by the Leader of the Opposition, as happened when Mr Enoch Powell
was dismissed from the Conservative shadow Cabinet in 1968 after a speech on
immigration which was considered by Mr Heath to be damaging to the
Conservative position on race relations. In 1982 the Labour Opposition Leader
dismissed three frontbench spokesmen for voting contrary to a shadow Cabinet
injunction in a debate on the Falklands crisis. (See further R Brazier, Ministers
of the Crown (1997), pp 52“4.)
The Opposition is under certain disadvantages in delivering its challenge to the
government in the House of Commons. The government controls the parlia-
mentary timetable and commands, in the guillotine, a powerful weapon of last
resort for restricting debate. The Opposition, however, has its own weapons. A
minister of the Crown once conceded that ˜delaying tactics of a strenuous nature™
are a legitimate weapon of opposition (Mr Iain Macleod, HC Deb vol 655, col
432, 7 March 1962), and it is one that can be used to considerable e¬ect. If the
Opposition considers itself unfairly treated it may withhold cooperation from the
government in the conduct of parliamentary business, shutting o¬ ˜the usual
channels™. It was no idle threat when, the Government having decided to guillo-
tine a strongly contested Social Security Bill, an Opposition spokesman said in
the House on 6 May 1980 (HC Deb vol 984, col 114):

[T]he Opposition will not counsel Labour Members to co-operate in the normal running of
business in the House. The Government have a large majority but it will not be possible on
many days for them to do what they want when they want to do it.

<<

. 111
( 155 .)



>>