Parliament in the 1980s, Philip Norton,
Oxford University Press, 1985.
In his most recent book, Professor Norton
provides us with some interesting insights into changes and workings of the
British Parliament. Norton's lament over the decline of parliamentarianism is
offset by his optimism for certain 1nternal developments" that he sees as
having strengthened the ability of both Houses more effectively to fulfill
functions traditionally ascribed to them. Thus, the purpose of the book is to
"identify these developments and to analyse their effects", something
it accomplishes in fine fashion. Norton's introduction is well written and
relates effectively to the rest of the text. Rather than contribute a little
reflection of their own, editors are sometimes wont to approach their task with
a stapler and little else. This is not the case with Professor Norton. His
introduction provides a useful contribution and if there is any regret about
the text it is that Norton did not write more of it himself.
Contributions dealing with the House of
Commons include chapters on the more active role of backbenchers, the
"new" select committees and the changing nature of constituency work.
Those dealing with the upper chamber include discussions on the increased
professionalism and independence of the House of Lords and the role of committees.
While most of the contributions do not bring a particularly profound analytical
acuity to their subject matter, they are all, nevertheless, informative. A
concluding chapter, evaluating the potential for further reform, provides a
moment of sober reflection.
In his discussion, Norton readily accepts
the fact that Parliament has long ceased to be a policymaking legislature and
has become what he himself refers to as a "policy influencing
legislature". Today, "scrutiny and influence" constitute
Parliament's most demanding function. If fulfilled properly, it can permit the
legislature to 'set the broad limits within which the executive can
legitimately operate; at worst it becomes a superficial charade. Parliament's
ability to carry out this function effectively is seen as having been adversely
affected by the development of the welfare state and the concommitant tendency
of Ministers to seek advice and support from an increasing plethora of special
While such developments are not peculiar to
Britain, the ability of the British Parliament to effect scrutiny is further
challenged by the "movement of the locus of policymaking" to bodies
removed from Parliament. Thus, according to Norton, the "focus of
policy-making in various sectors has moved upwards, to a supranational body
(the European Communities), and downwards, to disparate 'policy communities. If
the penchant to turn to referendums is added to the foregoing, one quickly
realizes that not only is parliamentary scrutiny made more difficult but also
that the very decisions of Parliament "may cease to be seen by many groups
The increased "independence" of
backbenchers is one factor that seems to have helped Parliament reassert some
of its authority. During the successive Parliaments of the 1970s MPs
"proved willing to vote against their own side in the Commons division
lobbies with considerable effect. While the tendency has decreased under Prime
Minister Thatcher, even her government, according to Norton, has been prepared
to "offer concessions on a number of sometimes significant issues".
Thus, the threat of dissent or cross bench voting has come to prove something
of a check on the executive.
After considering a variety of explanations
for backbench insurrection including economic stress, minority and near
minority governments and ideology Professor Norton concludes that the main
cause for the "upsurge in Conservative division-lobby dissent was Edward
Heath's style of prime ministerial leadership. Heath was not prepared to
compromise while Thatcher has been careful to try to maintain her contact with
backbenchers. Indeed, Nigel Fraser, a long-time Conservative MP, once noted of
Heath that he was 'admired, but he was not loved. His colleagues in Parliament
accorded him the loyalty due the leader of their party; but few felt any great
personal loyalty to him as a friend."
Of particular consequence is the fact that
the behavioural and attitudinal changes of the 1970s prompted the creation of
the new departmentally related select committee. Their development and impact
is examined by Stephen Downs, who concludes that although "they may not
have changed the working relationship of Parliament and the executive"
they have at least improved it.
James March, in his discussion of the MPs'
constituency role found that the "case load" of members has increased
significantly and that today a significant proportion of the backbencher's time
is spent carrying out the major role of welfare-rights officer and social
worker." As a consequence, the tendency to view a backbencher merely as
failed cabinet material is no longer as prevalent as it once was. If nothing
else March at least rekindles our faith in the belief that members do indeed
perform those tasks for which they are essentially elected.
The chapters on the House of Lords by
Nicholas Baldwin and one by Cliff Grantham and Caroline Moore Hodgson,
chronicle some of the trends in the newly awakened upper chamber. Baldwin
provides an interesting discussion of the manner in which the House of Lords
has adapted to socio-political realities and of how, in the process, it has
become a more effective chamber. The addition of life peerages is seen as
particularly important to the revival of the chamber as is the growing
interdependence of backbenchers from both Houses in influencing their
respective party leadership. Baldwin summarizes the situation of the House of
Lords in perceptive and amusing fashion when he argues that " ... it is an
illogical institution, to the extent that no one would set out to devise a
second chamber like it, but it is its very irrationality that in a strange,
even perverse, way is its strength. It encompasses a delicately balanced
combination of limited effectiveness with ultimate impotence through which it
is, in a rather haphazard and improbable fashion, able to make a significant
contribution to the process of government."
The chapter by Grantham and Hodgson is a
nice extension to Baldwin's piece and provides a useful description of how the
select committees in the House of Lords function. In their analysis they focus
primarily on the European Communities Committee and its subcommittees and come
to conclude that, 'The role of the E.C. Committee is essentially an informative
and educative one there is little else it could be given the nature of the
House but it is a role that it fulfils well, at little cost and to the benefit
of all interested parties."
In pointing to various signs of
"parliamentary revival", if one may call it that, the authors provide
some hope for reaffirming one's belief that the basic strength of democratic
government rests on the ability of the individual to make up his mind, to
choose and judge. The raison d'être of parliamentary democracy, even when given
the dictates of party discipline, rests on the confidence in man's independent
judgement. Reform that reaffirms this precept cannot but be healthy.
Throughout the work a clear distinction is
maintained between "external" and "internal" reform. The
former includes proposals for radical change such as calls for an elected upper
house or proportional representation in the Commons. The latter encompasses the
more incremental pressure for change from within; including the changing
attitudes of members, the establishment of select and standing committees,
better resources for backbenchers, etc. It is this second type of reform for
which Norton expresses the most hope. This is not surprising given that the
institution to which he has devoted the study is very much the product of a
slow evolution, founded on that "practical wisdom" in which Burke put
so much trust. In attempting to bring about wholesale change radical reformers
lose sight of what history and experience have taught particularly when they
attempt to proceed according to a preconceived all embracing plan.
On the whole this book is well written and
presented, and certainly makes worthwhile reading for both the novice and for
those more familiar with British Parliamentary practice.
Wolfgang Koerner, Library of Parliament, Ottawa