This evening Members of the UK Parliament will be asked to vote for a general election to take place on December 12th or if we are to accept the pure opportunism and self-interest of the SNP and Libs Dems maybe a few days earlier on the 9th.
But the sheer pointlessness of this evening’s tomfoolery reveals more than a ruthless gaming of the constitution. It reveals a fundamental weaknesses of a constitution when a Prime Minister and a group of different parties can come together to overturn the statutory parliamentary term to force an election on an unwilling population. And to do so at a time when our politics are broken and our national discourse poisoned by dark money, aggression and threat of violence is nothing short of criminal.
The background to today’s vote is not simply the failure of the UK Government to deliver on its Brexit policy but last week’s shocking, but not unsurprising, poll from Cardiff University which demonstrated that the threat of political violence is now an accepted part of our national life.
I hope that the majority of MPs will vote against Johnson. But I hope that they will also do more than walk around in a particular circle or whatever else counts as voting in the Palace. I hope that they will begin the work of reforming our democracy before we head to the polls either for a final say referendum on our membership of the EU or a general election to end the agony of this parliament.
So let’s start in the beginning.
There are two reforms needed before we vote. The first is to reform the rules around the conduct of public debate and then secondly, reform to address the weakness of the UK parliament. We need a UK Parliament Reform Act. And in different ways both these issues crystallise the constitutional crisis that is unfolding in front of a deeply frustrated population.
The House of Commons’ Culture and Media Select Committee has done some sterling work over the last two years to uncover and explore the attack on our democratic structures and our democratic culture which is taking place in front of our eyes. So let’s make use of this work. I would like to see the Conservative Chair of that Committee, Damian Collins, be given the time and space and resources to put in place some legislation, with the same all party support he has enjoyed in the committee, to stop the use of social media and dark money from subverting our political discourse. And to do so immediately. Such legislation would need a sunset clause of about two or three years to provide us with the safeguards and the space to consider, and to put in place, a more enduring statutory framework.
The hard truth is that the UK is not a safe place for democracy and democratic debate today.
And for anyone who does not believe last week’s Cardiff University poll?
Then take a look at this….
This shocking image was posted on the Facebook page of the Brexit Party candidate in Blaenau Gwent five weeks ago in response to some low level abuse aimed at me. But it is not an attack on my words or actions. It is a direct personal threat towards me as an individual.
And over a month later, it’s still there.
The image is shocking enough but the words “Karma is coming” constitutes a direct threat. The Police have taken no action and the Brexit Party appear to think that it is has a place in our public discourse.
I do not.
I’m happy to take part in robust political debate. But in my view this is not simply the acceptance of political violence but the active encourage of political violence and is the same threatening behaviour which is undermining our democracy.
And this is something which should play no part in our politics. For me it is clear that the Brexit Party and the hard right wing who are responsible for this image are also responsible for the same sort of imagery which attacks ethnic minorities and the thuggish images we all see disfiguring social media which are designed to incite or encourage a violent reaction. Fundamentally my view is that Brexit needs to be sorted before we hold another UK General Election. But I do not believe that we can do that at present. In fact until we address the violence and brutality in our political and public discourse I would not support either a referendum or an election taking place.
And then the second issue is that of a constitution which has collapsed. We witness the spectacle of a government unable and unwilling to govern and a legislature unable to force the government to act. This is a lesson in the frailties of the UK constitution which have been ruthlessly exposed and exploited by the current Prime Minister.
So whatever comes out of this mess I hope that a UK Parliament Reform Act is one of them. All too often we believe that parliamentary reform starts and ends with the Lords. But the Commons is not fit for purpose either. And this reform needs to be led from outside the institution. All too often reform process are led by MPs for whom the current structure is too comfortable and too easy.
The Palace by the Thames is fond of lecturing the world on its own virtues. But it has become a laughing stock and a model of a dysfunctional parliament. Imagine what those MPs – who happily and breathlessly run out to College Green to explain to a bored nation the ludicrous nature of their decision-making – would be saying if the Welsh Parliament acted in this way? Imagine what those commentators who are happy to enthral themselves in the detail of Westminster gossip would say if in Cardiff, our government, ministers and members behaved in such a way?
All too often over past months Westminster has been exposed not as a sovereign legislature but as a puppy parliament. Compelled to do the government’s bidding. Obeying its masters voice.
Without the intervention of the Supreme Court and some courageous parliamentarians who put our democracy ahead of their personal interests and their party’s interests we would have already seen the birth of an elective dictatorship.
A strong and effective legislature has space and time for a government to govern and rules which allow a government to get its business done. But that legislature must also have rules which provide for proper scrutiny and for that legislature to determine its own business, when it will sit and how it is able to control its own order papers. Virtually none of the chaos of the past few months would have been allowed in modern parliaments such as those in Cardiff and Edinburgh.
But parliamentary reform must follow political and democratic reform and renewal.
In Government civil servants always advised me never to waste a good crisis. And there is as deep a crisis facing us today as we have experienced in our lifetimes. So I hope that in this crisis lies an opportunity. An opportunity for change and an opportunity for reform. An opportunity to renew our politics and to cleanse our public discourse.
But I will finish with a warning. Unless that change happens then someone else will be hurt and that will not be either an accident or an unforeseeable tragedy. It will be the direct consequence of inaction.