Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Parliament and foreign policy

It’s a nodalong line to say that no one respects politicians any more.  I think it’s only half true: while people seem very willing to reject the line given by an authority, you can still be a politician and have caps doffed towards you, provided you are also seen as anti-authority.  It’s a nodalong to say politicians are personally ambitious and ridiculously preening but somehow these descriptions get dumped on the most modest of junior ministers more often than they are allocated to, say, a Nigel Farage or a George Galloway.

If you still haven’t read Philip Cowley’s work on the trend towards parliamentary rebellion then make a start with this now before you write something silly in a national newspaper.   Then, if you've got another five minutes, read Adam Lent on the power of a parliamentary select committee that is answerable to no one.  We seem to have found a way of dividing the politicians (boo-hiss) from the tribunes (hurrah-fawn). The idea of being a rebellious tribune seems congruent with a celebrity-influenced culture, while the vocation of becoming a to-be-hated-responsible-politician looks, in that context, upsettingly perverse.

British foreign policy is now passing from the executive to the legislature.  That may be good – legislatures are less prone to departmental capture, individual misjudgement or isolation from “common sense”.  But it’s happened with the background assumption that parliament is packed with these wonderful tribunes.  Without that, a healthy amount of scepticism, let alone the level of anti-politics discussion we normally have in this country, would have us focussing on the potential disadvantages of this new arrangement.

There are some things the UK parliament is very good at but collectively forming a plan and then judging its success or failure is not one of them. As this week has shown, the default if there is no agreement is no action, even if that’s not what either party leader wanted at the start of the week.  If things go wrong after a decision, there are 649 others to blame. Exhaust those and you can say it was a good decision badly implemented.  See a poll result that backs your instincts: say it is the settled will of the British people.  See a poll result that doesn't: say it shows the government has failed to make the case.  Ministers and shadow ministers, whatever their faults, do not have these options and that means they have to take decisions in expectation of a level of scrutiny that no individual MP would otherwise face.

The constituency link is a very good thing, but, without the check of an effective executive, it can lean towards parochialism.  Given the pressure on MP’s time, they tend to specialise on one or two countries if they pay any great attention to foreign affairs – only a very few, like the excellent Mike Gapes, can talk authoritatively about foreign policy across the piece.  It may be a good or a bad thing but I think it is hard to argue against the idea that a more legislative foreign policy will be a less activist foreign policy.

Now that parliament has been given this power, however, there are ways it could be helped to exercise it well.  If MPs make the effort they can find out the historical background to a situation but it's almost impossible to get detail in real-time.  Given that the really important foreign policy decisions are often those after a discontinuous event, like the Arab Spring, it's a bit concerning that the new decision-makers are left with few more effective options than pressing F5 on the BBC news website. Giving our MPs better direct access to Foreign Office country specialists would be helpful. Eventually the intelligence services will have to work out some kind of forum for discussion with backbenchers.  All of this will probably cost money.

But the most important change would be to start interviewing tribunes like they’re just politicians: not “so, Sir Ming, is there anything you would like to tell us about the problems with the government’s policy” but rather, “so what’s the Sir Ming plan for Syria then?” Backbench MPs (and frontbenchers who act like backbenchers) need to face the same interrogation as the executive – so more pieces like this one from Richard Spencer please, particularly if they feature David Davis.  Only the media and the voters can hold the tribunes accountable for decisions (or the gaps where decisions should have been) and they will both need reminding to do so in the future.

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