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Wolfgang Koerner

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 interests.

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 as definitive."

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

Canadian Parliamentary Review Cover
Vol 9 no 2

Last Updated: 2020-09-14