Westminster, Prague and Berlin (1989)

Submitted by dalcassian on 11 July, 2014 - 9:05

This week Parliament is being televised. In a timid and limited way modern technology is being used to bring the doings of Parliament into every home with a TV set.

For the first time the people will be able to see a little of what goes on behind the venerable facade of the Palace of Westminster.

The Establishment is taking a big risk, and they know it. There is still a very large body of Westminster opinion strongly opposed to televising Parliament.

If it goes well for them, then the credibility of Parliament will receive a much-needed boost. But if it goes wrong, then Parliament will be discredited, perhaps not instantly, but over time, in an accelerated erosion of its credibility.

Socialists can only welcome this opening up of Parliament. Every advance, however marginal and small, in democracy will ultimately prove to be to the advantage of socialists.

Right now the general idea of parliamentary democracy is being buoyed up by the tangible belief of tens of millions in Eastern Europe, in the USSR, and in China' that a system of government like Westminster's is better than any other available. And for sure Westminster is better than any of the alternatives offered by Stalinist and other police states.

Yet how much credibility does the British Parliament really deserve as a democratic institution truly controlling the governance of the country? How much, or how little, do we in Britain really have democracy as defined, for example by Abraham Lincoln - 'government of the people by the people for the people'?

This is what a Westminster insider has to say about it.

"Parliament exercises little control over ministers in any field. Their accountability is a thin and painless phenomenon. Ministers and backbenchers have an identical interest in denying that this is so. But they enter a conspiracy of deception.

Parliament may sometimes be a nuisance, but to a government with a strong majority it is never a threat. The recent occasions when it has stopped a measure or embarrassed a minister are so rare as to be the stuff of wondrous selfcongratulation.

Nor is there any refined or reliable thread running between Parliament and the people's wishes. Mandate and manifesto are important words in the vocabulary of illusion.

Current examples abound. The poll tax has become law without a debate of any kind during the last election. Child Benefit is being cut on the basis of a studiously constructed double entendre in the Tory manifesto.

Upheaval beckons in the National Health Service, but not a trace of it was anticipated in 1987. Afl these matters have the sketchiest of parliamentary legitimacy...

Party discipline, buttressed by ambition and venality of the rnind, ensures that Parliament, far from making government accountable, is its faithful accomplice... Between the Conservative Party of Great Britain and the Communist Party of Poland, anyone seeking discipline these days could make only one choice".

The writer, to complete the picture, could add that the Kinnockites in the Parliamentary Labour Party are doing their best to make the Labour Party as "Stalinist" in its discipline as the Tory Party.

Who have we been quoting? Eric Heffer? Tony Benn? Dennis Skinner? Some other leftist?

No, Hugo Young, writing in the Cuardian on 21 November. Young is probablv no further left than the SDP. He is merely an honest observer of Westminster and the realities of how Britain is really governed.

He is concerned, in the article we have been quoting, to pour justified scorn on Mrs Thatcher's claim that she is defending the sovereignty of Parliament against the encroachments of the European Community. That same idea - the defence of parliamentary democracy against the hureaucrats of Brussels - has been the stock in trade of the left-wing opponents of 'Europe' for decades.

The televising of Parliament just may bring the hollow realities of our parliamentary government to the attention of those labour movement activists who continue to believe in the hallowed myths of the British political system. It may spur them to resume the fight for a real accountable democracy - for government of the people, by the people, for the people - started 150 years ago by the Chartists with demands like annual parliaments.

Such democracy would mean, at least, getting rid of the House of Lords and the monarchy; parliamentary elections often enough (yearly) to impose some real control on MPs; electors' right to recall their MPs; proportional representation; freedom of information; and election of top State officials. Consider the economic side of democracy, too, and it is clear that Westminster is a very shrivelled democracy indeed.

Westminster and similar parliaments are glove puppets controlled by the hidden hands of entrenched bureaucrats representing the interests of the rich. They have a great deal less to offer the risen people in the Stalinist states than those people imagine.

The British labour movement has much to learn from those now thronging the streets of Prague and Berlin and Warsaw. We have much more to learn than you would think from the commentaries of those - in the labour movement and outside it - who smugly interpret the movements for democracy in the Eastern Bloc as votes of confidence in our sclerosed democratic institutions.

The democracy these people strive for is not to be found in Westminster. What we can learn from the East Europeans, the peoples of the Russian Empire, and from the heroic workers and students of China who made their stand in June at Tiananmen Square, is that democracy is too important for us to be satisfied with the wizened travesty presided over at Westminster by Mrs Thatcher.

The British labour movement should join the movement for democracy. We should fight for the renovation and development of British democracy, aiming to accomplish what the pioneers of the labour movement set out to achieve. And we should fight together with the workers in the European Community for a genuinely democratic European Parliament.

SO 425 23 NOV 1989