As our government collapses under the weight of too many egos, Greg Rosen looks to Isabel Hardman’s book – Why We Get the Wrong Politicians – for answers
Unusually for a critique of politics written by a leading journalist, Isabel Hardman’s book seeks neither scapegoats nor simplistic answers, painting instead a thorough and compelling picture of a parliament failing to do its most important job: to ensure that the detail of legislation works. With insight borne of curiosity and empathy, Hardman seeks to understand and explain rather than to condemn, and to shine a light on paths to improvement, rather than instant solutions. ‘Revolutions and constitutional upheaval disappoint as much as they promise,’ she argues, ‘because while the new system might look shiny and exciting, it still involves humans who are all flawed, sometimes selfish and sometimes stupid. Better… [to give the] best, not merely the best placed, the chance to be the most effective politicians we could possibly hope for’.
Hardman diagnoses a core challenge: ‘There is no culture in parliament that rewards dispassionate law-making. If you want to get ahead, you must be a passionate, partisan supporter’ of the government’s bills rather than an intelligent questioner who has the temerity to point out there is a problem with a certain policy. ‘The smart would-be scrutineer[s] want … to become ministers – and why wouldn’t they, when that’s where all the rewards lie?’ She explains further that ‘the pressure on [members of parliament] … is not to be an excellent legislator, but to stay out of trouble, in their party and locally. Better to get attention by participating in meaningless parliamentary activities than plug away at the boring work of examining laws properly’.
For Hardman, an underlying problem is ‘the government ego’: it requires ‘an extraordinary suspension of ego for ministers to admit during the passage of a bill that it needed substantial amendments’, so they do not. This encourages a lack of attention to detail – if you cannot change it why bother mugging up?
Solutions are often harder than diagnosis and Hardman offers several avenues to explore, making a serious case for separating executive and legislature, though concluding that such a radical move is unlikely to be politically possible.
Other suggestions include ‘more rewards for being serious about what parliament does … being an MP is a rung on the ladder to something else … one of the reasons why we sometimes get the wrong politicians is that they don’t really see any reason to be the sort of politician who scrutinises legislation’. She discusses the merits of giving parliamentary select committees greater powers including the legal right to summon ministers, reforming parliamentary processes to promote effective scrutiny of primary and secondary legislation, implementing the main recommendation of the Tony Wright report (giving members of parliament control over the amount of time allowed for debating each bill) and linking select committees with public bill committees (so members charged with looking at detail at least have a chance of understanding what that detail entails).
Hardman points out the irony that ‘Brexit is supposed to make the British parliament sovereign, but as soon as ministers embarked on the legislative process for leaving the European Union, it became clear that they were more interested in handing back the power to the executive than to MPs’. She warns that the inadequacy of parliament’s powers and processes ‘to ensure that the detail works’ does not bode well for ensuring whatever Brexit agreement the government eventually achieves avoids becoming a disaster for the UK’.
Harsh, but fair.
Greg Rosen is chair of the Labour History group
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