THOUGH two centuries old, the tragic story of two honest men meeting in Parliament sheds light on current issues of democracy and government.
The date was May 11, 1812 – 209 years ago today – and Prime Minister Spencer Perceval had arrived to take part in a debate. In the lobby, a merchant named John Bellingham stepped forward and shot him at close range with a half-inch pistol ball; Perceval staggered back, took a couple of steps forward and died.
Rather than run, Bellingham identified himself as the ‘unfortunate’ perpetrator and sat down quietly, awaiting a trial that he expected to exonerate him, for, as he later explained to a court, he had spent five years as a victim of injustice in Russian jails while British officials had done nothing to assist him; on his return to England his petitions for redress had been refused or ignored. Latterly, Perceval himself had told Bellingham (incorrectly, it seems) that the time limit for petitions had passed. Perhaps the fatal moment of decision came when a civil servant at the Treasury had said ‘that I had nothing to expect, and that I was at liberty to take such steps as I thought fit’, which he interpreted as ‘a carte blanche from the British government to right myself in any way I might be able to discover’.
It wasn’t even a personal grudge against Perceval. Bellingham said that as a gentleman he had the right to exact satisfaction from any member of the Government sharing collective responsibility, and would have preferred shooting the Ambassador to Russia who had been the first to deny him help when he was involved in an insurance dispute. However, the murder was seen by others as a wider political act: there was rejoicing in Nottingham, Leicester and Sheffield where many saw Perceval as a reactionary fighting radical demands for reform. A Frenchman who witnessed Bellingham’s execution wrote four years later that the crowd’s attitude was ‘Farewell poor man, you owe satisfaction to the offended laws of your country, but God bless you! you have rendered an important service to your country, you have taught ministers that they should do justice, and grant audience when it is asked of them,’ and noted that the public subscribed handsomely to support Bellingham’s widow and children.
For its part, Parliament voted a large sum to provide for Perceval’s family; unlike so many holders of public office past and present, the Prime Minister had neglected to monetise his position and influence and had barely more than £100 at the bank when he died. He seems to have been a principled man in public life and a loving husband and father. In person, he could hardly have made a more unsuitable target for Bellingham’s revenge.
Yet the question remains, whom should the Government serve, and how?
The long British struggle with the autocratic power of the Crown, leading to the rebellious barons’ Magna Carta in several versions in the thirteenth century, then bursting out in civil war in the sixteenth as absolutist Scots monarchy overstepped the mark, and again in the seventeenth in fear of pan-European Catholic authoritarianism, ended with the current model of the ‘Crown in Parliament’; but although that cat had been belled, its power passed down to the office of the Prime Minister and the other Cabinet Ministers past and present, all automatically members of the monarch’s Privy Council. We have seen how fast the Prime Minister, the Cabinet and the Council can override the customary liberties of the subject – Tony Benn warned that they could abolish our civil rights in an afternoon, and so it has proved.
Ironically, the instrument used in the case of Covid was not the terrifying Civil Contingencies Act 2004 which, as Lord Sumption has noted, is hedged about by stringent and frequent Parliamentary reviews (despite which, we must be thankful that the constitutionally inventive Mr Blair had no opportunity to use it), but an older Health Act whose provisions have been so generously reinterpreted as to accommodate every whim of the Secretary of State for Health. When he issues a diktat we must obey, and the police who used to be our guardians of the law have become a national militia to enforce (and even gold-plate) his centralised directives.
The ease with which this happened sets a dangerous precedent for some possible future administration with a much more radical and potentially oppressive agenda – let us look across the Atlantic for an example of constitutional tinkering by the executive, seemingly for partisan advantage. Here, too, the monarch’s cats need belling, and it is a matter for the deepest regret that the Opposition has failed to challenge adequately the wielders of power. So many in Parliament, including the present Labour leader himself, are lawyers; have they forgotten how to cross-examine?
For whom do our MPs work?
Edmund Burke told his constituents that he represented their interests rather than their opinions, and we see from the bitter squabbling on social media how divisive an Athenian-style direct democracy could be. The representative model suited a time when much of the economy was local and regional and it took days to ride to Westminster.
Now, we have mass media yet are better able to decide the winner of a television talent contest than who is to be our Mayor or Police and Crime Commissioner. Before the latest elections I read the statements by my area’s PCC candidates and while they all seemed to be against crime (rather than releasing all prisoners and sacking the entire police force) there was precious little to convince me who would do the job most effectively.
There is also the issue of voter numbers. Before the 1832 Reform Act few people had the franchise: an average of 1,200 per constituency. It was therefore likely that a voter would recognise the Member of Parliament and be able to speak to him. At the last General Election the average constituency had more than 73,000 voters. If the Parliamentary candidate wished to address (and listen to) them all at the same time, he/she would have to book a football stadium. How could we make our individual voice heard in that size of crowd?
The answer is that we can’t. Rather than standing for us in Parliament, some MPs seem to think it is their duty to represent their party to us. Once voted in, the successful MP need not do very much (although, to be fair, many try) to keep us contented. A 2009 court ruling said that there is no legal remedy if your MP ignores you. There are of course various Codes of Conduct, and the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards can help to bring pressure, but strictly speaking statute law will not stand with you when you have a complaint. Worse still, the party system has become so strong that even an excellent, very hard-working and independent-minded MP can lose his seat if he/she loses the party’s support, as we saw with Frank (now, deservedly, Lord) Field.
The new wine of integrated economics and modern communications threatens to burst the old skin of the political system. There is much work to do to make the Mother of Parliaments fit for use.