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Presenting the case for the prosecution: Lord Wallace reviews 'How Westminster Works . . . and Why It Doesn’t'

November 2022: ‘Britain is Broken’ protest | Alamy

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

3 min read

Ian Dunt has produced a well-researched and fluently written examination of our dysfunctional political system

Many Westminster insiders will dislike this book; many others have provided much of its material. It is well-researched, fluently written, and strongly critical of the way Parliament operates. Ian Dunt – a former editor of Politics.co.uk – has interviewed an impressive and diverse group of politicians, officials and outside observers, and waded through numerous reports and books on parliamentary practices. His conclusions are unforgiving. “The basic constituent elements of Westminster life [are] hyper-partnership … unnecessary speed, government control and disdain for expertise”; and “The British political system rewards short-term tactics over long-term strategy, irrationality over reason, amateurism over seriousness, generalism over specialism and gut instinct over evidence.”

He presents the case for the prosecution on the dysfunctional nature of the current Westminster and Whitehall system, and how the dual impact of implementing Brexit and managing Covid have made things worse. Westminster has operated for the past century on the basis of government control of parliamentary time, and prime ministerial inheritance of prerogative powers – tempered by unwritten assumptions that such powers should be exercised within limits.

Boris Johnson and Liz Truss bypassed Parliament and broke constitutional conventions far beyond the limits their predecessors had observed. Executive power untrammelled by Parliament – seen in the increasing use of skeleton bills, secondary and tertiary legislation – have contributed to “the advanced state of decay in our constitutional arrangements”. 

Few outsiders have much understanding of what is wrong

Dunt believes that Parliament should check and criticise executive power. The Commons, he argues, fails to do so as MPs increasingly focus on the local ombudsman functions of constituency business, follow their whips, plot in factional groups outside the Chamber, and strive to become part of the government’s oversized payroll.

“The bits that work” in monitoring government, in his view, are select committees (much less partisan) and the Lords (committed to effective legislative scrutiny). He could have added that Parliament’s officially part-time Chamber met for more hours a week on average in the last session than its officially full-time one – an extraordinary shift in the historic pattern.

His remedies are already on most reformers’ agenda, but collectively demand radical change. Fewer ministers, staying longer in post; a cross-party business committee to direct parliamentary time; moving out of the Palace, temporarily at least, to weaken the entrenched adversarial culture; restoring mutual confidence between ministers and a more professional civil service; more open recruitment of parliamentary candidates, either through primary elections or a different electoral system.

HWWHe would move the prime minister’s office out of the poky rooms of Downing Street, open up the journalists’ lobby system, and strengthen the role of constitutional guardians like the Committee on Standards in Public Life. “Almost every change we need to make is already a perfectly normal procedure in all sorts of countries round the world, like Germany, the Netherlands and the Nordic states – stable, successful dynamic places with a better-functioning system than the one we have here.”

Recent surveys show that public trust in Westminster has sunk to a historic low. Few outsiders, however, have much understanding of what is wrong, and how things might be changed. If you are happy with Westminster as it is, pray that this book does not make it into paperback to reach a wider audience.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Liberal Democrat peer

How Westminster Works . . . and Why It Doesn’t
By: Ian Dunt
Publisher: W&N

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