Dim light of UK Parliament’s legitimacy now extinguished

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By Mark McNaught

The recent sting operation of the Parliament by the BBC Panorama documentary, and the subsequent reaction of the government, not only shows us how corrupt and dysfunctional the Westminster system has become, but also that fundamental change to the UK political system will never come from within.

The traditional aristocratic legitimacy of the House of Lords has withered, and the democratic legitimacy of the House of Commons has been sold out to multinational corporations.

In the case of the Lords, the erosion in their legitimacy is due to zero democratic accountability, the lack of meaningful safeguards to prevent corruption, and incapacity to enforce the weak rules it does have.

Just pause for a minute to reflect on how archaic and illegitimate the House of Lords has become. Peers were traditionally from the landed aristocracy, so the only qualification for holding office was that you had the correct noble parents. Why does it continue to exist, in this day and age?

Of the 763 current members, there are still 26 Lords Spiritual, and 92 are hereditary peers, including Scotland’s own illustrious Lord Strathclyde, who sneers at the ‘poison of Scottish nationalism’. Most of the remaining are life peers, appointed by the Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister, and most often come from the upper echelons of politics, business and finance. Many continue to work within their profession while in the Lords, a land in which ‘conflict of interest’ does not exist.

The House of Lords is not accountable to the public, and purportedly regulates itself through archaic rules and customs which fail to prevent the corruption we have witnessed. Given that it has no means to sanction its own members for corruption or worse, it is not even accountable to itself.

In the US, there are some weak rules involving the ‘revolving door’ between government and business to prevent people from being hired into industry from government and lobbying their former colleagues. In the House of Lords, they don’t even have to leave the doors of Westminster to lobby themselves. Think how easily a Lord who is also a hedge fund manager  or an oil company executive can indulge in insider trading without detection, based on knowledge they could only have obtained by participating in government.

Their function is to scrutinize and amend bills, without being able to fully block them if that is the will of the House of Commons. Their independence from the political process, by virtue of them being democratically unaccountable, is held to cool the populist passions of the Commons, and make for better legislation. That may work in some cases. But what is its basis of legitimacy? Divine right, parliamentary supremacy, and primogeniture no longer washes.

Despite the reforms which have taken place in the House of Lords since Tony Blair’s first government, they were not enough to make the institution conform to modern notions of popular democratic legitimacy. It cannot change to make itself effective, nor can any other institution.

The House of Commons is the institution which has passed the reforms to check and balance its counterpart, which further demonstrates the unwieldy nature of UK Parliament and its incapacity of any of the three branches (Lords, Commons, and Monarchy) to assure its own institutional integrity or that of any other.

The lobbying scandal also shows us that the Commons has become the arena for battles amongst corporate and finance titans and influence peddlers, with the priorities of the vast majority of the UK population increasingly ignored. When politicians become corporate shills, citizens no longer live in a democracy.

In response to this scandal, David Cameron has prescribed a ‘poison pill’ to any lobbying bill in the form of restrictions on Labour union campaign contributions and voting lists, thus dooming any meaningful legislation. This cynical refusal to truly deal with this monumental corruption undermines the very legitimacy of the UK state. In the current Westminster system, fundamental democratic reform is impossible.

The UK is stuck with this system. With independence, Scotland can create something better.

As dire as the Westminster parliamentary system is, its state of disrepair offers valuable lessons for Scotland’s constitutional arrangements upon independence.

Given the incapacity of UK Parliamentary institutions to reform and maintain democratic accountability, an independent Scotland must establish a separate authority, independent from parliament and party politics, who can monitor and amend parliamentary procedure to make it more efficient and weed out corruption, without favouring any party.

As an American viewing his native political system, it is distressing how disputes over process have completely immobilized the political process. Football players are not allowed to make up the rules during the course of a match. They play and are subject to rules, and get on with it. Imagine players arguing over the rules in the middle of a match because they were not clear, and there were no referees. How legitimate would the outcome of the match be?

Why should politics be any different? It’s certainly more important.

An independent Scotland can build a corporate-corruption-free political system from the ground up. A fair and democratic publicly-funded electoral and campaign finance system can be developed, which enshrines constituent services as the preponderant role of Members of the Scottish Parliament, and has swift and sure sanctions for politicians who are corrupted, including expulsion from office and criminal prosecution.

Parliamentary members and parties will not need to play footsie with corporate interests to fund their campaigns, so that people will simply not be attracted to politics for personal enrichment. The Scottish political system must be hard-wired so that MSP’s represent and advocate for their constituents and businesses in their districts, rather than Merck or Raytheon.

Above all, independence in 2014 will enable Scotland not only to talk the democratic talk, but actually walk the walk. Scots have the opportunity to establish popular sovereignty as the sole basis for legitimacy, and watch the Monarchy and the UK Parliament get smaller in the rear-view mirror.

Mark McNaught is a member of the Constitutional Commission and an Associate Professor of US Civilisation at the University of Rennes 2 France. He also teaches US constitutional law at Sciences-Po Paris.