In Defence of Liberty

Driven by data; ridden with liberty.

Parliamentary Dissent

Almost out of ether, some ideas arrive veiled in ludicrousness and stunned silence. The idiocies and idiosyncrasies of miniscule but vocal groups can disturb the dormant dust from the most archaic principles. Author Christopher Snowdon highlights the wondrous proclamations of the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) in his blog-post Forbidden Dissent. During a discussion on minimum unit pricing (MUP) for alcohol in Scotland and around Europe, Nick Sheron, the RCP’s Representative to the EU Health and Alcohol Forum, is recorded by his organisation as saying:

When mentioning the Scottish MUP scheme he explained that the measure was part of the Scottish Nationalist Party Manifesto and that, as a rule, it was forbidden to oppose the Manifesto once voted on. Thus, he highlighted that the current debates were actually profoundly anti-democratic.

Debates are the essence of a parliamentary system. (Photo: bouletfermat)

Debates are the essence of a parliamentary system. (Photo: bouletfermat)

Such a statement must misunderstand our manner and methods of government. In a parliamentary democracy, which is replicated in devolved administrations and local governments, political parties and independent candidates are elected upon manifestos and commitments. Governments, or controlling groups, are then formed by the party or coalitions with either the most seats or the majority of seats in the legislature.  The controlling administration then has the heaviest burden for the writing of legislation and motions for the duration of the parliament, usually based on their manifesto’s contents. In the case of coalitions, a pragmatic fusion of the manifestos may form a coalition agreement. In the House of Commons, the Backbench Business Committee, the Opposition and private members may also propose legislation and motions. The parliament, as well all interested people outside, debates these propositions, advancing arguments or ricocheting rebuttals. Informed by their constituents and the wider debate, representatives across the whole parliament then vote upon proposed legislation. Governments may withdraw legislation if ministers believe it is too flawed. There is no requirement for the government to institute its full manifesto, but reneging on pertinent promises may invoke the anger and despondence of a disappointed electorate. On certain issues, parliaments will delegate their authority in referenda.

Democratic Process and Valueless Policy

The parliament, not the executive, should have the last voice on legislation. This principle underlies every layer of our government, from the British state settling upon legal punishments for crimes to the local council changing which days your bins are collected. To describe a debate as “profoundly anti-democratic” is to completely mistake what democracy means. Democracy is not simply a package of policies; democracy is a process. An election is the start of this process, not its finale. It is absurd to declare a debate as “anti-democratic” because debates, backed by broad liberties of speech, expression and publication, are the essence of a parliamentary system.

It is the process – of proposals, debates and open and accountable votes by elected representatives – that is democratic; not merely whether a relative majority of voters believed particular ideas or particular parties were better than any other at one specific point in time. This is how a parliamentary democracy functions: not by executive decrees adorned by elections every few years.

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2 comments on “Parliamentary Dissent

  1. Ed
    May 13, 2013

    “Such a statement must misunderstand our manner and methods of government.”

    You are far too generous: they perfectly well understand our mode of governance.

    • Anthony Masters
      May 13, 2013

      I don’t mind being generous. There are many other cases of public health advocates believing their opponents should be silenced to draw from.

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This entry was posted on May 13, 2013 by in National Politics and tagged , .
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