Parliamentary reform: What would Tom Paine do?

1:34 pm - May 30th 2009

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by Edward Vallance, author

To be a successful candidate, he must be destitute of the qualities that constitute a just legislator, and being thus disciplined to corruption by the mode of entering into Parliament, it is not to be expected that the representative should be better than the man.
— Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man Part the Second (1792)

The bicentenary of the death, on June 8 1809, of Thomas Paine, England’s most famous republican polemicist, falls at a time when our political leaders, and much of the media, tell us that Parliament is on the brink of a revolution. However, viewed in the context of historic radical movements, the ‘big change’ heralded by David Cameron really amounts to small potatoes.

The furore over MPs’ expenses has thrown up a number of proposals for political reform. From Gordon Brown’s call for an independent audit unit, to Alan Johnson’s proposal for a referendum on proportional representation, to Cameron’s and Clegg’s arguments for fixed-term parliaments, our politicians are suddenly all engaged in a game of ‘more radical than thou’.

Just how radical they truly are is a moot point. Fixed-term parliaments, for example, rather than being a political neologism of the Youtube generation, have been a staple demand of British radical movements going back to the Levellers of the mid-seventeenth century.

(Cameron has, in any case, been typically slippery about the fixed-term parliaments, saying this is something that the Conservatives would consider as an ‘option … when there’s a majority government’. One wonders just how much consideration will be given to this option should the present opposition be elected with a massive parliamentary majority.)

Even those proposals of a more recent vintage, such as those over electoral reform, have essentially involved dredging up the 1998 report of the Jenkins commission. Johnson’s reactivation of AV+ represents less what the Electoral Commission has called ‘a breath of fresh air’, more the fetid stench of political flop sweat.

If this desperate debate demonstrates anything, it is that British political discourse has for a long time been bereft of serious, informed discussion of constitutional reform. Nothing offers greater evidence of this than the utterly unwarranted applause for Douglas Carswell’s proposal for ‘open primaries’ – a plan so unworkable that it has now been taken up by Tessa Jowell – which rests on a complete misunderstanding of how the American primary system works.

But the fundamental problem with all these proposals is not simply the constitutional ignorance of most British politicians. It is that though a more transparent expenses system, fixed-term parliaments and electoral reform might deliver change in the short to medium term, these proposals offer no long-term remedy for the root cause of the ills of British democracy: Parliamentary sovereignty.

We’ve tried fixed-term Parliaments before: the 1641 and 1694 Triennial Acts guaranteed new elections every three years. But both were fundamentally compromised by subsequent acts of Parliament – most famously the Septennial Act of 1716 which required new elections only every seven years and which ushered in the notoriously corrupt Hanoverian electoral system.

There is surely, as Paine remarked, an irreconcilable paradox ‘in the idea of vitiated bodies reforming themselves.’ Until some check is placed on Parliament itself setting whatever rules it sees fit – whether over MPs’ expenses, the length of parliaments or the nature of the electoral system – reform will remain ultimately subject to the whims of the majority party.

It is time, as Paine said, to lay the axe to the root of this rotten tree. We do not need a one-off referendum on piecemeal electoral reform. We need a convention to deliver substance at last to that phantasm, the British constitution. For, as Tom Paine noted over two hundred years ago, ‘a change of ministers amounts to nothing. One goes out, another comes in, and still the same measures, vices and extravagances are pursued. It is signifies not who is minister. The defect lies in the system.’

Ted Vallance is lecturer in early modern British history at the University of Liverpool.
His book A Radical History of Britain is published by Little, Brown on June 4.

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Reader comments

1. david brough

Why don’t we fucking ask him?

2. Diversity

It was always a bad idea to do what Tom Paine would do (his practical judgement was disastrous), but Ted Vallance is proposing doing what Tom Paine would recommend. As usual, Tom Paine would recommend the option that is right for the long term.

We need a constitutional convention under whatever name (a Speaker’s conference would do.) We need a referendum or – even better – a citizens’ assembly – to work over whatever the great and good recommend. Cameron is routinely scared of the idea; as conservatives always are. Labour shows signs of being even more scared of it; but our salavtion may be in that New Labour will have despaired of anything else after the Cabinet reshuffle goes down like a lead baloon (How do you put together a New Labour Cabinet out of MPs and Lords who are entirly scandal free?).

Incidentally, should one congratulate Ted on his choice of publisher? Little Brown is fitting.

O/T but it would seem Nick Clegg has an unmoderated blog

Brave (or foolish) man, but I’ve just been over there and it’s beginning to look like a slow motion car crash.

Perhaps somebody should speak to him……………

4. the a&e charge nurse

If we have been trying since 1792 yet still ended up with the current lot perhaps there is more mileage in lowering public expectations rather than raising political standards?

5. Shatterface

That reminds me of Lew Grade’s comment about Raise the Titanic: ‘It would have been cheeper to lower the Atlantic.’

Parliament has hit an iceberg and the band’s still playing.

6. dreamingspire

“Parliamentary sovereignty”, Ted? There isn’t any these days. You are more likely to get good results in the Lords, and that by persuasion rather than by vote. It is the elected dictatorship of the Prime Minister (not just the present one – it has been like that for quite some while) that is the problem, and it works by ensuring that Ministers are chosen on their promise to obey the PM, and discarded if they do not. ‘Collective responsibility’ means defending what the PM of the day wants.
But the PM, like kings and queens before him or her, has to be careful of an Establishment that will have him or her out if too many of them are displeased.
Today we have a clash of an ageing Establishment and the people, and no amount of tinkering with the mechanisms of government is going to fix that. You Ted, as a historian, should have seen this coming – but, equally, you, as a historian, may not be best placed to craft a solution.

Must say it’s good to see you here, Edward Vallance.

I encountered your work as an undergraduate when writing my dissertation on the legacy of the English Civil War. I was recommended your book in that regard. It’s one of the few I’ve kept from those times- I did get mightily fucking sick of the legacy of the English Civil War! But I kept my interest.

Will be buying your latest when my wages are next paid, like.

We need to get more authors & various other guests to post on here.

Also if you see Dominic Sandbrook knocking around tell him to rush up with his next book!

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  1. Parliamentary Reform: What Would Tom Paine Do? « Edward Vallance

    […] Parliamentary Reform: What Would Tom Paine Do? A slightly revised version of my post over at Liberal Conspiracy. […]

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