Lagassé and Jarvis tweet responsible government

In light of the British House of Commons’ vote against a possible military response in Syria, I felt compelled to complain that the United Kingdom was moving beyond the norms and rules of responsible government. Beyond giving the House of Commons a veto over a military deployment in this case, I was pointing to the decade-long effort to curtail prerogative powers and certain fundamental precepts of ministerial responsibility (such as fixed-elections legislation and narrowing when votes were considered confidence measures).

In simple terms, I’m worried that they’re granting the House of Commons control over executive functions and Crown powers without MPs having to take responsibility for their actions, namely by making a government fall and replacing it with a ministry that can command the support of the House. If the Commons can veto a number executive powers and decisions without withdrawing confidence in the government, I’m concerned that they’re allowing to House to dictate executive decisions without forcing MPs to accept a equal degree of consequence for their choices. In effect, I wonder if the UK is embracing too much check and not enough balance.

As an ardent advocate of the this system of government, I felt it necessary to outline my concerns with Britain’s apparent willingness to abandon what I consider to be a fairly effective constitutional construct.

I expressed my views as follows on Twitter:

‘Cameron has lost the royal prerogative’ : http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/10276417/The-world-is-not-a-better-place-for-Britain-taking-a-back-seat-over-Syria.html …

“Parliament cannot work if it tries to run the country as opposed to keeping a check on the people who run it.”

“Obviously, every prime minister is answerable to Parliament for those actions. He can be brought down by Parliament at any time.”

“But if Parliament is from now on to decide first, rather than judge his decisions afterwards, it is removing his power.”

Great article on Parliament [by Charles Moore] and the prerogative in the UK. Where were these views over the past decade of debate re British war powers?

Meanwhile, Britain’s shadow cabinet appears to be back-seat driving the govt’s Syria policy: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2408358/Parliament-spoken-Chancellor-says-Cameron-make-renewed-attempt-persuade-MPs-supporting-Syria-action.html …

“ At present, the formal power is still entirely vested in the Crown, and exercised by ministerial prerogative;”

“in practice, the approval of the Commons has become essential to any military strategy.” http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/10277616/A-nauseating-preening-and-grubby-carnival-of-inaction.html …

FTR: I’m ambivalent about a military intervention in Syria or the notion of a nation’s ‘place in the world’. I’m just a fan of resp govt.

On a related note, as UK evolves toward a post-responsible govt constitution, it’s heartening that the Telegraph recognizes the downsides.

Because I know @markdjarvis is skeptical, and I respect his perspective, I should explain why I see the UK moving beyond resp govt. 

Fundamentally, I see responsible govt turning on the issue of who controls the Crown’s prerogatives and privileges (both exec & reserve).

Although the executive may retain the formal right to advise an exercise of prerogative…

…if exercise of prerogatives is contingent on HoC approval, and that’s not a matter of confidence, then we’re into a post resp govt mode.

Now, I’m fond of responsible government. But it tends toward executive dominance and clashes with certain views of representative democracy

Last point: when I say resp govt, I mean Westminsterism from mid-19th century on. Period from 1688 to mid-19th cen operated differently.

As I acknowledged in my comments, Mark D. Jarvis is more guarded about what’s going on in the United Kingdom. While I see what happened last week as a significant growth in the Commons’ control over the prerogative to employ armed forces, effectively giving the MPs a veto over future uses of the armed forces outside of Great Britain, Mark wonders whether a binding precedent has been established. As I thought he would, Mark also decided to respond to my provocation with an email that was originally designated for Twitter.
Here’s what he wrote:

So, I’ve now gone back and read through @pmlagasse’s thoughtful tweets from this morning on the idea of a post-responsible govt era. 

 Here are a few tweets on how Phil’s and my views converge and diverge, and what I like about his perspective on this.  

 In the context of UK Syria HoC vote & the prerogative power related to military deployment, Phil and I both are not in favour of a vote. 

 I largely feel that way for two reasons: 

 1) Pragmatically, delaying to hold a vote may, in worst case scenarios, be a matter of life and death. 

 2) While some erroneously suggest that a vote ends the possibility of accountability, it does add some (further) murkiness 

Where Phil and I diverge is on 1) whether a new convention has emerged in the UK; and 2) if it has, what the impact is vis a vis responsible govt. 

I am going to set the first question aside. For those interested in that point, pls see my tweets re the test of conventions and… 

 the brief debate Phil, I and others had on the UK vote a couple days ago.

 But even assuming there was a convention created, there is the question of what it means more broadly for RG. 

 What I like (a lot) re Phil’s position is it emerges from a basic, sound principle. As Phil tweeted this morning: 

 “I see responsible govt turning on the issue of who controls the Crown’s prerogatives and privileges (both exec & reserve).” 

To back up a step RG at its core is a system where the executive exercises powers and the elected leg holds them accountable, 

 ultimately by granting or withholding confidence which the govt can’t govern in the absence of.

Having read a lot of Phil’s work, I understand that his point is broader than this, but even for a simple guy like me it makes sense: 

if the exec doesn’t exercise discretion, there is nothing to hold it to account for, which amounts to a fundamental disjuncture with RG. 

Indeed I have a book chapter coming out soon on hierarchy and accountability that makes that very (important) point. 

 Now, to be absolutely fair, Phil is not just responding to possible changes affecting military deployments. 

Phil considers this to be part of an on-going trend restricting what powers are held by the executive and how they can be exercised. 

This is where Phil’s broader point (as I understand it) comes in. Phil writes eruditely on Parl, exec & their basis in the Crown. 

Basically, we risk fundamentally altering the essential nature of these institutions when we re-allocate powers between them.

The question becomes when does that occur and how great a concern it is. And this is where Phil and I diverge a bit. 

Where Phil’s threshold is executive and reserve prerogative powers, I am open to some parsing within those powers. 

For example, some of the reforms that we have pushed for in DtC, and similar reforms enacted in the UK, wld be cross Phil’s threshold. 

Phil frequently does us a favour in reminding us that strong executives are a defining characteristic of RG and the Westminster system. 

But as I know he recognizes there is tension inherent in RG too, esp if both exec and Parl are able to function with dignity & efficiency. 

That is fancy language for with sufficient autonomy and without undue delays. But even those are subjective standards. 

And, Phil and I just disagree a bit in our assessment of what might be an appropriate balance in bridging that divide. 

For example, I would see the reforms confronting confidence, prorogation, dissolution as a positive step in that regard. 

Whereas I see other ‘evolutions’ around the substance of governing like treaties and deployments negatively. 

While our disagreement is actually smallish it goes to the heart of why we see the health of RG somewhat differently. 

So, we both agree in our disagreement w/ holding votes and the notion that you can separate the vote from confidence absurd. 

But we disagree on where the threshold for the integrity of RG falls and whether we have crossed it. 

What I take from Mark’s message is that we agree on the fundamentals, while disagreeing about the meaning of current events and how far certain prerogatives and privileges could be curtailed before we have moved beyond responsible government (or at least a new stage of responsible government, as Emmett Macfarlane rightly pointed out to me).

In response to Mark, I suppose my only point would be to argue that any transfer of control to the House, including over the prerogative to dissolve or prorogue, should be accompanied by a confidence vote. If we could meet at that half way point, I think we could agree that responsible government could survive in its current form, all while allowing the Commons to exert a greater influence over certain Crown powers.

Something tells me that finding a compromise won’t be that simple, though!

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3 Comments

  1. As a layperson, I agree to some degree with your position on the loss of ministerial prerogative, I feel that there is more at play in the UK government’s decision than just ministerial control. You may loose control of one ministry for a brief period of time, but the other departments remain solidly under ministerial control. I look at it though as an acceptable technicality in the Parliamentary process where extra ordinary situations exist.
    There are also historic precedences with respect to the surrender of ministerial prerogative. Just one example was the first world war: the House vote 100,000,00 pds to support the war effort. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwone/mirror01_01.shtml. In fact I cannot find any examples where the British Parliament has ever gone to war without the consent of the House. To me this does not suggest loss of ministerial control, but the application of common sense.
    There is a more pressing question however with regards to the legality of taking action against a sovereign nation. Is this action legal under the United Nation Charter. I think not. Any reasonably sane person would not go galloping off to war without looking back over his shoulder to ensuring there was a good size crowd following him, and that the outcome was going to be favorable.
    Look at George W Bush et al. All have been tried in absentia of war crimes and have been found guilty re; the Iraq war. All be it by a Malaysian court. http://www.foreignpolicyjournal.com/2012/05/12/bush-convicted-of-war-crimes-in-absentia/. And to compound this late last month President Obama asked the Supreme Court to grant immunity to the ex-president. http://ronmamita.wordpress.com/2013/08/23/obama-doj-asks-court-to-grant-immunity-to-george-w-bush-for-iraq-war/.
    The decision to go to war should not be taken lightly as President Bush did. It should be a long and thoughtful process with everyone’s involvement. The loss of temporary control of one ministry in my opinion is completely acceptable where extra ordinary conditions exist.

    1. I take your point that governments are advised to bring military deployments and declarations of war before Parliament for debate and to gauge the mood of the nation. During times of total war, moreover, it has been necessary to enact special legislation, form unity governments, and secure the support of the nation. But we shouldn’t think that this gave Parliament a veto over military operations. Quite the opposite. Up to 2003, there was never any question that the use of force was an executive prerogative, subject to the occasional rubber stamping and debate by Parliament. Since 2003, the aim has been to ‘tame’ that prerogative, first by making parliamentary votes mandatory, and perhaps now by giving the House of Commons the power to veto military deployment decisions that do not secure the approval of MPs.

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