Fixed Term Parliaments: What would Churchill do?

14 May
Winston Churchill in Downing Street giving his...
Image via Wikipedia

Former Transport Secretary, Lord Adonis – yes, that is his real name – has been speaking out against the fixed term parliamentary system introduced by the new Tory/LibDem coalition, describing the idea as a “constitutional outrage”. I know, some might say it’s just a case of sour grapes from the losing party, but he does have some support from constitutional experts.

The argument for change is that the country needs a strong and stable government to oversee the rebuilding of the economy following the credit crisis and bailing out of the banking system. Superficially that does make sense, but closer scrutiny suggests it’s an extremely misleading idea.

During World War Two, Britain was run by a coalition government installed after a vote of no confidence led to the resignation of Conservative prime minister, Neville Chamberlain whose policies of appeasement had proved both unsuccessful and hugely unpopular. Winston Churchill became PM, and later found himself facing a similar vote, but survived to lead the country to victory. I do wonder what he’d think about his successors trying to manipulate public anxiety to make changes to the parliamentary system.

While it is true that we owe a stupendous amount of money, and that we will be paying it off for decades to come, this can not possibly compare to the threat the country faced in the 1940s. Back then, we also had a massive national debt – billions owed to the US alone* – and it was growing because not only did the country have to finance the war effort, there was also the cost of rebuilding once hostilities were over. And of course, the danger was not only financial, the world’s biggest super-power was camped just across the Channel and planning to invade. In the meantime they were bombing our towns and cities into rubble and attacking our shipping with the intention of starving us into submission. Yet, despite this, at no point did anyone think the government should be shored up with changes to the system which made it harder to remove them from power.

Fast forward to 2010 and that very thing could happen. The Tory government want to make it harder to remove them if it all goes horribly wrong. And make no mistake, these changes would protect the Tories, not the coalition! If the coalition falls apart, the fixed term and new rules about votes of no confidence will enable the Tories to stay in power until 2015, despite the fact they will have no majority. They tell us this is a good thing because the country is in financial crisis and needs a firm hand on the tiller to see us through the difficult days ahead. They may have a point, but surely a minority government is not a firm hand, it’s a weak hand, and one which could lead to at best stagnation, and at worst, catastrophe.

So what would Churchill do? Would he approve of a minority government playing on peoples’ fears to introduce undemocratic changes to the parliamentary system to keep themselves in power? I think not.

* It took until 2006 to repay the money owed to the USA


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