19 October 2009

Our lords and masters

Some heartening news this week, as technology struck a blow for parliamentary democracy. Trafigura, once an unknown commodities trader, became a little too well known for its own comfort, as its lawyers' attempts to keep its name in the shadows had the diametrically opposite effect. Much has already been written about the triumph of the Twitterati in sinking the ironically named Super Injunction (story here), but slinking in the background was another story about the Mother of Parliaments with somewhat less noble outcomes.

John Bercow, the slick new Speaker of the House of Commons, announced this week plans to let Lord Mandelson and Lord Adonis to address the Commons, in their capacity as ministers for Business and Transport respectively (story here). Apparently this is in the name of "modernisation" and "radical innovation"- MPs were apparently frustrated by their inability to cross-examine two senior government ministers, because they were members of the upper chamber. And Bercow is the man with reformist zeal, determined to throw off the out-moded ways of working.

To me this is like solving the problem of being burgled by putting your jewellery in the front garden. It is a distraction from the real issue: why does Gordon Brown have two secretaries of state who are unelected? Letting them take part in the business of the elected chamber is not a bold reform, as Bercow would have it - it is the ultimate snub to the country. Why should we bother having an elected government anyway? Lets just let Gordon pick his mates and they can get on with it. Or maybe we can change the terms of democracy instead - turn it into an X-Factor style talent contest, with the winner each week getting a different cabinet portfolio. After all, the Prime Minister seems to take such childish delight in every Saturday night end-of-the-pier gong show.

Mandelson, however, prefers to position the proposal as somehow enhancing democracy: "Peter is very much in favour of democratic accountability and reducing the distance between the two houses of parliament," a 'source' at the business department said. "He is full of enthusiasm for this if others decide to go ahead with changes." Which is an odd way of putting it, given he is not subject to "democractic accountability" himself (and why is he "full of enthusiasm" if other people make the changes? If they decide not to, will he change his mind and say it was a rubbish idea?).

Surely the most radical innovation of all would be to bring the mountain to Mohammad: make the House of Lords popularly elected, thus giving Mandelson all the legitimacy he so publicly desires? Or is there only so much accountability our masters can take?

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