As our little nation struggles to implement democracy

And how they do it in Britain

Brent Rathgeber reviews the events around the House and Senate of the last few weeks and laments for our “struggling democracy.” (There is something reminiscent here of Slate’s trick of reporting the US government shutdown as if it were happening in a foreign country.) Events at the ethics committee, referred to by Mr. Rathgeber and viewable here, drew a rant from the chair, the NDP’s Pat Martin. Meanwhile, Conservative senators are reported to be feeling a bit frustrated with the pressure that is applied to them.

Mr. Rathgeber recently participated in a panel for the CBC with British Conservative MP Andrew Percy. Mr. Percy has so far managed to vote against his party eight percent of the time, which ranks him only 16th on the list of most rebellious MPs.

According to the most recent tally, British Conservative MPs broke with their party on 19% of divisions and a total of 185 coalition MPs had defied their party whips in the previous session. There seems, blessedly, to be a fair amount of data and research on rebellions in the British House. Here is some of the latest report of Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart, who run revolts.co.uk.

The second session of the 2010 Parliament lasted from 9 May 2012 to 25 April 2013. In that time there were some 227 divisions (votes) in the House of Commons. Of these, there were rebellions by Coalition MPs in 61 divisions, covering a wide range of issues and bills, from Europe (repeatedly) to the House of Lords reform, from child benefit to housing benefit, and from the succession to the Crown to planning regulation…

Out of the 67 post-war sessions before the 2012-2013 session, for example, there were 51 which saw a smaller number of rebellions, four which saw the same number, and only 12 which saw a larger number. A figure of 61 rebellions is therefore high if seen in a longer historical perspective, but not exceptionally so. Every Parliament since that of 1966—and every Prime Minister since Wilson—has experienced at least one session with a larger number of rebellions than seen in the last session; and of the 19 sessions in the last two decades, since the 1992 election, seven have seen more rebellions, and one the same number.

So the current Parliament, governed by a coalition, is on pace to be the most rebellious since World War II. But as Cowley and Stuart have noted, there is a bit of a trend there.

Easiest way to remember this: this Parliament is on course to be the most rebellious since the war. But before the most rebellious was the 2005 Parliament, and before that the 2001 Parliament. For sure, there has been an increase in assertiveness since 2010, but it is merely the latest stage in the growing independence of the British MP.

They noted that in the process of noting this essay by the Spectator’s James Forsyth that proclaimed a revival of the British House.

But perhaps the most important reason for the revival of Parliament is that the politicians themselves have begun to appreciate it again. For years, the trendy notion that Britain was a ‘young country’ led to ambitious types turning their noses up at Parliament and its traditions. One senses now a greater understanding of its place in the constitution.

The next session will see an intense debate about Parliament’s role and the balance between its two chambers. The coalition intends to make the House of Lords 20 per cent elected, with more elected members in the coming years if Parliament wishes it. Already, other items in the government’s legislative plans are being scrapped or delayed to clear the necessary parliamentary time for this bill.

On this issue the executive can confidently expect an extremely hard time from the legislature. We might not find a 21st-century version of the Enoch Powell–Michael Foot double act that defeated Dick Crossman’s plans for Lords reform. But we will see MPs defending the rights and prerogatives of the Commons with far more vigour and conviction than they would have had just a few short years ago.

Sean Holman has cited statistics that put the rate of rebellion in Canada much lower than it is in Britain and Radical Centrist has done some investigation of the numbers here.

Why might there be more rebellions in Britain? Well, as Radical Centrist has explained with numbers, there are far more MPs in Britain and the odds of being promoted (being named a parliamentary secretary or minister) are thus higher in our Parliament.

Even then, I might posit, it is perhaps worth wondering why votes on government legislation do or should only ever break along party lines.

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