Tag Archives: British House of Commons

Shredded Constitutions

Americans have been stunned to discover that there seem to be no enforceable penalties against a Washington regime that violates written and customary rules.

If we wanted a convenient way to understand the fragility of some of the West’s most storied democracies, we could do no better to look at the nation that was the former leader of the Western world and the nation known as having the Mother of Parliaments.  Both the United States and Britain are in the midst of constitutional crises that can only please non-democratic states that have never attempted to invest sovereignty in their citizens.  Boris Johnson has tried to do end-runs around the House of Commons to avoid its judgment that Brexit should be delayed.  For his efforts he received a rare rebuke from the nation’s Supreme Court.  And his battle with factions in the Commons is only part of the problem. They have withheld a vote of no-confidence because it would trigger an election they fear could give him a free hand to impose a no-deal Brexit. They have cause because it would violate their rightful parliamentary sovereignty.

At this point Johnson has no majority and seemingly not much of a clear path forward, unless he can work out a compromise with the EU.  The traditional opposition, the Labour Party, has decimated itself with a leader many its members to not want. Jeremy Corbyn mostly dithered through the last years of Prime Minister May’s government, giving ordinary citizens fears that a Corbyn government could be worse. Even on Brexit he still manages to stand precariously on the fence. The British system assumes leaders will be supported by their own parties, and ready to take over when the current government has made a mess of things.  That’s not how it’s working now.

The situation is as bad if not worse on this side of the Atlantic.  Like Johnson, Donald Trump’s regime routinely trashes traditions by refusing to submit regular appointments to congressional oversight, ignoring subpoenas, ignoring long-standing ethics rules, self-dealing in ways that promote his businesses, courting foreign powers to intervene in American elections, and overreaching to assert executive privilege.  The impeachment process will be an interesting test. Will staffers and agency professionals be intimidated?  Will subpoenas be honored?  Will executive privilege be used as a smokescreen?  The Constitution is of little help on these questions.

Congress stews in dysfunction, GOP atrophy, internal party gamesmanship, and the knowledge that the current president cannot be turned out through impeachment.

Americans have been stunned to discover that there seem to be no enforceable penalties against a Washington regime that violates written and rules and long-standing courtesies.  The framers of the Constitution gave Congress legislative powers, but no police powers or workable ways to punish those they find in contempt.  And so Congress stews in dysfunction, GOP atrophy, internal party gamesmanship, and the knowledge that the Republican Senate will block efforts to turn Donald Trump out.  What’s remains of the old GOP can been reassured that they are mostly safe under constitutional provisions that guarantee a skewed process for electing senators (two per state, regardless of their size).  In a more representative system California would have something like 36 senators to Wyoming’s 2.

There is a presumption in both nations that their constitutions are bright models for emerging democracies. The common view is that their problems don’t rise to a level that would demand change, though many in Britain now wish they’d bothered to write their’s down.  But the the sorry state of politics in both countries  suggests a need for more constructive criticism of these foundational documents.  Our problems are not just because of our leaders. The bad news, I’m afraid, is that the challenges we face are much more structural than we want to admit.

The All Purpose Advocate

                           Speaker John Bercow

All things considered, it hasn’t gone well for Prime Minister Theresa May, her party, the Labour Party and the other smaller factions in the Mother of Parliaments.  The stunner is how well the Speaker has managed the chaos.  

Anyone spending time listening to the President and others in the current American stalemate might wonder what has happened to fluent advocacy.  The President’s impoverished lexicon leaves him ill-prepared to make coherent arguments for policies.  He clings to one comfortable idea that he understands: a wall. It has the virtue of being a thing rather than an idea. In his one-note campaign he seems to have missed the irony of arguing in favor of one of the crudest tools in any government’s arsenal: a symbol of political failure that even Ronald Reagan understood when he challenged Mikhail Gorbachev to get rid of Berlin’s concrete barrier. A wall was perhaps a more appropriate military weapon in the 14th Century than it is now.

Eloquent and forceful advocacy is not dead. But Washington D.C. is no longer one of its natural homes.

Because I teach advocacy, my courses these days come with a caution to my students to aim higher than the rhetoric coming from the White House and other corners of Washington.  Eloquent and forceful advocacy is not dead. But Washington D.C. is no longer one of its natural homes.  When “bye bye” is the President’s way of ending negotiations with other political leaders, we hear yet again a rhetoric of petulance that is more appropriate to a child than a leader of a great nation.

A far better model is on view almost daily in the form of the current Speaker of Britain’s House of Commons.  I’ve been on a busman’s holiday recently following the often dismal Brexit debate unfolding in London. The tense standoff involving elected members to the Mother of Parliaments has been managed by John Bercow, whose job it is to bring order to a body that is always rowdy. The 55-year old former Conservative, the grandson of Romanian-Jewish immigrants, has been a formidable and sometimes controversial Speaker, lecturing members on their behavior and keeping the House more or less on schedule.  He is also a marvel of fluency.

In the current climate of U.K. politics there are even more daily eruptions than usual in the compact chamber, mostly motivated by opposition to the Prime Minister’s plans for carrying out a divorce from the European Union. All things considered, it hasn’t gone well for Prime Minister Theresa May, her party, the Labour Party and other smaller factions in the body.  Yet, the stunner is how well Bercow has managed the chaos.

Bercow has created some additional fury from the Tories in power, who claim that he is playing favorites in the ways he has adjudicated various amendments and procedures. Even so, if I were asked to give a student an immersion experience in hearing eloquent advocacy, I’d give them at least several hours of material showing Bercow presiding over debates in the Commons. He listens with precision and grace. And his answers and explanations to doubting members show a number of attributes of effective advocacy.  He’s responsive, courteous, patient, forceful, and rarely at a loss in finding exactly the right words.  He also seems to know the names and biographies of most of the body’s 650 members.

Here’s a sample of Bercow in the thick of it.

Recently he declined a member’s “point of order” asking the Leader of the Opposition to apologize for allegedly muttering the phrase “stupid woman” made after comments from Theresa May. The rules of most deliberative bodies do not allow personal attacks on members.  But Bercow said that neither he nor his deputies heard the comment. His unpopular decision left him with the difficult task of making a case for not ruling on a possible verbal slight against May, even in the midst of the #MeToo era. If this is not Bercow’s finest hour, his efforts still illustrate how a master advocate articulates a position in the face of fierce resistance.

MPs call on Bercow to discipline Corbyn after ‘mouthing stupid woman’

Today marks only a hundred days to go before Britain finally pulls the trigger and exits the European Union. Prime Minister Theresa May takes questions in parliament. SCHEDULE: 0930GMT – Exiting the European Union Committee 1200GMT – Prime Minister’s Questions begins Read more…