Wednesday, September 04, 2013

What parliaments are there for, cont'd

Mark Reynolds draws my attention to the argument of Ottawa international affairs commentator Philippe Lagassé that the British parliament's rejection of the cabinet's plan to make war on Syria is actually a threat to parliamentary democracy, not the affirmation of it that I was saluting yesterday. Lagassé's argument is here and worth reading, but this is the gist of it:
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.
 Y'know, I mostly agree with Lagassé on the principles. Ultimately the responsibility of the House is to sustain or throw out governments, not to manipulate policy details and leave the cabinet to carry them out.

A cabinet does have executive responsibilities. The Cameron government might still assert crown prerogative to pursue a war policy in Syria -- thereby putting itself in conflict with the House and probably the public too. And the House would have to either knuckle under or defeat the government.

But there has to be a tension between the government and the house. On matters as momentous as war, a government needs to be able to test Parliament's temper short of triggering a confidence vote. So Cameron asked the House its opinion, got an answer he did not want -- and decided not to pursue that fight any further.  The British house, as I see it, was not usurping the executive role, merely warning the executive it did not like the government's plan, and that if it was pursued there might be consequences up to and including a confidence vote.

"Crown prerogative" is not a blank cheque; the crown has as much prerogative as the house is willing to allow to it. Our Canadian problem is that our docile-to-the-point-of irrelevance caucuses mean the house will grant the leadership ANYTHING. As we just saw in Britain, that isn't the case in real parliaments.

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