I wanted to get an early night last night but I found I couldn’t sleep. The problem was that having watched David Starkey on This Week, the BBC’s late night politics show, I feared that at any moment jack booted thought police would enter my house and drag me away for the crime of having been vaguely critical of the Government in previous blogs.
Discussing the Damian Green affair, Dr Starkey told viewers that we are now as good as living in a ‘neo-fascist state’, Parliamentary democracy is dead and Gordon Brown is ruling as an absolute dictator. Indeed, any viewer who knew nothing of the facts of the Green case would have assumed that Mr Green had been arrested, sentenced and imprisoned on the direct orders of the Prime Minister and that this was a fate now awaiting anyone who dared to be critical of the New Labour junta.
Dr Starkey is one of our most distinguished historians, so I am sure it was just lack of time that stopped him sharing the awkward facts that contradict his claims that parliamentary democracy is dead:
The Labour Government has been subject to a higher proportion of back bench revolts than most previous modern governments, has been defeated repeatedly in the Lords, and in the Commons on counter terrorism
The Queen’s Speech includes proposals to increase the powers of Parliament, for example on the calling of war
The select committee system - a relatively recent invention in Parliamentary terms - is more robust than ever and regularly leads to high powered, all party criticisms of the Government
On issue after issue over recent years, Ministers – especially the Home Secretary - have had to fight for their jobs by defending their actions to Parliament
Every week in a form of public accountability that many in other nations –including the USA – find amazing, the Prime Minister is questioned and jeered by MPs in PMQs
Among the innovations introduced by New Labour are the PM being publicly interrogated by select committee chairs and a significant expansion in pre- legislative scrutiny.
I wrote earlier this week about the Green affair. It does look as though a combination of police heavy handedness and poor communication meant that the investigation lost proportion. But the case does raise genuinely difficult issues. We do not know the degree of collaboration between Mr Green and the civil servant (and it is important to stress that they both deny any). But is it really tenable to claim - as do those like Starkey who argue that police questioning of an MP in a case like this is a fundamental blow to our democracy - that MPs should, as a matter of right, be free to encourage party activists to get senior civil service jobs in order that they can systematically trawl for and leak sensitive documents? How could the civil service work if this were the case? As I asked earlier in the week, would critics like Dr Starkey have the same view if a Sinn Fein MP had persuaded a Republican sympathiser in the Home Office to leak information to discredit the British state?
The issues raised by the Green case are important and unresolved. It may be that serious errors of judgment have been made. Perhaps we do need to agree that MPs should have different and greater rights before the law than other citizens, and that their Westminster offices are sacrosanct. But to encourage people to see this affair as the final nail in the coffin of British democracy is ludicrous. There is, of course, one terrible blot on our democracy, an electoral system that gives a single party a safe majority on a minority of the vote. If Dr Starkey was really worried about Executive power he would be out on the streets demanding electoral reform. But this wouldn’t be nearly as much fun as telling BBC viewers that they live in a dictatorship.