“Constructing a Humanist Politics”


Issue No 15 Friday 12 December 2008





This week


·        “Commons Now Managed By Government - Totally, Absolutely And Completely”  -David Starkey, Historian




What is happening now of interest to Civic Republicanism




·        “Commons Now Managed By Government - Totally, Absolutely And Completely”  -David Starkey, Historian


The ongoing Damian Green affair has been much discussed in the media and many have commented on the details of what the Speaker or the Police or the Home Secretary did or should have done. But underlying the affair is a fundamental historical shift in power whereby the Executive is suffocating the supposed independence of the House of Commons more and more. David Starkey, who is best known for his TV histories of the monarchy, provides in this discussion an incisive criticism of how our lax constitution is facilitating this process. The comments by Diane Abbot and Michael Portillo fully support his thesis. Part one of the transcript of this discussion is included below.

The facts of the case are well known.

Damien Green, the Tory MP for Ashford, Kent was arrested by counter-terrorist police officers just before 2.00pm on Thursday, 27 November 2008 at his constituency home, for "aiding and abetting misconduct in public office".

He was held for nine hours at a London police station. Mr Green was later released on bail, without charge. Although he has still not been charged, the allegation against him concerns his publication of leaked documents he allegedly received from a government whistleblower.

Green's detention has led to charges that the government knew of the police's intentions and had encouraged and/or directed his arrest in order to settle political scores.

Brown and Home Secretary Jacqui Smith have said they were not aware of Green's arrest in advance. Brown was apparently told at 5.00pm on the day on the rest, three hours after the arrest when Mr Green still languished in custody.

Their denials are considered suspect, however, given that the police are subject to the Home Office in England and Wales and the operation apparently followed a complaint from the government's Cabinet Office.

Even more constitutionally significant perhaps, searches were conducted at Mr Green’s parliamentary office, and the police took the opportunity to plunder the House of Commons internet server containing all MPs' emails without permission. As Geoffrey Robertson QC pointed out in a letter to the Times, the law they used could mean that anyone - public watchdog, policy expert, editor, journalist or MP - who willingly receives a leak from a civil servant could suffer the maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

The episode gets even more worrying as the role of the Speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin MP, is brought into the story as it seems likely he sanctioned the raid on parliament or at least did nothing to prevent it. It is one of his expressed roles to defend parliament against such intrusion. Later he pathetically blamed his Sergeant at Arms, Jill Pay, for letting the police in.


From THIS WEEK. Broadcast on BBC1 11.35 pm on Thursday 4th December 2008

Discussion with Andrew Neil, Michael Portillo, Diane Abbot MP and David Starkey



David Starkey The House of Commons now is part not of the efficient constitution (Bagehot’s famous phrase) it‘s simply decorative and dignified. The House of Commons - [here we have] one ex-member, one present member - they’re no more really than the members of the American electoral college that chooses a president.  When they’re not choosing the president, they don’t scrutinise legislation. They’re overpaid social workers who are able to spend much time on television. How very nice to have a second income!

Andrew Neil … Michael, how has parliament come to this, if David’s right?

Michael Portillo Well it has come to it, as most things do, by degrees…. When you reach a stage  that many members of parliament are more loyal to the government even the government of which they are not members than they are to the House of Commons, then that is very serious and very important because it means they have no recognition of the role that the House Commons is meant to play. They have no recognition of the importance of the privileges

Andrew Neil Is this new have they always been like that - in modern times?

Michael Portillo They’ve been like it throughout my period in the House of Commons, more and more, year by year. I think the thing is continually getting worse. But yes I’m sure we’ve been on a downward trend for a very long time. I just want to say the one person who stood out a little during the week was Harriet Harman who, even though she is a senior member of the government, seemed to have some recognition of what was at stake.

David Starkey She slithered so badly, didn’t she? It was very interesting watching her on Newsnight last night. Even she was unable to say she actually supported the Speaker. She couldn’t say she supported the Sergeant at Arms, and yet of course the fact is that parliament itself, the House of Commons, is now managed by the government totally, absolutely and completely, We know that there was that meeting between the Home Secretary and the Speaker and the Justice Secretary which was to set up reactions

Andrew Neil And the prime minister supported the Speaker today

David Starkey And the prime minister supported the Speaker today

Andrew Neil Shouldn’t MP’s be more angry about this than they are, Diane?

Diane Abbot. I think MPs are agitated and angry. But it’s all confused with a very partisan reaction

David Starkey I agree

Diane Abbot Generally (because I’ve been in the house this week) there is a view in the Labour Party (a very wrong view actually) that arresting Damien Green and holding him for nine hours is somehow tit for tit for arresting Ruth Turner and all stuff that went on

[Go to for an account of the Ruth Turner affair that took place in January 2008]

David Starkey Who is not an MP

Diane Abbot I know, I know. The thing I have to say it that I don’t think that that many people in my cabinet have much appreciation of constitutional stuff. Tony Blair was never a House of Commons man

Andrew Neil Never any interest in history

Diane Abbot No, no, Gordon Brown perhaps a little bit more. Of the current cabinet Jack Straw is what I would call a House of Commons man and Harriet Harman to a certain extent. But generally you don’t rise in the modern Labour Party through being a good parliamentarian. It’s command control.

Andrew Neil Damien Green’s arrest, in your view David, is that symptomatic of something that has been going wrong for quite a while in our constitution?

David Starkey I think it’s a symptom of two things. It is what Michael and Diane have talked about. It’s a house that no longer sees itself as holding the government to account, [a house] that its majority sees Itself as having an absolute and undivided loyalty to the government, which goes over everything else and tramples over everything else

Diane Abbot Really, that’s extraordinary. The party has moved so much to the right in my time but it is really ruled by the Central Committee


David Starkey It’s a one party state

Diane Abbot It’s that notion that the Central Committee decides and you carry it out



Diane Abbot’s reference to the all-powerful, but unseen, “Central Committee” may surprise some. It almost sounds like some kind of faceless nomenclature. But whatever it is, it seems to be more influential then the institution of government we are all familiar with – the House of Commons

In this discussion all four participants were very much of the same mind. The executive more and more dominates the House of Commons and the proud tradition of independence from government that the House once had is now very much diminished.

Republicans have always understood that if the power of the executive is unchecked by the constitution then it will always extend itself. This is the age old principle that we have seen played out under successive Prime Ministers of this country. This phenomenon was well described in Bruce P. Lenman’s The Eclipse of Parliament published in 1992 covering the period 1914-92. Since that date under both the conservatives and New Labour it has continued unabated.

In next week’s Civic Republican Newsletter we continue the This Week discussion where the “Criminalisation of Politics” is agreed by all participants to be a feature of Britain today.



If you wish to comment on these articles or any other matter email


…….Until next week