The David Starkey Interview

The historian David Starkey was interviewed by Brendan O’Neill of Spiked. He compares recent events in Parliament with events in the 17th century:

We’re going through the events of the 17th century as farce. What those people were doing, that noble gentleman I think he was a Scot Nat who fell across the speaker, he was trying to re-enact the role of the Commons in 1629 when the speaker was held down to prevent the proroguing of Parliament at the will of Charles I.

Rather than being suddenly silenced with desperate amounts of business waiting to be dealt with, they have sat for the longest single session since the long Parliament. It was 810 days. It cost one and a half billion Pounds, and they did bugger all. They did worse than bugger all: they buggered things up. What happened? It’s very clear. No legislation of any significance was passed in three years. Not only that, they stopped any decisions being taken. We are in a nightmare. We are in this sealed world that you can’t get out of because we’re bound into it by another catastrophic peice of legislation, the Fixed Term Parliament Act, which looks directly back to the Civil War.

Parliament in 1641 passed an act that it couldn’t be dissolved without its own consent. It then turns into a vicious oligarchy that sits until 1653 when it has to be chased out at the point of a bayonet by Cromwell. That’s where we are.

I think the best feature of all this is that no legislation has passed. Other than that this seems about right. Starkey goes on to discuss the role of MPs, the speaker, and the government.

In legal theory, the members of the Commons are representatives and they have the role that was enunciated in the famous letter to the electors of Bristol by Edmund Burke. “I owe you my discretion; I don’t merely owe you my vote.” That was nearly 250 years ago when there was no democracy and politics was run by a handful of families like the Marquess of Rockingham to whom he was the paid lackey (and by the way the electors of Bristol threw him out). There is a very vague relationship between Parliament and democracy. We have had Parliament for 800 years. We’ve had democracy for less than a century. And the great issue was: how do you reconcile the previous tradition of representative in a non-democratic Parliament with the position of delegate in a democratic Parliament. And the way it was dealt with — this is what all the fuss, all the things that we are talking about: Erskine May, A V Dicey, they all appear at a particular moment of time. They appear in the middle of the 1880s because it’s the 1884 reform act that introduces something like democracy.

But you see we’ve never worked out the relationship between the fact that we’ve got two sovereigns. There is the legal sovereign which is the Crown in Parliament and there is the real, political sovereign which is the sovereign people behind them. But what we did, and this is why Bercow’s behaviour is so disastrous; it’s why Theresa May’s behaviour has been so catastrophic: what we developed thanks to Erskine May and the Parliamentary Handbook and endorsed by Dicey, we developed a whole series of devices. They were conventions that turned MPs from more or less representatives into more or less delgates. And what are these things? They’re party affiliation. They are manifestos. They’re standing on a ticket and they’re being whipped when they’re in the house. That is the thing that binds them to the popular vote. No MP; Dominic Grieve was not elected in a personal capacity. He was elected because he stood as a Tory on a Tory manifesto which promised Brexit. That man did not dissent at the time. His claims to dignity, his claims to acting honourably, are totally false.

There are other rules in Erskine May about the procedures of Commons business which gives the government the basic control of the parliamentary timetable. Otherwise what happens is the house just dissolves into a talking shop. Becuase MPs have refused to vote for any deal: they’re strong in the negative but they’re hopelessly weak in the positive. They can’t agree on anything. We developed a series of conventions in the 1880s that turn MPs into something like the representatives of the people and what has sytematically happened in this Parliament: we have broken those conventions.

Theresa May’s loss of the election and her absurd notion that you can keep people with completely contradictory opinions on a main platform of government policy in the same party broke down the whipping system. Bercow broke down the government’s control of legislation. And you’re left with this chaotic mess.

Later there is discussion of the validity of the referendum result:

All the referendum act does: it specifies the question and it specifies the day on which it will be put. In other words, no protections were built into it at all because George Osborne said, “easy peasy we’re going to win this”. In theory, yes the referendum is advisory because of the sovereignty of Parliament. But that’s the legal sphere. The political sphere was that Cameron said publicly and repeatedly: we will honour the results of the referendum. And the leaflet went to every house in the country. That is political. At the moment the legal sovereign refers itself directly to the political sovereign on a key issue on a binary vote, only a fool would challenge that. And the argument that because it was a narrow vote it doesn’t count: every single general election is a vote of a few percent. The landslides of Blair were all secured with a fraction of the number of voters for leave.

We’ve got degrees of deceit, of chicanery, of double-talk because simply: they did not like the result. They saw it as an act of rebellion.

This all seems like useful context for understanding the impending realignment.

Updated: 18th September 2019 — 10:26 am


  1. I seem to remember that Douglas Carswell issued a dissenting manifesto when standing as a Conservative; I guess in 2010. It was something like, ” I will faithfully support everything in the manifesto apart from the bits about the EU.” Carswell also had the honour to resign his seat and fight a by-election when he switched parties.

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