When two honest men met in Parliament, one was shot and the other hanged. Though two centuries old, the story sheds light on current issues of democracy and government.
The date was May 11, 1812 and Prime Minister Spencer Perceval had arrived to take part in a debate. In the lobby, John Bellingham stepped forward and shot him at close range with a half-inch pistol ball; Perceval staggered back, took a couple of steps forward and died immediately.
Rather than run, Bellingham identified himself as the ‘unfortunate’ perpetrator and sat down quietly, awaiting a trial that he expected to exonerate him, for, as he later explained to the court, he had spent five years as a victim of injustice in Russian jails while British officials had done nothing to assist him; and on his return to England his subsequent petitions for redress had been refused or ignored. Latterly, Perceval himself had told Bellingham (incorrectly, it seems) that the time limit for petitions had passed. Perhaps the fatal moment of decision came when a civil servant at the Treasury had said ‘that I had nothing to expect, and that I was at liberty to take such steps as I thought fit,’ which he interpreted as ‘a carte blanche from the British government to right myself in any way I might be able to discover.’
It wasn’t even a personal grudge against Perceval. Bellingham said that as a gentleman he had the right to exact satisfaction from any member of the Government, as sharing collective responsibility, and would have preferred shooting the Ambassador to Russia who had been the first to deny him help. However, the murder was seen by others as a wider political act – there was rejoicing in Nottingham, Leicester and Sheffield where many people saw Perceval as a reactionary fighting against radical demands for reform. Also, a Frenchman who witnessed Bellingham’s inevitable execution wrote four years later that the crowd’s mindset was ‘Farewell poor man, you owe satisfaction to the offended laws of your country, but God bless you! you have rendered an important service to your country, you have taught ministers that they should do justice, and grant audience when it is asked of them,’ and noted that the public subscribed handsomely to support the financially ruined man’s widow and children.
For their part, Parliament voted a large sum to provide for Perceval’s family; unlike so many holders of public office past and present, the Prime Minister had neglected to monetise his position and influence and had barely more than £100 at the bank when he died. He seems to have been a principled man in public life and a loving husband and father. In person, he could hardly have made a more unsuitable target for Bellingham’s revenge.
Yet the question remains, whom should the Government serve, and how?
The long British struggle with the autocratic power of the Crown, leading to the rebellious barons’ Magna Carta in several versions in the thirteenth century, then bursting out in civil war in the sixteenth as absolutist Scots monarchy overstepped the mark, and again in the seventeenth in fear of pan-European Catholic authoritarianism, ended with the current model of the ‘Crown in Parliament’; but although that cat had finally been belled, its power passed down to the office of the Prime Minister and the other Cabinet Ministers past and present, all automatically members of the monarch’s Privy Council. We have seen how fast the Prime Minister, the Cabinet and the Council can override the customary liberties of the subject – the late Tony Benn warned that it could abolish our civil rights in an afternoon, and so it has proved.
Ironically, the instrument used was not the terrifying Civil Contingencies Act 2004 that as Lord Sumption has noted is hedged about by stringent and frequent Parliamentary reviews (despite which, we must be thankful that the Constitutionally inventive Mr Blair had no opportunity to use it), but an older health Act whose provisions have been so generously reinterpreted as to accommodate every whim of the Minister for Health. When he issues an ukase, we must obey, and the police who used to be our local guardians of the law have become almost a national militia to enforce (and even gold-plate) his centralised directives.
The ease with which this happened sets a dangerous precedent for some possible future administration with a much more radical and potentially oppressive agenda - let us look across the Atlantic for an example of Constitutional tinkering seemingly aimed at enabling a power-grab by the Executive. Here, now, we have another cat that needs a bell, and it is a matter for the deepest regret that the Opposition has failed to act adequately in probing and challenging the wielders of power. So many in Parliament, including the present Labour leader himself, are lawyers; have they forgotten how to cross-examine?
For whom do our MPs work?
Edmund Burke told his constituents that he represented their interests rather than their opinions, and we see from the bitter squabbling on social media and elsewhere how divisive an Athenian-style direct democracy could be. The representative model suited a time when much of the economy was local and regional and it took days to ride to Westminster; other forms of communication were similarly slow and piecemeal.
Now, we have mass media yet are better able to judge and vote the winner of a television talent contest than who is to be our Mayor or Police and Crime Commissioner. In the latest elections I read the statements by the local PCC candidates and while they all seemed to be against crime (rather than for releasing all prisoners and sacking the entire police force) there was precious little to convince me as to who would do the job most effectively; TV seemed little interested in informing me about them, rather than about singers and dancers.
There is also the issue of voter numbers. Before the 1832 Reform Act few people had the franchise: on average, about 1,200 per constituency - famously, the pocket borough of Old Sarum had only seven electors, themselves nominated by the landowner since the houses where people had once lived no longer existed. It was therefore likely that a voter would recognise the Member of Parliament and be able to speak to him.
The average modern British constituency has over 73,000 voters (as at the 2019 General Election.) If the Parliamentary candidate wished to address (and listen to) them all at the same time, he/she would have to book a football stadium; and if we reduced Parliamentary seats by 50 to 600 (as Mr Cameron and others wished) that average would rise to over 79,000 – only Twickenham or Wembley could cope. Even now, 16 English constituencies have more than the 90,000 voters that Wembley might accommodate (headed by the Isle of Wight at over 110,000.) How could we make our individual voice heard in that size of crowd?
The answer is that we can’t. Rather than standing for us in Parliament, some MPs seem to think it is their duty to represent their Party to us. Once voted in, the successful MP need not do very much (although, to be fair, many try) to keep us contented. Disciplinary feedback is via the Party leader’s office, unless the MP is a Minister https://www.ombudsman.org.uk/making-complaint/if-we-cant-help/members-parliament . A 2009 court ruling http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/8025255.stm said that there is no legal remedy if your MP ignores you. There are of course various Codes of Conduct and the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards https://www.parliament.uk/pcs/ can help to bring pressure, but strictly speaking Statute law will not stand with you when you have a complaint. https://medium.com/from-mysociety/are-representatives-legally-obliged-to-reply-to-constituents-1ce79034e007 . Worse still, the Party system has become so strong that even an excellent, very hard-working and independent-minded MP can lose his seat if he/she loses the Party’s support, as we saw with Frank (now, deservedly, Lord) Field https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Field,_Baron_Field_of_Birkenhead#Resignation_of_the_Labour_whip .
The new wine of integrated economics and modern communications threatens to burst the old skin of the political system. There is much work to do, to make the Mother of Parliaments fit for use.