Article - Parliament

Last week, in Westminster, marked the anniversary of the senseless attack on innocent civilians and the more purposeful effort to attack Parliament, in which PC Keith Palmer died in the line of duty.

In one sense, of course, this was a sad reminder of death and destruction – and a reminder, too, of the extent of our vulnerability to any form of terrorism that includes a willingness to commit suicide.

But, alongside these somewhat morbid and daunting thoughts, the anniversary reminds us also of something that is a permanent cause for hope and optimism.

So far from destroying or even abating our democracy, this attack – like all its predecessors over many centuries – left Parliament functioning at the centre of Britain’s democratic system. Neither bombs from the air, nor bombs placed in buildings, nor attempts at physical entry have been sufficient to dim the enthusiasm of Britain for its democratic institutions or to disrupt for more than a moment or two the operation of those institutions.

There is much to celebrate in this. And it also helps to bring home that we can’t take these safeguards of our liberty and stability for granted.

It is not an accident, but an achievement, that we are a country in which these institutions persist despite the many vicissitudes to which they have inevitably been subjected to over the course of their history.

From time to time during the past few decades, it has been fashionable in certain quarters to ask whether the House of Commons really fulfils any important function in a democracy whose main concern is to elect and dismiss governments. And I have to admit that I myself have occasionally wondered whether Parliament (as opposed to the electorate at large) really constituted any effective check on the executive in the age of the internet.

But the attack of last year came at a time when Parliament was reasserting itself as the centre of the national debate, and that has continued over the year since the attack. Whatever else Brexit has done or will do, the process of leaving the EU has given Parliament a new lease of life.

Part of this, of course, is due to the importance of the subjects being debated and the amount of legislation required to deal with them. Part, also, is due to the fact that we are in a hung parliament that generates narrow majorities on many occasions and therefore generates genuine doubts about the outcome, which of course lends interest to the proceedings.

But what is heartening is that this ancient institution has also risen to the challenge. With many of the debates achieving a level of seriousness, honesty and rhetorical power quite different from anything that I had experienced over the previous two decades.

It is an open question whether this increasing intellectual self-confidence and seriousness of purpose – and, indeed, the position of Parliament relative to the government machine will continue once the Brexit legislation has been completed and the UK has left the EU. But perhaps one of the opportunities – and not the least of the opportunities – that we have, post-Brexit is for the Crown and Parliament now again to be the ultimate sovereign and for Parliament to live up to that role by acting in the way that a sovereign power should act.