What is the British Parliament these days?

Mr Gerry Adams, a Member of Parliament, and a Member of the Northern Ireland Legislative Assembly, and a Member of Sinn Fein, is seeking a seat in the Dail Eireann. What prodigious and explosive energy he must have secreted away.

Many excited commentators seem to think that he will not resign his westminster seat and will, consequently, be the first member of both elected legislatures since partition; I qualify the point since I'm fairly sure that Seamus Mallon and Brid Rodgers were nominated to the Senead, though not at the same time they were MPs. Mallon famously lost a case on a related point in the ECHR. Dr Ian Paisley, a sonic consultant from the textual world, was also more or less an Irish member of the European Parliament as well as a Westminster man for a long time, as I recall.

The Adams development would fit neatly with the Irish presidency, which has a history of occupation by individuals not necessarily from the Republic, as fits a people in diaspora. It is a major play by the leaders of the formerly armed and provisional republican movement in the north.

There's an interesting legal overhang from the Good Friday Agreement here. Before 2000, it would have been difficult for Mr Adams to get around schedule 1, section 5 of the House of Commons (Disqualification) Act 1975, which disallows membership of a foreign legislature not in the commonwealth. However, Her Majesty's Government specifically amended the 1975 act in the Disqualification Act 2000.

This situation now brings Britain into line with the law in Northern Ireland, which was initially changed by the Northern Ireland Act 1998 s36(5), allowing members of the Dail and Seanad to sit in the commons, and with the law in the Republic, which has allowed a distinguished list of northern and diaspora politicians access to the highest offices there.

What a strange melting archipelago we live in. I sometimes find myself wondering what will come of the crisis in the republic and the tensions inside Britain. For instance, is anyone else struck by how strange a body like The Council of the Isles really is? The 41st meeting of the British-Irish-Celtic Parliamentary Assembly, which is an official body, is being held on the Isle of Man later this month. Go on; how many of you knew that, and how many of us really care? The central indifference of the people of these islands to the way in which they are formally governed is almost Italian at times, except that we lack that people's obsessive interest in the minutiae, the English more than the Irish.

What next? It's not too hard to imagine some 2050 reform of the House of Lords involving incorporation of Majlis representatives or dual citizens from the arc of instability in west asia and north africa, but born or bred in England. We're really back to a question that Ben Franklin tried to put to Parliament before the American war, of obtaining representation for people not directly in Britain within the British Parliament;

What are MPs for?

Franklin was told that they 'virtually represented' everyone in Britain and exercised their judgment only for Britain, so he could not sit amongst them. Parliament was thus sticking to Anthony Henry's old script rather well. But they represented overseas lands and the Empire too, and this caused immense strain over time. The interesting thing was that, unlike the French, every time the English had to choose between overseas advantage and parliament at home--1776 being a good example, since things could have been resolved by the incorporation of an American Parliament--England chose westminster.

Alexander Venn Dicey, later in the nineteenth century, set up a vast totem pole and called it Parliament. He said that the institution was unchanging and supreme. He achieved this through an intellectual act of smoke and mirrors to stop Home Rule, even though he had only practised in the tax tribunals and was really on shaky 'British' if not English ground with the complicated doctrines he set up.

Bagehot and others embraced the idea that parliament was supreme, and unitary. That suited them. Parliament, for the Victorians, could not divide or share its power because it should not because it became a substitute or a vessel for God depending on the side involved at some point around 1870. If a parliament wished to change itself in a major way, a future parliament could change itself back, and anyway, it should ask the people in a referendum, he argued, confusingly; but because Parliament held the crown, Parliament was sovereign. Democracy and constitutionalism, which have often been convenient fictions in England, were thus both shibboleths and reversible experiments.

Making parliament a central political fact meant that a written constitution could be avoided, and Britain could be governed instead by conventions, which were rules that the men who sat in parliament all learned at their housemaster's knee. Neither made them subject to the courts, entry to the higher parts of which was through them anyway.

Lawyers still get taught Dicey, but if they read the originals they would see what he was up to. Well, I hope that they would. I did, with an old book in a propeller plane over the Great lakes and farm states of America, once.

The truth is that Parliament has limited itself on multiple occasions. Before Dicey, it did so in the Reform Acts, for example, and presumably in the Act of Union of 1707 since an English Parliament could not unmake the British one and for Dicey the English one was the original. After Dicey, the Parliament Acts, the Representation of the People Acts, and the European Communities Act 1972 all fundamentally limited Parliament.

Even when Ireland became partially free, Parliament had a sort of fit of pique and refused to recognise that there was any difference between Irish and British citizenships, issued by different bodies for about seventy years. I can't complain; the only reason I stopped using the Irish passport I have alongside my British one was the difficulty of explaining it to American border police and, no doubt, to Heathrow security people whose numbers would be all messed up by people like me. A confusion over the integrity of my state validated identities would no doubt fail to compute.

That doesn't stop some people talking rubbish about the doctrine though, as though it were still alive. It benefits the egoes of politicians and the minds of lawyers to do so. That's all ephemeral. What matters is that Dicey's elegant, organic-crystal attempt to create a doctrine of parliamentary supremacy that would comprehensively stop an Irish parliament has crumbled beneath the pressures of the early twenty first century. It was on notice from 1912, if truth be told, but it took seventy five years or so to give up the ghost, and even then it staggered on. Now it's gone. Anyone from anywhere can be a member, so long as they express the right mixture of contempt for something and self-importance. It seems somehow fitting that a man like Adams, who is in a serious way important, would show that up, if anyone needed showing.

I think that it is time to admit that Parliament as a whole just does not work. It should, but it does not. An unfortunate and poisonous infestation of professional politicians doesn't help, but they are part of the pathology of the illness, not the cause.

The crown incorporated itself as supreme after the land-grab of the Tudor gang in 1533. Parliament grabbed at the crown in 1649. It got it, dropped it, and then claimed a capacity to resore it in 12 years later. This Crown-in-Parliament was a fiction in 1661. It was confirmed as such in 1689. It built itself onto stilts after the long disgrace of the bloody-code ridden eighteenth century, and its high point of the early and middle twentieth century is long past. The place is a vast floating wreck in worse shape than Brunel's great SS Great Britain used to be at Bristol, because the idea behind it is so confused and mad. It is a giraffe with a trunk, an elephant with wings. It belongs in a museum.

So long as this is the truth that dare not speak its name, no one is going to get anywhere. But what will also happen is that the political and media class will keep replicating alternatives and substitutes that mean very little to anyone and that only benefit people with an agenda, and they'll be using our money to do it whilst real power and the potential for real popular representation is transferred elsewhere.

Which brings us back to Mr Adams, the head of an organisation with a vast and shadowy budget about which I do not intend to blog. Mind the roads in County Louth. It's probably best to be polite to everyone down there, you never know who you're talking to; I mean, one of them could own a bank, or the republic, or something.


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