Kenny MacAskill: An empty House of Commons is an afront to the country
The festive season is halfway through and Brexit looms. Yes, government needs to respect staff holidays, as well as recognise that some work just can’t be done at this time of year when much shuts down anyway. Batteries need to be recharged and other governments are taking a break. So, there’s a limit to what can be done.
Those who argue that parliament should sit 9-5 for 48 weeks of the year don’t appreciate that recesses are needed. Timetabling and staff energies require it and though much of it can be a legislative machine, breaks are still needed to input and devise strategy, policy and most importantly of all the detail, wherein the devil lies.
But whilst government may go into recess, governance never stops and being a minister is a 24/7 job. That’s why there’s been ministerial conference calls over the drone incident at Gatwick. It’s a full-on job that’s hard to imagine until it’s upon you. At the outset of my own tenure in office I received kind and helpful advice from former Labour ministers but nothing can really prepare you for the reality.
It’s not just a shifting up a gear from being a politician but crashing through them and into overdrive. The phone is always on and there’s really no such thing as down time. Staff try to respect your right to some peace and privacy but some things just can’t be avoided. That means holidays being interrupted and crisis calls in the middle of the night. I was going to the theatre when the Glasgow Airport bombing took place and in bed going to sleep when the Police helicopter tragically came down. Needless to say, both were immediately off the agenda as demands of office took over.
Of course, ministers vary in their work rate and that applies everywhere not just in the UK. Before Trump took the presidency to a new nadir with endless golf breaks and private business sojourns, his predecessor Obama was noted for declining important meetings for family events. Whilst admirable in some ways it still caused alarm for staff. But when crisis comes all governments should react. It’s an honour and a privilege to be in high office and the public are entitled to expect no less. Moreover, as with the emergency services when these crises occur, civil servants were either already on duty or immediately headed into St Andrew’s House or other offices. Plans prepared were implemented and other aspects devised as a strategy developed and requirements unfolded.
The maligning of civil servants all too frequently gratuitously dispensed is grossly unfair on them generally but especially on those, at whatever level, who prepare for and deal with crises when they occur. The Blue Light services are rightly venerated but thanks should also be given to those in suits or more often in their casual gear who have answered the call and headed for their posts.
So normally an extended festive break makes sense in government, as in some other fields. But these aren’t normal times. 29th March is fast approaching and in parliamentary and political terms that’s very, very soon. HMS Brexit is heading at full speed towards the rocks. In the absence of a settlement then ‘No Deal’ beckons with the catastrophe that it will bring.
This Christmas has seen the pound languishing and jobs and investments being lost. Many families will have been at home under a cloud rather than the mistletoe. EU citizens fearful of their right to remain, UK citizens worried whether their jobs will still exist and others of all nationalities fretting on anything from the availability of medical supplies to the ability to travel.
Which is why it’s truly shameful that parliament will not be reconvening until the second week of January and government seems either oblivious to or incapable of addressing the urgency of the situation. This is a time of such urgency that parliament should be returning early and government should be continuously on the case, despite the pressures of this time of year. Making a few thousand troops available is criminal negligence, not answering the crisis.
The prime minister and her cronies are to blame as it now seems to be part of a deliberate strategy to try and force MPs to choose between her deal and no deal. That’s compounded by some even blaming the absence of a plan on the civil servants trying to sort out the mess created by the lack of direction. The official leader of the Opposition appears to be equally complicit as he continues to try and engineer Brexit whilst ostensibly opposing it. At least Theresa May has the decency to now say she’s for Leave even if she half-heartedly supported Remain.
In many ways though it just epitomises the arrogance that permeates the very pores of Westminster. It is the political embodiment of an English public school designed to create a feeling of conceit, if not superiority, and it afflicts many from whatever party, as it inculcates the very pores. I’ve had reason to question some of my own party colleagues from there as to whether they were literally asking me or telling me.
But it was constructed as the empire seemed ever-expanding and it was never envisaged that the sun might set upon it. It was built to impress and arguably suppress. However, as a place to work it’s sorely lacking, with space limited and technology lacking. Likewise, its procedures are archaic and unsuitable for 21st century democracy. Members’ behaviour goes beyond the rough and tumble of politics with the chamber enshrining bullying and abuse. It’s been so long before the recent snide remarks to the SNP leader. Over a century ago it failed to even acknowledge Keir Hardie’s passing. It’s dysfunctional and antediluvian.
Hopefully saner voices can pull us back from the brink but it’s time for it to go. I’d prefer Scottish independence but failing that it’s time for a fresh start in a new building outside London.