Interpreting Parliament, but how?

by Marc Geddes

What interests me in the study of Parliament is the way in which everyday life is so unpredictable, chaotic, reactive and consistently beset by challenges. Yet simultaneously, to the outside world at least, Parliament looks stable and ordered, static and unchanging. We often make sense of this order by appealing to the Westminster Model (WM), a tradition characterised by sovereignty of parliamentary law, centrality of individual ministerial responsibility, and the selection of the executive through a competitive and adversarial electoral system. Through the WM, we have come to view Parliament as powerless. And of course, in many ways, this is true – the government controls the vast majority of the parliamentary timetable and Parliament is unable to block legislation except through a backbench rebellion, to name two examples. But this does not make the House of Commons powerless or, as two academics called it recently, ‘peripheral’ to British politics (see chapter 25 of The Blunders of our Governments). The threat of backbench rebellion itself makes sure that governments listen to their backbenchers, something which David Cameron and his very small majority will have to watch carefully. This relationship is only one of many – between parties, between MPs and constituents, between MPs and staff, between chairs of committees and MPs serving on them, and many more besides. These relationships are all interwoven and interact on a daily basis. Some of these create temporary alliances, others inculcate friendships and camaraderie. These relationships make an important impact on the way that the House of Commons operates on a micro-level. The key point to take away from this is that relationships do matter and that, consequently, Parliament more broadly matters. The key to understanding its impact is not necessarily to always look at the grand institutional narratives, but the smaller, micro-level practices that create that narrative.

Despite a rather negative portrayal of the House of Commons, select committees are often singled out as the exception and regularly touted as ‘powerful’, or growing more and more influential. Indeed, Keith Vaz, chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, recently heralded our times as ‘the age of select committees’ at a Hansard Society event on 20 July 2015. The academic literature on committees is more nuanced, but often praises committees as influential. Unfortunately, the literature also predominantly focuses on the outputs of committee reports, and the possible impact that they can have on legislation (for an exception, see Hannah White’s recent research for the Institute for Government). These are worthy goals, and such studies have made a worthwhile and significant contribution to how we understand Parliament. However, I also believe that, to study the value and effectiveness of committees, we need to look towards the everyday practices of committees. Any assessment of their impact – legislative or otherwise – often depends on the make-up and style of committee. This can include things like the character, personality and perceived gravitas of the chair, the reputation of the committee (and gossip over divisions in reports), and even the writing style of clerks that often draft reports. It also depends on the lines of inquiry a committee pursues (whether in a single evidence session or over the course of a parliamentary session), the relationship between civil servants and parliamentary staff, the extent of party group loyalty, and interest by the media and the public. It arguably also depends on the evidence that a committee receives, and what MPs find interesting and important (testimonies of service users, reveries of civil servants, or findings from think tank researchers). Once you add all of these things up, it shows that the influence of a select committee report relies on much, much more than a report. It also demonstrates that there are a lot of different ways in which MPs can influence decision-making. It is not if committees matter but a question of how.

In order to focus on the ‘how’, rather than the ‘if’, we need to look more closely at the central role of ideas in political analysis. In other words, a closer focus on how politicians and staff interpret their role, and how they wish to enact that role when they are in the House of Commons. This is vital to fully grasp the way in which select committees and everyday practices can make an impact on decision-making. In order to do so, I am adopting an interpretive framework of analysis to understand more closely how chairs of select committees, MPs serving on them, and clerks supporting them, interpret parliamentary scrutiny and their place in the wider scrutiny framework. I am also looking at how MPs take and interpret evidence given to committees, how they construct consensus through relationships with one another, and how their everyday practices affect scrutiny processes more generally. I rely on semi-structured interviews, ethnographic techniques of observation, and textual analysis of parliamentary records, and interpret the rituals, ceremonials and day-to-day life of politicians and staff. In undertaking this type of research, I am not trying to argue that the Westminster Model is outdated, or that the way we study Parliament at the moment is wrong. I merely wish to point out that the WM is not a monolithic model with only one interpretation. MPs and staff both support and violate the Model in different ways and at different times through their everyday practices. An interpretive approach allows us to make sense of their behaviour, and, in refocusing the analytical lens from institutions to practices, shed new light on old questions: what are parliamentarians doing and what are they doing it for? What is their role in our parliamentary system? In asking these questions, I hope to be in a better position to contribute to debates about the effectiveness and influence of our Parliament.

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Note, this piece has since been published on the blog for the PSA Specialist Group on Parliaments and Legislatures, which is available here.

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