The Elephant in the Corner

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The Power and Value of Saying “No”

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Why is our so-called democracy in such a mess? Consider this recent contribution on the matter from my local MP Humfrey Malins on November 3rd 2009:

“As the years have gone by, I have wondered more and more what the real duties of a Member of Parliament are. Today, they seem to be to attend to e-mails every five seconds and to respond on diverse subjects to constituents on matters about which I know very little. Our real duty, which is to scrutinise legislation—to look at it line by line—seems no longer to be important or the part of our lives that it should be.

I remember, in the days when I was in Committees upstairs, time after time the habit crept in of putting in the knives and the guillotine motions, which meant that whole chunks of Bills that I was taking through Standing Committees were never debated, neither in Committee nor in this House. That is a tragedy.

We all need to ask ourselves what is the role of a Member of Parliament now and what it will be over the next 10 years. Will it simply be instantly to react to a news story or can we please get back to the days when we examined legislation line by line and made our own arguments and amendments? The truth of the matter is that if I have an amendment or argument I want to make it, and I want the views of all hon. Members to be heard. If I lose the argument by a vote or because I have made it badly, that is that, but at least I have made it. Day after day, the trend continues that the opportunities for Members of this House properly to do the job for which they were elected, in my judgment, are gradually disappearing.”

I couldn’t agree more in many respects, but with the best will in the world I can’t help wondering to what extent Mr. Malins, his colleagues and several generations of his predecessors in Parliament have brought the current crisis of legitimacy upon themselves.

One of the subjects on which Mr. Malins professes ignorance is economics. Perhaps I shouldn’t blame him unduly for that, but I can’t help asking a couple of simple questions either. I address them not only to Mr. Malins, but to all current MP’s and Prospective Parliamentary Candidates:

  1. If an MP doesn’t understand the likely consequences of spending billions of pounds of other people’s money, wouldn’t it be best to either find out or at least abstain from voting for the Bill?
  2. I’ve been told repeatedly by many different people over the years that I should never sign a contract without reading and understanding it in full beforehand. Why do so many MP’s presume that Parliamentary Bills, which bind them and 60 million others once enacted, should be exempt from this general rule?

The best short answer I can find to these questions is that we are all trying to raise and be followers rather than leaders. Followers, by nature, are expected to hear the word of command, say “Yes” and do what they’re told. Leaders, by contrast, are expected to listen to the advice, instructions, requests, pleas, threats and offers cast their way by others, weigh up as much pertinent evidence as they can lay their hands on… and then decide for themselves.

The biggest single difference between a leader and a follower is that a real leader can and does say “No”, even if it means treading that path alone. In human terms, the true leader begins by learning to lead himself. Only then will he be ready to lead others. The ability and willingness to say “No” while being mindful of the moral and practical consequences of doing so, is always and everywhere the mark of a free human being, however misguided or flawed the reasoning behind the decision may be.

The Jesus who forbade his followers from swearing oaths told them rather to speak the truth in a decisive and straightforward manner: “let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’, and your ‘No’, ‘No'” (Matthew 5:37). It’s one thing to teach our children obedience as a corrective for the stubborn, immature wilfulness that we can all display at our worst; but in teaching our children to let their “Yes” be “Yes”, let’s not forget the liberating power and value of teaching them that sometimes it’s entirely right for us to say “No” – regardless of who we’re speaking to. “Even God?!” I hear you ask. Well, take a look at Exodus 32:7-14 and see what you think.

So what of Mr. Malins, who will be standing down at the next election? Enoch Powell is supposed to have said that every political career ends in failure. I think Mr. Malins is currently tempted to agree with this. But at least he appears to have developed some understanding as to why. I suppose that is success of a sort… and both you and he may be interested to know that I have plans in hand to address Parliament’s sorry record in the area of legislative scrutiny.

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Written by salternlight

November 5, 2009 at 12:48 pm