Towards Better Democracy

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Steven Bell’s cartoon for today’s Guardian Newspaper

screen shot 2019-01-09 at 14.19.04

Illustration: Steve Bell for the Guardian Wednesday 9 January,y, 2018 Copyright Steve Bell 2018/All Rights Reserved

This is a most curios political cartoon.

First, though, notice the speed at which it had been drawn and published. (

“This was the great political power struggle of our times – and ministers lost”

) The topic of, and depiction in, the cartoon are as a result of the Speaker of the House of Commons having made a ruling which overturned centuries old precedent in the UK Parliament’s Lower House. Bear in mind, that, as with Common Law in the UK, the United Kingdom does not have a written Constitution. Precedent is all, therefore.

What the cartoon shows is the Speaker of the House of Commons, in full dress which he does not normally wear, followed by the Clerks of the House.

All Speakers through time immortal have been preceded into and out of the House of Commons by the Mace. The Mace is symbolic of the Queen’s presence in Parliament, specifically the House of Commons, as the UK’s ruling Monarch. Business in the House cannot be conducted without its presence nor can laws be passed.

Her Majesty is represented in day to day actions by a Government, Her Majesty’s Government, composed of Ministers drawn the elected representatives of the voting population of Great Britain and Northern Island, at the head of which is the Prime Minister, which position is currently occupied by one Mrs Teresa May.

Instead of the Mace, which on a couple of occasions in recent times, has been made an instrument of debate, the current prime minister is being carried by the customary custodian of the Mace.

How many layers of meaning Bell intended to cover is not known and may never be. There are many. Let’s consider only a few.

The Speaker’s job is to mediate debate and attend to points of order. His role is symbolic, as attested to by the robes of office Bell furnishes him with.

He cannot vote and cannot speak outside his role of ensuring orderly conduct in the House.

In plain terms, the current PM is depicted here as having become Bervow’s (the current Speaker) hostage.  In doing so he is holding to ransom the Government of the day of which she is head.

Now, he is not doing this on his personal behalf but as representative of House Members, Ministers of the Crown and ordinary Members alike, hence his regnal garb.

What he is doing, in fact, is to hold the Queen, the UK’s constitutional monarch, hostage: Her Majesty’s Government rules at Her Majesty’s pleasure.

The significance of Bell’s depiction goes back to Runnymede, to that point in British history, where, for the first time –  and from that time onward – those whom the King ruled could contradict the Monarch and even disobey him, or her.

In other words, the Monarch of Britain no longer had absolute power over His or Her subjects, but ruled by consent.

Naturally, power, being power, always seeks to be in the hands of the more powerful. Successive monarchs, post Runnymede, have sought to wrest power back to allow them to make arbitrary decisions.

Over the centuries, power has devolved more and more to common people – hence the House of Commons. To ensure the perpetuity of this arrangement, enfranchisement – the ability to vote into power who you want to represent you in government, has been extended to all subjects of Great Britain over the age of 18, including, recently,, women.

What the present speaker did today in Parliament was to, through a departure from precedent, restore power to the Elected and away from the Crown. Or, put more correctly, the Balance of Power.

Malcolm D B Munro
Wednesday 9 January, 2019





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