I blame Aaron Sorkin. He wrote a schmaltzy episode of The West Wing in which an elderly senator derails a healthcare bill by filibustering. Senator Stackhouse’s age (and stamina), cause and motivation are all carefully constructed; he wins the hearts of the White House senior staff as well as (we assume) everyone else’s. We are left in no doubt: the Stackhouse Filibuster is a noble thing. And so filibusters are a noble thing.
It could be pointed out that Stackhouse is forced to filibuster because he previously failed to fight effectively for the cause of autism. And he fails in his attempt to keep his family’s medical situation private. These details are lost as Sorkin presents a system in which the little guy can hold the executive’s feet to the fire.
It’s a little ironic that in the British Parliament, the filibuster has become a way in which the little guy can be prevented from holding the executive to account. The most visible way in which the filibuster is used in the House of Commons is to prevent Private Members’ Bills (PMBs) from progressing. I have been involved in a campaign to support Teresa Pearce’s excellent PMB, the Emergency First Aid Education Bill (which would require all state-funded secondary schools to offer their pupils lessons in first aid) and although I am writing here on a personal basis, my experience in this has shown me that the filibuster technique is not in the least bit noble, but is instead a way of disempowering backbenchers to the benefit of the executive.
In fact, the filibuster tactic has become so widely known that its most outrageous exponent, Philip Davies, seems to live off the notoriety. (Perhaps his family in private call him the Philibuster?) And after Teresa’s Bill, and another on hospital car parking, were talked out of receiving a Second Reading, the system is being reviewed. This week, commentators such as Mark D’Arcy, Isabel Hardman (who writes well on the subject in today’s Times (paywall)) and Michael White will give evidence to a Commons committee considering the matter.
Davies regards himself as a defender against superfluous legislation which is based on warm but woolly principles. Actually, he is simply a defender against legislation he doesn’t like, for his tactics damage the ability of the Commons to hear high-quality arguments.
First, the knowledge that Davies may talk out a Bill means that less extreme MPs stay away from the Chamber. Davies surely knows this, but pretends that the empty benches around and in front of him mean that other backbenchers just don’t care about the subject at hand.
Second, filibustering means that the government doesn’t have to take a stand against popular causes. It lets Davies and his team wield the knife while the ministers disingenuously and wretchedly wring their hands. In the case of Teresa’s Bill, the minister had only to talk for a few minutes, and tried a little filibustering himself (while denying – filiblustering indignantly – that he was doing this). He was not obliged to actually say why he was against the Bill except in the most general terms.
Third, the arguments used in the filibusters are often truly rotten. The filibusterers aren’t expert in the field, but they aren’t shy in displaying their ignorance, either about the subject or about the Bill itself. I have seen arguments made that are no better than, ‘I don’t understand what clause IV is aimed to do but rather than ask, I will oppose it.’ The problem is that it is in the interest of the proposers of a PMB to finish the debate, and therefore nonsenses go unrebutted. The overall quality of the debate suffers, and this looks terrible to the general viewer.
It’s possible that proposals for PMBs to take place on Tuesdays or Wednesdays might help. Certainly, there would be more MPs on the Parliamentary estate, so the filibuster tactic could be cancelled by the tactic of the ‘closure motion’ for which you need 100 votes. But this might not in itself raise the quality of the actual debate. For this you might need a minimum number of participants and possibly time limits on individuals’ contributions. This, by the way, would be a far truer way of gauging opinion than the so-called ‘test of support’ which requires backbenchers to spend the whole day in the chamber without knowing whether they will get to vote at the end of it.
You’ll note that I haven’t got an answer for calling ministers to account. If you think of one, let me know, would you?
In the meantime, let’s stop pretending. Sorry, Mr Davies. Sorry, Mr Sorkin. It’s ignoble. It isn’t democratic. The filibuster has got to go. It’s busted.