While the daily running of the affairs of the State is legally entrusted to the MPs charged with ministerial responsibilities, the rank-and-file (‘backbencher’) MPs sitting in the House of Commons still play a definitive role in shaping Britain’s political system. The purpose of this paper is to elucidate the socio-political role and responsibilities of the individual MPs, as well as the House of Commons in general, in order to provide an unbiased perspective on the UK’s representative politics.
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The MP as a Representative
Following Rush (2005), it is possible to differentiate between three key aspects of an MP’s constitutional role: constituency representation, legislative activity, and the scrutiny over the Executive. In the course of the last 200 years, the relative weight of each of these functions has shifted. Whereas before the Reform Act of 1832, an MP was a selected representative of the small constituency or the local patronage interests, nowadays his/her working duties involve the more parliamentary based schedule, with the issues of the national legislation and the Cabinet oversight taking the frontline of Britain’s political life (Rush 2005, pp.97-98).
In his/her capacity as the constituency representative, the MPs are expected to act as the persons entrusted by their whole constituency, not as the delegates of the persons having voted for them (Williams 1998, p.23). This ‘trusteeship model’ is usually associated with the name of the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher Edmund Burke, who observed that an MP’s role should be “to give them [the electors] information, and not to receive it from them...” (Burke  1812, p.79). Burke believed that the introduction of the imperative mandate principle would lead to the transformation of the representative into a virtual slave of the whimsical and transient popular opinion, which was inherently unstable and self-contradictory (Judge 1999, p.50). In Burke’s opinion, the MPs should have acted as “the principal guardians of the countless communities” making up the British state representing objective interests of their residents rather than their subjective and short-term cravings (O’Gorman 1973, p.40). While such aristocratic approach has currently fallen out of favour, the British MPs are still supposed to act as the trustees of their constituency’s electorate rather than to reflect their electors’ exact and imperative instructions. However, recent proposals on the further curtailment of the MPs’ numbers, as presented by the Boundary Commission, may threaten the traditional view of the MP as a community representative turning this position into a more impersonal one.
The MP as the Commons Policy Maker
The Parliamentary component of the MPs’ function is tied to the three core dimensions of the Commons’ working activities: promulgation of the new Bills, scrutiny of the Executive (including but not limited to the Cabinet), and the policy issues debate. With respect to the first of these dimensions, it should be noted that the individual MPs’ legislative initiative opportunities are significantly limited by the restrictions placed on parliamentary time for discussions and the privileged position of the Government in presenting the new Bills to the Parliamentary Counsel, which determines the order of scrutiny and hearing on the new Bills (Bradley & Ewing 2007, pp.193-194).
Thus, the individual MP’s role is reduced to either offering some criticism and possible amendments to the Bill in question at the pre-Bill stage (primarily in one of the respective committees established in 1979), or supporting/refusing to bolster the Government’s Bill at the stage of its voting (Bradley & Ewing 2007, p.192). However, the Parliamentary procedure generally reserves 13 Fridays on each session to the private members’ (i.e. backbenchers’) Bills, with precedence determined in accordance with the best places secured in ballots in the course of their second readings (Bradley & Ewing 2007, p.198).
The MPs’ scrutiny powers and policy debate functions are much more visible and less arcane to the public. The former include such Parliamentary responsibilities as the scrutiny over secondary (delegated) legislation, which concerns the evaluation of the merits and alleviation of possible contraventions in the statutory acts issued by the ministers under respective parent Acts of Parliament. The scrutiny over such issues is conducted through the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. The Committee’s main function is assessing the possible technical coherence and implications of the proposed statutory laws; thus, it has power to require the sending of the relevant Government’s memorandum and/or the latter’s representative to appear on the Committee’s hearing (Craig 1999, pp.364-392). Furthermore, the House of Commons’ virtual monopoly on the recruitment path for Cabinet ministers and some other high officials, as well as its ability to subject their actions to Parliamentary inquiries, as the case may be, guarantees that the MPs have an extensive mechanism to control the Government’s conduct/misconduct (Jones, Kavanagh, Moran, Norton 2007).
As to the MPs’ capacity to engage in Parliamentary debate on the key issues of national politics, this is usually utilized in the course of the Bill’s discussion, with the backbench MPs offering their own amendments that may succeed if the Government of the day deigns to support them (Fisher, Denver, & Benyon 2003, p.363). However, in fact, the backbenchers’ ability to compete with the Government-approved Bills is negligible leading to the possible concerns on the lack of intra-Parliamentary democracy in the UK (2012 Democratic Audit).
The MP as a Partisan
However, the proper role of the MP cannot be evaluated if the issue of the party membership is not considered. The MPs are, as a rule, elected as the members of one of the key political parties, with visible political identity, political goals and ideology declared in the respective manifesto, and the extra-parliamentary network of supporters and activists (Jones, et al. 2007, pp.194, 283). The publicity support extended to the candidates by the respective parties cement the former’s loyalty, thereto, enabling the smooth functioning of the party politics machine. While the individual backbencher MPs may dissent, or even rebel against their particular party’s official Parliamentary stance, such incidents are relatively rare, and the parties’ ‘whips’ (i.e. key MPs) usually go to great lengths to secure the positive voting behaviour of their peers.
Therefore, the individual MP may be both a marginal and a key player in the Parliamentary politics depending on his/her status within one of the major parties. However, both the Government’s privileges in presenting its Bills to the Commons to the detriment of the private members and the increasing lack of connection between the MPs and their electorate may further decrease the former’s political relevance leading to the deeper crisis of the UK’s representative democracy.
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