It is possible to go to Westminster Bridge and cast particular flies into the water by Parliament and be sure that that old brown trout Ming Campbell will flap lazily to the surface and take the bait, not once but every time. Brown’s recent shenanigans brought mention of ‘fixed Parliaments’: ‘splosh’ and up he comes.

Normally you take him off the hook and throw him back as an act of kindness but others have now taken up the clarion call: Iain Dale and Conor Burns on ConservativeHome, so it behoves those of us who strongly disagree to set out the case for the present system.

One of the beauties of the British Constitution (and there are many, some of them positively diamond in their gemlike quality) is its considerable flexibility which allows it to take in its stride almost any problem which is thrown at it. Much of that derives from its unwritten nature but also from the nature of our institutions which are often a testament to the evolutionary rather than revolutionary nature of our constitutional arrangements. Indeed it is often only when some second-rate lawyer like Blair comes along and meddles that things go awry.

The statutory length of a Parliament is now set at a maximum of five years and derives from the Septennial Act 1715 (2 Geo I c. 38) which the classicists amongst you will immediately point out suggests a seven year parliament as indeed was the case until the Act was amended by the Parliament Act 1911 when the period of five years was substituted as part of the series of compromises reached over the reforms to the House of Lords that year.

The first objection which may be raised to fixed Parliaments is a practical one which imports a state of affairs so awful that it ought to be enough per se to end forthwith any further discussion. If you have a fixed term of five years, then you would inevitably have permanent campaigning for at least the final year of that Parliament and probably more, two years even, as we now see with the United States’ Presidential Election, which has currently been on the go since the beginning of this year and will only end when the participants crawl, exhausted, over the finishing line in November 2008.

It is bad enough to have them campaigning for a month or so: imagine how ghastly it would have been to have Vanity Blair on the TV every other day for two years, all teeth and rictus smile. It is difficult to imagine anything more carefully calculated to put British Citizens off the political process than a year or two year’s constant politicking. Far better the swift month of engagement every four years or so which forces all parties into a straitjacket of conciseness and clarity that they would surely eschew if given the luxury of a year and more in which to disport their wares ad infinitum et ad nauseam. Thank you, but no.

Secondly the possibility of having an election at any time keeps all parties on their toes. Each has to keep their set of policies up to date and, in the case of opposition parties, keep up the process of harrying the government. In a fixed-term Parliament there would be a strong inclination to indolence for the first three years as everyone would know that there is no prospect of an election and therefore nothing to be gained by expending lots of ammunition: far better, they would say, to save it all for the last year. This would lead to a constant process of governments not being called adequately to account and governments would always know in the first three to four years that they have got time to get their house in order, so why bother for the moment. Stagnation and ossification would become the order of the day. Look at what the present state of affairs has done to the Conservative party: the merest real hint of an election has forced them to choose swiftly which policies to adopt and which to abandon , a process which most commentators seem to credit for the party’s swift turn about in the polls.

Thirdly the flexibility of the present system allows for a political crisis which emerges in a Parliament to be resolved, ultimately, by an election. The circumstances in which such might need to be resolved are legion and hard to anticipate. But not having that flexibility may actively harm the national interest.

Let us take an example. Suppose a government is a minority government of Party A. Party B and Party C can, if they combine, outvote Party A but not necessarily achieve a majority in Parliament of their own and in any event they dislike one another enormously and compete for the same votes. Party A concludes that a circumstance which has arisen requires there to be a General Election in the national interest. Under the present system the Prime Minister can go to the Queen forthwith and ask for a Dissolution. Under a fixed-term system that could not happen and the country could thereby sustain serious damage to its national interest.

Even if there were proviso for a vote in Parliament to allow for a vote on a dissolution, there is a good chance it would not work. In the example above, suppose that Party A is ready and able to afford an election but Party B and Party C are in disorder and bereft of cash. The might then combine and persuade other minor parties to support them in preventing an election for narrow party reasons. Again the inflexibility of the system would cause damage to the national interest.

Of course deciding the timing of an election can be a potent weapon: catching the opposition with their pants down is always a tempting thing to do. But it can go terribly wrong as Harold Wilson discovered in June 1970, so there is no guarantee that it works. It is very possible that the public, which is not half so stupid as Labour thinks it is, would have taken exception to Brown calling an election when it was, given their solid working majority, wholly unnecessary.

Having the possibility of an early election also allows for weak, lame duck governments to be dispatched in good time. In 1950 Labour had run out of gas and returned with only a majority of five: it lingered but eighteen months before expiring, unlamented. 1966 saw Harold Wilson ask the country for a solid working majority. Although the 1966-70 government was awful, sowing as it did so many of the seeds of rapid British decline in the 1970s, and one which I heartily despised, I do not begrudge Wilson his chance to govern effectively and with authority. The fact that it did not does not imply it was wrong to seek the opportunity.

1974 is an example of the sort of crisis that can arise and to which the answer may be to have an election. The Heath government had got itself into a terrible pickle with a miner’s strike led by politically motivated men inimical to the interests of the United Kingdom which had led, in conjunction with the Arab oil embargo that followed the Yom Kippur Arab-Israeli war of 1973, to a debilitating programme of rolling power-cuts and the three-day week. Heath chose to go to the country on the issue of ‘who rules the country?’. In the event he lost and Labour returned to power and resolved the crisis, though the solution was far from satisfactory, laying up yet more trouble for the country which was not to be resolved until the 1980s and the crushing of Bully Boy Trade Union power. Actually I am far from convinced Heath took the right decision and ought to have fought on to defeat the miners by Parliamentary means, but that is another story.

The 1976-1978 Callaghan Government was also rightly put out of its misery when defeated in Parliament in March 1979, seven months ahead of its lawful expiry date. The ‘Winter of Discontent’ had seriously damaged the country, bringing it to its knees. The Government’s unwillingness and inability to deal with the grave problems posed by Union power meant that it was vital in the national interest that it either seek a new mandate or be replaced. Since then governments have run four years or more with no real complaint, or at any rate one which stood up to serious scrutiny, at the choice of date.

It is evident that Brown, his majority notwithstanding (and with the clear support of the vast majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party at his unopposed election as leader) was prepared to chance his arm half-way through this Parliament. I believe the public would have seen it for what it would have been: a completely unnecessary exercise conducted exclusively for narrow party interest. There is a real chance that many voters would have chosen to mark their disapproval of this by voting against Labour. That is the risk which tempers abuse of the power to ask for a dissolution. In any event, it did not happen and, one may ask, is this one instance really a proper reason for changing? If it is not broken, why fix it? We have already seen how meddling with the constitution has had unintended consequences. Why meddle now?

One notes that there is a fixed-term parliament bill being floated by, surprise, surprise, the Liberal ‘Democrats’. That mere fact ought to tell us all we need to know about the idea. This from the party that would subsume our democracy to the Brussels diktat! This from the party that would turn a system which has served us pretty well for a couple of hundred years into a continental-style revolving door government system of perpetual coalition. I think not.

Iain Dale alludes to the German system whereby, if an election is required mid-term, the government party votes against itself in order, in effect, to get round the fixed-term. This sort of constitutional chicanery is really not how we ought to conduct our Parliamentary affairs and I am quite sure that we need no lessons in democracy and the parliamentary process from a country like Germany whose democracy is but sixty years old.

Conor Burns seems to rely on the fact that Brown nearly abused the system. Though we have no evidence one way or the other, I should be surprised if the possibility that the public would punish them for an unnecessary had not occurred to them. That is a sufficient risk built into the system to provide adequate deterrence to abuse.

I am not persuaded of the need for change and all for retaining the sort of flexibility that now exists. No sufficient case has yet been advanced, in my view, for a change and we should not allow ourselves to be distracted by an unnecessary argument when there are more important matters to worry about.

By the by, when he first met Parliament as a newly-installed Prime Minister, did not Gordon Brown announce, with considerable gravitas, a series of constitutional changes that he was proposing, one of which was to give the House of Commons the right to vote on a Dissolution? And did not that same Gordon Brown, without so much as by the leave of Parliament, announce to a television programme on Sunday morning that he had considered but decided against a Dissolution?

So much for asking Parliament to vote on the matter, a proposal that lasted just three months.

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