Yesterday’s emergency parliamentary session on Iraq lasted for 11 hours. I can’t claim to have listened to all of it, but what I heard was a good advertisement both for democracy and the parliamentary system.
I’m sometimes sceptical of the system, where individual MPs have far less power than individual congressmen. It’s a because of resources (MPs don’t have the staffs that can make good representatives and senators so effective), institutional design (parliamentary committees, although improved, don’t have the heft of congressional committees) and the power of the whips (in most votes, just about everyone toes the party line here, unlike in the US where shifting coalitions are the order of the day).
In its favour, however, is that ministers — including the prime minister — have to stand up and speak for themselves. Tony Blair was in particularly devastating form yesterday (although it’s fun to read Simon Hoggart’s witty take on the day). As Nick Sweeney comments, it was “forensic, generally well-mannered, incisive, grave”. Presidents can, and almost invariably do, avoid the kind of sustained questioning Blair faced yesterday.
They also seem to avoid laying out a case. On last night’s BBC news, the Washington correspondent explained, “Presidents don’t do dossiers.”