Guarding the Guardians

 

Who is to guard the guardians?  In a modern democracy Plato’s question is answered:  All of us.  In a mature democracy no one, not even the leader, may ignore the law of the land. The practical application of this principle is impeachment.  In the United States this was the method recently used (July 1974) to force the resignation of a president.

When president Nixon was charged with ‘high crimes and misdemeanours’ by ordering a burglary to obtain information on his political opponents, and, worse, seeking to cover up the crime, impeding the investigation, he was forced to quit.  He had broken his oath to ‘preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States’.  Nixon resigned when impeachment proceedings started.

More recently still, in 1998, president Clinton was impeached for perjury during a private civil case.  He was acquitted on the grounds that only crimes affecting the functioning of government itself could be considered impeachable.

The procedure of impeachment originated in Britain, and its clear democratic credentials appealed to the US founding fathers, who incorporated impeachment into their written constitution.  In Britain we have no written constitution to transgress, but that is not regarded as an excuse for criminality. Here we put our trust in the superior wisdom of our ancestors, and must go by precedents. One precedent for impeachment was established in 1628 when the House debated the impeachment of the Duke of Buckingham.  Rather than allow his placeman to be tried, King Charles 1 dissolved parliament. Many other cases followed.

If British democracy is to be brought nearer to the ideal, impeachment will be a useful tool in holding leaders to account if they are suspected of a grave breach of the law. Instead of being regarded as an ancient legal resort, once useful when parliament was struggling against the arbitrary power of the king, but which is no longer needed in a mature democracy,[1] on the contrary impeachment of a leader or any of his deputies ought to be taken automatically, whenever even one member can bring forward solid grounds for suspecting that there is a case to answer.  Today there is a move to impeach the prime minister, alleging ‘deliberate repeated distortion, seriously misleading statements and culpable negligence’ leading to Britain’s participation in the war in Iraq 2003. [2]   Impeachment leads to a parliamentary debate, and is only the first step towards possible removal, though a prime minister could hardly survive an adverse vote.  If proceedings are started, Tony Blair can expect no royal intervention such as that which saved the Duke of Buckingham.

An impeachment debate over the prime minister’s decision to go to war in Iraq is important for several reasons.  Firstly, it will give an opportunity to settle the issue of whether the prime minister has misled parliament.  Indeed, there now seems no other way to put this question to rest [3], and so the proceedings should be welcomed by Tony Blair as an opportunity to clear his name.

Secondly, the high principle involved, that in a democracy no one is above the law, is seen to be upheld.  The Commons is enabled to examine the actions of the leader and remove him if he is found guilty of serious misdemeanour.  This emphasises the power of the Commons, and so enhances democracy.  If on impeachment the charges are found to be incorrect, the prime minister will at last be able to ‘move on’ beyond Iraq, as he has so often expressed the desire to do.  If the charges are found to be correct, and Tony Blair is forced to resign, British democracy will benefit, just as increased respect for the US democratic process was achieved worldwide by the successful impeachment of president Nixon.   

Thirdly, the precedent of a modern impeachment, whether or not the prime minister is deemed to have broken the law on this occasion, will cause future leaders to be more careful, and to put more trust in their colleagues.  Serious matters of foreign policy will be more readily referred for a frank discussion in the whole House before decisions are taken.  Any majority decision recorded after honest discussion in the House will relieve the prime minister of any subsequent blame.  It will also assuredly render foreign policy more transparent and benign.

H.D.

[1] This was the line taken by Peter Hain, MP, Leader of the House, when arguing that impeachment proceedings against the current prime minister, Tony Blair, were inappropriate. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impeachment  

[1] For details, see A Case to Answer, £5,  ISBN 0 85124 704 0, or visit www.impechBlair.org

[1] If, in order to create a debate on the issues in question, MPs allege that a member of the government has lied, they can be ruled our of order for using unparliamentary language!  If they persist, they are physically removed from the House.  On July 20th, 2004, John Baron MP said in the House of Commons: ‘No, I disagree with that.  I think that our prime minister, unfortunately, was being pushed by the Americans.  That is the centre of the issue.  Let us consider the forty-five minute claim.  That is clear evidence that we as a country were misled by the prime minister.’

Mr Deputy Speaker: ‘Order!  That is the second time, I think, that the honourable gentleman has used that word.  He should be very careful with the words he uses.  We have strict conventions in the House.’



[1] This was the line taken by Peter Hain, MP, Leader of the House, when arguing that impeachment proceedings against the current prime minister, Tony Blair, were inappropriate. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impeachment  

[2] For details, see A Case to Answer, £5,  ISBN 0 85124 704 0, or visit www.impechBlair.org

[3] If, in order to create a debate on the issues in question, MPs allege that a member of the government has lied, they can be ruled our of order for using unparliamentary language!  If they persist, they are physically removed from the House.  On July 20th, 2004, John Baron MP said in the House of Commons: ‘No, I disagree with that.  I think that our prime minister, unfortunately, was being pushed by the Americans.  That is the centre of the issue.  Let us consider the forty-five minute claim.  That is clear evidence that we as a country were misled by the prime minister.’

Mr Deputy Speaker: ‘Order!  That is the second time, I think, that the honourable gentleman has used that word.  He should be very careful with the words he uses.  We have strict conventions in the House.’