Parliament 'must end its dead rituals'
Sweep away 'Masonic' practices, says Puttnam
Gaby Hinsliff, political editor
Sunday May 22, 2005
The pomp and pageantry of traditional Westminster politics should be scrapped to stop its 'Masonic rituals' excluding the public, a hardhitting report on the future of parliament will warn this week.
Lord Puttnam, the Labour peer chairing a landmark commission examining how power could be opened to the people, said that the royal State Opening of Parliament should be ditched for an American-style presidential address.
His commission's report, published this week, is also expected to call for the lifting of restrictions on TV cameras at Westminster - and an end to the use of what Puttnam said were sometimes 'stupid' arcane phrases which confused outsiders, to help make the democratic process more accessible.
The report, commissioned by the Hansard Society thinktank from senior politicians representing all three main parties alongside journalists and others, risks outraging traditionalists. But it will be taken seriously at Westminster - not least because Gordon Brown has taken a close interest in its deliberations.
The report itself stops short of constitutional questions over the role of royals within parliament.
But Puttnam told The Observer he personally favoured a radical modernisation of the heavily ceremonial Queen's Speech - which involves the Queen reading out a list of forthcoming bills on behalf of her government, accompanied by a retinue of elaborately costumed figures and rituals dating back several centuries, at the beginning of every parliamentary session.
'I have lived five years of my life in America and the President's State of the Union address followed by the opposition is a big national event: the audiences are huge. We want someone saying, "I have been elected, this is what I intend to do", not mumbling into some parchment,' said Puttnam, a Labour peer and former film producer who was ennobled by Tony Blair.
'I would like to see a proper discussion about what form of constitutional settlement we want in the 21st century.'
The report is also expected to call for a review of arcane parliamentary language - such as referring to colleagues as 'my honourable friend' rather than by name - and procedure.
'[Westminster] constantly reminds me of a Masonic ritual - once you are inside, you want certain little handshakes because that's what differentiates us from "them". The problem is you are meant to be serving "them",' he said.
He himself refused to use the phrase 'the other place' - used by peers about the Commons and vice versa - because it was 'stupid'. He said: 'We are reverential in respect of the trivial and insufficiently reverential in respect of what's important.'
The report comes as a separate survey of 1,000 people who did not vote on 5 May - conducted by the Power Inquiry, which is also examining democratic engagement - shows that the majority stayed at home not because of apathy but because of anger.
While 19 per cent said they had not voted because they could not be bothered or did not care, 36 per cent cited political reasons, including that politicians' views could not be trusted or there were no real differences between the parties.
Although turnout rose slightly at this election, Puttnam said that, with only one in five Britons actually having voted for the party in power, Britain was now 'very close to the point' where a government could not claim democratic legitimacy.
The commission is not expected to debate Britain's constitutional settlement, but Puttnam said he himself saw a 'strong argument for a more presidential system or a more powerful executive'. That might require more stringent checks and balances, but more powers for the Prime Minister in return, he said.
He also backed TV cameras ranging more freely inside the Commons and being allowed to cover the chamber itself more vividly, he suggested, using reaction shots and close-ups of MPs to convey the emotion of debate.
Current coverage turned viewers off because it was 'extremely stilted and weird' compared with normal TV.
The report is also expected to recommend that the Commons be run by a professional chief executive rather than a committee of MPs.