Britain's back-benchers eschew rubber-stamp role in Parliament

When Keith Hampson, MP, gets six letters a week on the same subject from his rural Yorkshire constituents, he sits up and takes notice. For a "backbencher" -- one whose seat in the House of Commons is not on the front bench among governments ministers -- that's a lot of mail.

Compare the size of his postbag with that of an American congressman, however , and it is easy to see why he feels that backbenchers are somewhat out of the mainstream and relatively powerless.

But as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's first Parliament winds down 15 months after her election, political analysts here think they have spotted a significant shift: Power seems to be moving away from the executive and toward the back benches.

For years, says political columnist Geoffrey Smith of The Times, Parliament was a docile institution regarded by many as "the best club in Europe."

"As long as the dining rooms were good, as long as the policeman recognized you, and as long as you could sit down comfortably on those green back benches," he says, "life was good."

But two separated developments -- continuing sociological trend and a recent structural change within Parliament -- may be shifting the weathervane.

Sociologically, "There is a change in the nature of the MP," says Mr. Smith. The old Tory Knights of the shires and the Labour trade-union warhorses are making way for a younger breed for whom politics is the principal career. Dr. Hampson, who entered Parliament in 1974 from an academic post, says he finds himself surrounded not by retired colonials but by "much more political animals" coming from professional backgrounds and increasingly committed to 16-hour days of parliamentary work.

"With this growing professionalism," says Mr. Smith, "there has also come a growing frustration on the back benches." As issues proliferate and the subject matter of legislation grows more complex, MPs involve themselves in greater detail and feel they have more to contribute.

They also feel a greater desire to influence events. But too many find themselves simply rubber-stamping policies decided by the Cabinet. Nor is the route to cabinet-level posts any easier: More committed politicians means more earnest office-seekers and greater competition for front-bench appointments.

Within the Conservative Party, this shift has manifested itself in flare-ups of rebelliousness from the back benches -- sometimes to the discomfort of Mrs. Thatcher. Between 1945 and 1965, says political commentator Ferdinand Mount of the Spectator, the party was "terrifically dominated by military tradition." With the gradual disappearance of the World War II generation, he says, that "deference to superior authority" has given away.

Vote-counter Philip Norton agrees that serious back-bench rebeliousness is a relatively new phenomenon. In a massive book published last spring, "Dissension in the House of Commons, 1974-1979," Dr. Norton reported that, in the seven Parliaments between 1945 and 1970, significant cross-voting occurred in only about 7 percent of all votes. After climbing through the 1970s, it reached 28 percent in the Parliament dissolved in April 1979.

In the past year, Mrs. Thatcher -- whose majority of 43 seats in the 635 -member house should guarantee her a free hand -- has several times been knocked off court by her own party. Once was over the boycott against Iran. In an almost unprecedented rebuff of the government's foreign policy position, backbenchers forced her to climb down from her stated desire (half-hearted though it may have been) for retroactive sanctions.

Another string came over parliamentarians' pay, which she wanted to restrain. It was a symbolic struggle: Partly at issue in the substantial raises eventually approved was the recognized shift in the MP's role from part-time legislator, with income from other jobs, to full-time professional trying to earn a living wage.

The other recent development is a change in legislative structure, which Leader of the House Norman St. John-Stevas (himself a parliamentary historian) describes as "one of the most important parliamentary reforms of the century." It is called the Select Comittee system and it simply means that 14 permanent parliamentary committees have been established to oversee the affairs of the major spending departments.

The potential for change from these bipartisan committees is extensive. As political columnist Malcolm Rutherford of the Financial Times newspaper argues, these reforms are more than merely cosmetic. The new Select Committee on the Treasury, for example, has already summoned before it such luminaries as the governor of the Bank of England, a professor from Yale, and the chancellor of the Exchequer himself. While it has made little dent in policy, it has served notice the Treasury activities are subject to more knowledgeable Parliamentary scrutiny than ever before.

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