In a democracy, should power be handed to individuals that are unelected? In essence, that was the underlying question that our representatives were asked when they voted on our behalf last month. Here's what happened... In 2017, Tynwald resolved to form a Select Committee of five members comprised of the Speaker (Mr Watterson) as Chairman, one Member of the Council of Ministers (Mr Boot), one Member of the Legislative Council (Mr Cretney) and two other Members of the House of Keys (Dr Allinson and Mr Baker).
This Committee produced a report earlier this year that acknowledged that 'the presence of the Lord Bishop as a Member of Tynwald has a notable influence on the proceedings of Tynwald.' In other words, he (and it has always been a 'he' in the longest continuous parliament in the world) isn't there just to add to the pomp and ceremony. He has real power.
The Committee argued strongly in favour of retaining the Bishop as a full voting member of the Legislative Council. The principal reasons put forward were religious and cultural: 'the combination of the presence of the Lord Bishop on the Island and the continuing existence of the Diocese is a matter of great importance to the Island in general for social and community reasons; the Lord Bishop represents a significant part of our continuing heritage. The existence of the Diocese is not a mere historical accident that we wish to preserve, but a continuing part of the Island’s cultural life.'
OK so let's evaluate this. 1) 'A matter of great importance to the Island' This is a statement of opinion that represents the collective view of the Committee. However, is there any evidence to support that view? How did the Committee reach that conclusion? One way would have been to ask the Island whether the combination of the presence of the Lord Bishop on the Island and the continuing existence of the Diocese is, in fact, a matter of great importance.
Perhaps something like this : "Dear Citizen, As your democratic representative I am make decisions on your behalf. In order to assist me in my duty to you, I would like to hear your view on the following question: Is the combination of the presence of the Lord Bishop on the Island and the continuing existence of the Diocese is a matter of great importance to the Island in general for social and community reasons? Oh and by the way I attach a letter from the Church of England's Archbishop of York that says if you don't let our Bishop vote on your laws we may throw our toys out of the pram and leave."
2) The Heritage Argument 'the Lord Bishop represents a significant part of our continuing heritage. The existence of the Diocese is not a mere historical accident that we wish to preserve, but a continuing part of the Island’s cultural life'
In short, this is the 'heritage argument'. Well the obvious place to start was Manx National Heritage. I spent some enjoyable time browsing their website and there lots of interesting stuff there... Cregneash, Castle Rushen, even a Lady Isabella but no Bishop. But you know what? Perhaps this is an oversight? Maybe the Bishop is part of our heritage and if so maybe we can find him a room in the Old House of Keys. The point here is that the heritage argument is a complete red herring and adds no weight to the argument that the Bishop should be a member of the Legislative Council.
Counter arguments Oddly, the report did not examine any arguments against the Bishop being a member of Tynwald. One such argument would have been democracy. If Tynwald is our apparatus of democracy then this surely is the mother of all arguments. How does the presence of an unelected member of Tynwald reconcile with a democratic and free nation? The report is silent on this. In fact, the word democracy only crops up once in the entire report expressing gratitude to the Westminster Foundation for Democracy for their efforts in assisting the creation of international links as part of continuous professional development.
During the debate on the matter in Tynwald, Mr Shimmins MHK read out a letter he received from a constituent. I am delighted the constituent took the time to express such views and that Mr Shimmins MHK made these views a matter of record in Tynwald.
It read as follows: "I have no gripe with the individual concerned and recognise his profoundly held beliefs and views and would in no way seek to diminish them. But as the oldest democracy in the world it is wholly incomprehensible that we should make constitutional allowance to permit the imposition of an organisational representative to sit in our democratic chamber. By doing so we insult every Manxman and Manx woman, demean our democracy and show that we are not free or fair in the reflection of our society within its constitutional arrangements. We are unable to reform and reflect a nation or its aspirations in the 21st century, instead we cling to a historic anomaly."
The Vote The Committee's recommendation was put to Tynwald in February 2018 for a vote.
During the debate, Mr Shimmins argued strongly against the Committee's recommendation and highlighted the heart of the matter: 'I hope that today we will head back towards the straight and true path of democracy.'
He went on to challenge the democratic basis of the report: 'There is no mention in the Report that the retention of the Bishop’s vote is not welcomed by many people on the Island. This is a commonly held view but it does not merit one line in the Report. What is abundantly clear is that this Report does not reflect public opinion and is unbalanced..........
Hon. Members, I am unconvinced that this a Manx tradition. I am not a scholar but it seems this may well be a multi-century-long hangover from English rule alongside the other Tynwald barons of old, but they have all gone, swept away by a clamour from the Manx people for democracy. I have spoken with many proud Manx people who find this tradition irksome. To be clear, they do not object to the Bishop; it is his vote that they find difficult to stomach.'
Mr Shimmins' argument is simply that democracy should be the trump card. Despite making this argument clear, members of Tynwald voted in favour of retaining the unelected Bishop by a slim margin (18 in favour and 14 against). However, an encouraging number of our representatives voted to remove the Bishop from Tynwald. Just so you know who voted for what: For keeping the Bishop in Tynwald: Mr Baker, Mr Boot, Mr Callister, Mr Cannan, Mr Cregeen, Mr Harmer, Mr Malarkey, Mr Moorhouse, Mr Perkins, Mr Quayle, Mr Robertshaw, Mr Skelly, Mr Watterson, Mr Anderson, Mr Coleman, Mr Corkish, Mr Crookall, Mr Henderson.
For removing the Bishop from Tynwald: Dr Allinson, Mr Ashford, Mrs Beecroft, Miss Bettison, Mrs Caine, Mrs Corlett, Ms Edge, Mr Hooper, Mr Peake, Mr Shimmins, Mr Thomas, Mr Cretney, Mrs Poole-Wilson, Mr Turner.
The Bishop didn't get to vote obviously but what is an interesting side note is that Anderson, Coleman, Corkish and Turner are no longer in the Legislative Council. The newest member of the Legislative Council Poole-Wilson voted to remove the Bishop. Had this vote taken place now that we have four new members of the Legislative Council things might have been more interesting (but then again perhaps not).
You should note also that some of your representatives are probably religious. Of course that's entirely their choice but it does potentially threaten their independence after all 'no one can serve two masters' Matthew 6:24. Now I have no evidence that this influenced the vote but I would imagine that if you are religious it might be a challenge to remain objective. I am of the view that such a conflict should at least be declared prior to voting.
Make Your Voice Count If you've made it all the way through this article, thanks for sticking with it. Remember if you don't speak up and make your views known to your MHK or the MLCs for that matter, life will go on just as it is until the next election when you'll get a leaflet through your door saying 'Vote for me !' When you do, don't forget to ask if they believe in democracy.
Also if you get time have a look at Hansard (from paragraph 1170). There are some really great arguments put forward by Shimmins, Hooper, Ashford and Caine for example. Don't lose faith (excuse the pun) entirely. It demonstrates that some of our representatives value democracy. We owe them our thanks. http://www.tynwald.org.im/business/hansard/20002020/t180221.pdf
Finally, in case you are wondering, I am not a church goer but have no issue with the Bishop. I look forward to friendly debate with him over a cup of assam. I feel people should be free to practise whatever faith they so desire.