Echo of medieval past

SOME people are surprised that there is no way for MPs to recall Parliament during a recess.

Only the Prime Minister, exercising something called the Crown Prerogative, can do so.

Although we live in a democracy, it still contains echoes of a medieval past. One of these is the Crown Prerogative, that is the rights of the crown to call and dissolve a Parliament, ask someone to form a government and declare war. But legally the "Crown" now sometimes means the Prime Minister. That's why Tony Blair would not need a vote of Parliament to declare war.

In practice however, no Prime Minister could survive as Premier without the support of the House of Commons. A vote of no-confidence would bring his or her government down.

There is a precedent for Parliament to be recalled without using the Crown Prerogative. During the Civil War in the 17th Century, Parliament met without the permission of King Charles I. At one point the King had marched into the Chamber of the Commons with troops and demanded that the Speaker should identify MPs he wanted to arrest.

Bravely the speaker told him he had neither eyes to see nor mouth to speak except when instructed by Parliament.

The conflict between Crown and Parliament eventually led to the execution of Charles I, and for a brief period Britain became a republic.

Even when the monarchy was restored a King could no longer rule without the agreement of Parliament.

Could the Prime Minister then, have refused to recall Parliament this time? The answer is technically yes, but practically no.

Even Mrs Thatcher had to bring back the House for a rare Saturday sitting in 1982 after the Falklands invasion.

She later turned it to her advantage, but at the time members of all parties agreed that she had received a mauling from the Labour leader Michael Foot, for having let down Britain's guard in the South Atlantic.

The case to recall the House this time around had become unanswerable.

Every forum in the country was discussing the issue, except MPs in Parliament. Two former Speakers, Betty Boothroyd and Bernard Weatherill spoke out in favour.

Ex-whip Graham Allen MP had organised an alternative meeting of MPs to discuss Iraq, and the Conservative and Liberal Democrat leaders had both advocated recall. But the charge that the Prime Minister has been overly reluctant to recall Parliament is absurd.

This will be the fifth recall in just over 12 months; an unprecedented number in any year since World War II.

I got annoyed recently on a radio phone-in programme about Iraq, when a caller described the Prime Minister as a "dictator".

He may be a strong leader. You may not always agree with him. I do not always agree with him.

But in Britain opponents of the leader are interviewed by journalists and seen and heard by millions on TV and radio.

In Saddam Hussein's Iraq opponents of the leader are interviewed by the Secret Police and never seen or heard of again.