Given the time I spend in Westminster, I normally utilise weekends to catch up on research and administration. Part of the time is given over to teaching on an online degree we offer – the MA in Legislative Studies Online. Part of this weekend is also given over to making arrangements for a biennial conference I organise – the Workshop of Parliamentary Scholars and Parliamentarians. This year’s will be the eighth. Supported by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), the Workshop – held in July – brings together scholars and parliamentarians from more than twenty countries, enabling academics to provide research findings likely to be of value to parliamentarians.
The two activities have one thing in common: comparative analysis. Too often we discuss Parliament as if it exists in a vacuum. By looking at what exists elsewhere, we can better understand our own institution and indeed learn from others as to best practice. This applies as much in considering what to do with the Commons as with the Lords. The Commons has already learnt from elsewhere in introducing debates in Westminster Hall (modelled on the parallel chamber in Australia). When I chaired the Constitution Committee in the Lords, we examined inter-institutional relations in the UK: in looking at the devolved assemblies, we asked what lessons Westminster could learn from their experience.
Both Houses can benefit from looking at best practice in cognate legislatures, though context is crucial. Trying to emulate the US Congress (which itself is exceptional among legislatures) is not a fruitful exercise: one cannot simply transplant one aspect of a totally different constitutional and political system into one’s own.
Sharing of knowledge and experience is invaluable. The more we do so, the more it sensitizes us to the features of our own system. And the less likely we are to re-invent the wheel or create a square one.