Responsible government came late to the Isle of Man. The landmark reforms of 1866, linked to the coming of democratic elections to the Isle of Man for the first time, were a long way from responsible government as understood in the British Empire of the mid-19th century. Responsible government, based on the imperial governor exercising less authority, and a ministry responsible to the elected colonial assembly exercising more, was well established in Canada, New Zealand, and Australia by the mid-19th century. The Lieutenant-Governor of the Isle of Man, however, remained the dominant executive officer in the island until well into the 20th century; only being replaced as chair of the Executive Council by a chairman elected by Tynwald in 1980, and since 1990 by the Chief Minister of the Council of Ministers. Today, the executive arm of the Manx government is led by the Chief Minister, who is elected by Tynwald in an open ballot. As noted elsewhere, the most recent appointment of the Chief Minister was decided by the (unelected) Legislative Council, following a failure to secure a majority for a single candidate in the vote of the House of Keys.
On 19th December 2017, the House of Keys passed a motion on the Council of Ministers (Amendment) Bill 2016, sending the Bill to Tynwald under the Constitution Act 2006 s.1(2). This section of the Constitution Act allows a special majority of 17 of the 24 MHKs to bypass the Legislative Council, and the motion received exactly 17 votes. Mr Ashford stressed that the motion would allow the Bill to proceed for signature by the Keys in January, but no MHK was then obliged to sign it, raising the possibility that the Bill may fail to secure the 17 signatures needed in January. Given that the motion passed, despite a number of MHKs being absent (categorised by Mr Malarkey as supporters of the Bill), this seems unlikely.
The Bill provides that the Chief Minister can in future be appointed by at least 13 MHKs voting in the House of Keys, rather than by a majority of the members of Tynwald voting in Tynwald; and, as Dr Allinson stressed, allows the Keys alone to decide whether to dissolve the Council of Ministers through a motion of no confidence.
This shifting of power from a Tynwald Court including Members of the Legislative Council to the directly-elected House of Keys is consistent with the recommendations of the Lisvane Review. Stressing the lack of a direct mandate for MLCs, Lord Lisvane had recommended that “MLCs should not vote on the appointment of the Chief Minister (and, as a corollary, not vote on a motion of no confidence” (p.34). The reform was not, however, portrayed as driven by the Lisvane Review. Mr Thomas, the sponsor of the motion, stressed that this change had already been unanimously passed by the House of Keys “before Lord Lisvane had even arrived in the Isle of Man … this initiative is an Isle of Man initiative initiated by a proud Manxman” (308 K135). Reform as a patriotic measure was also stressed by other supporters, including Mr Malarky and Ms Edge.
That is not to say, however, that the momentum created by the Lisvane Review was not acknowledged. Mr Thomas expressed concern that the recommendations of the Lisvane Report in general were “being strangled slowly”. Mr Thomas minimised the power of appeals to tradition, emphasising that the Council of Ministers system dated back only to 1990 – “it is hardly a longstanding tradition”. True, but the longstanding tradition that is being altered is the emphasis on Tynwald Court, as opposed to the House of Keys. Mrs Caine may have captured it better when, also making explicit reference to the Lisvane Review, she noted that “if approving this motion takes us one step further on the road to reforming the role of the Upper Chamber, that would be a bonus in my mind”. Mr Ashford saw the measure – I think accurately – as consistent with a shift of the members of the Legislative Council to a purely scrutiny role; a view other members echoed. Mr Cannan, who had originally moved the Bill, argued that the change would strengthen the position of the Legislative Council as a revising Chamber, “giving more credibility to their views on legislation unencumbered by any significant role in electing the Chief Minister”.
The current Chief Minister, Mr Quayle, opposed the motion. He felt that the Chief Minister needed to command the support of both the House of Keys and the Legislative Council. “We are not Westminster, we are not Jersey, we are not Ireland, where obviously the House of Commons vote for the chief minister; we are a small jurisdiction. We have been going now for over a thousand years, and I believe having the support of both areas will help a Chief Minister, whoever they are, going forward”. Mr Quayle saw the balance of power as already lying with the Keys, and thought that the Select Committee on the Functioning of Tynwald should report before any change was made. He also stressed that recent changes to the voting process, where the Keys voted first, then the Council, and both votes are public, had dealt with the problem “it is not that the votes of the Legislative Council can overturn the majority because no one knows what they were anymore”. Mr Ashford pointed out that, if the Legislative Council were bound to vote in lines with the majority of the MHKs (clearly not a formal legal rule), “then it makes no difference whether they vote to begin with or not”.
Mr Boot pointed out that the change in appointment of the Chief Minister will result in fewer individuals voting on the appointment of the Chief Minister, which he categorised as “concentrating the power into fewer hands – it does not seem very democratic to me – within our Parliamentary process”. Mr Malarkey robustly rejected this categorisation – “it is 24 votes who have the mandate of the people behind them”. When, as seems likely, this Bill becomes law, we will have seen a significant constitutional change which emphasises the centrality of the directly elected House of Keys to the Manx constitution. 2018 is likely to be an exciting year for Manx constitutional reform – given the mood of the Keys in this most recent debate, it may be a year of significant change in relation to the Legislative Council. A key question Tynwald will need to resolve is how to weigh the benefits of shifting power more clearly to democratically elected representatives, and the consequences of focusing power in such representatives.