The Day That Democracy Came Back from the Dead; Last November, Anthony Sampson Wrote Here That Democracy Was Dying. Today He Recants, Saying This Week's Commons Debate Was Greater Than the One He Heard at the Time of Suez

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THE EXTRAORDINARY debate in the Commons on Wednesday was much more than a significant protest against the Government's policy over Iraq. It was a historic reassertion of Parliament's role as the guardian of democracy.

Three months ago, I wrote in the Mail about the growing dictatorial powers of the Prime Minister and the weakening of those institutions - the House of Lords, the Judiciary, a strong Opposition - who should keep his powers in check. It was, I suggested, tantamount to the death of democracy in this country.

But this week we have seen a counterattack from Parliament which must give MPs new confidence and self-respect - and should compel the Government to rethink their defiance of democratic institutions and public opinion.

I watched it from the Press gallery - a place I had not been in for years. I wanted to compare it with the debate on the Suez Crisis which I had watched more than 46 years ago.

That was a lesson in democracy I never forgot, as I looked down from the packed gallery at the legendary characters below, including the figure of Churchill sitting just below me.

Back then, I had been dazzled by the rhetoric and repartee. After Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd had defended the Suez intervention, the brilliant Labour speaker Nye Bevan furiously mocked him, until the PM, Anthony Eden, walked in. 'Why do we attack the monkey,' said Bevan, 'when the organ-grinder is here?'

Returning to Westminster on Wednesday, I was preparing to reflect sadly about the decline of Parliament, to bathe in nostalgia for those bygone giants who could debate world affairs with passion and integrity. What pygmies today's Parliamentarians would seem by comparison.

I arrived just after the opening speeches, and expected to stay an hour; perhaps to retreat for tea if the debate became too tedious.

Instead I was transfixed, sitting there for over four hours until the debate drew to a conclusion. I was eavesdropping on live history, sitting in the same chamber as people who, whatever Mr Blair may say, were deciding whether Britain should go to war in Iraq or not.

It was the same kind of gripping theatre I had watched in 1956, and equally serious. More surprisingly, Wednesday's speakers were better informed about the world they talked about than those of 1956 - not least because many had constituents from the Middle Eastern countries they discussed.

But this time the plot was more unexpected, the storyline more original and the cast more varied. There were fewer stock characters like the backbenchers of the Fifties - the familiar chorus of trades unionists on the Left, or the rows of pinstriped fogeys waving orderpapers on the Right.

And this time, more performers on both sides were keeping the audience in suspense, making them wonder on which side they would come down, and behaving apparently out of character.

Fogey-looking former Tory ministers like Douglas Hogg and Selwyn Gummer gave passionate, anguished speeches coming out against the war.

One of the mildest Labour MPs, former Cabinet minister Chris Smith, delivered one of the most effective attacks on Blair. …