A sudden interest in UK constitutional reform
It’s difficult to explain the sudden flowering of interest in constitutional reform. It apparently arises out of the general panic in the Westminster village about public anger and contempt over the abuse of (some) MPs’ expense allowances. This has reinforced already existing disillusionment with our parliament, our parliamentary system, even politics itself. There’s no obvious logical link between an MP dipping his hand in the public purse for money to clear out the moat surrounding his house, on the one hand, and the upsurge of demand in some quarters for proportional representation in elections to the house of commons (euphemistically referred to by its fans as “electoral reform”) on the other. But there it is: one thing seems to have led to another. Some say it’s displacement therapy: playing around with ideas for reforming the constitution to take our minds off the squalid saga of the crooked MPs and the incomprehensible recession. Others say it’s a deliberate attempt to distract attention from MPs’ misdeeds and the recession, which comes to the same thing. Or perhaps the idea of reform is contagious: the system of MPs’ allowances obviously needs to be radically changed, so while we’re at it, we might as well abolish the house of lords as well.
Anyway, constitutional change is now all the rage. The prime minister is seriously considering setting up a new Council to work up some ideas, which sounds like a poor man’s Royal Commission until he explains that its members will all be government ministers. Whatever proposals these sages come up with will figure, says Mr Brown, in the Labour Party manifesto for the forthcoming general election; but since it seems increasingly unlikely that after the election there will be a Labour government to implement them, they might not arouse the passionate enthusiasm which they may well deserve (depending, of course, on what they turn out to be). Mr Cameron, Tory prime minister in waiting, tells us that there’s going to be a huge transfer of real power from himself and his fellow MPs and putative future ministers to The People: no doubt he’ll let us know before the election how this is to be achieved, and after the election we shall all be riveted to see whether Dave is just as anxious to get rid of power when he has achieved it as he seems to be when he hasn’t got any. Mr Clegg, for the LibDems, is actually demanding the abolition of the House of Lords (and various other major changes, inevitably including “electoral reform” — he would, wouldn’t he?) before the general election, starting NOW. It can all be done, he has calculated, in 100 days. Ho, hum. How liberating to run no risk of having to lead a government!
Meanwhile all sorts of fancy ideas are being trotted out for our edification: votes for children (no, seriously); open-door primaries for the selection of parliamentary candidates, so that Tories can make sure that only no-hopers are selected as Labour candidates, and vice versa; ‘recall’ of MPs whose performance displeases a given number of their constituents — a field-day for the glassy-eyed environmentalists, anti-abortionists, vegans, English flag-waggers, pacifists, single fathers, flat-earthers and other fanatics (does no-one read Edmund Burke’s address to the electors of Bristol in 1774 any more?); numerous versions of proportional, semi-proportional, and non-proportional electoral systems, many of them with incomprehensible names (what exactly would be the implications of adopting AV-Plus? Is it an anti-virus program? What about d’Hondt?); a wholly elected house of lords, an 80 per cent elected house of lords, a house of hereditary peers only (again), no house of lords at all; fixed-term parliaments (so that governments which no longer enjoy the support of a majority in the house of commons will just have to soldier on and manage as best they can); and so on.
Then there are the minutiae of possible changes in the house of commons itself: clipping the tails of the Whips, or abolishing them; letting MPs choose select committee chairs (hold on, don’t let’s get carried away); giving vast but undefined powers to the select committees; requiring senior official appointments — ambassadors, that sort of thing — to be approved by parliament; letting MPs vote according to their own views in the Committee stage of Bills, not necessarily as ordered by the Whips (but not on Second or Third Reading, naturally); paying MPs more; paying MPs less; reducing the price of drinks in Annie’s Bar; closing (or re-opening) Annie’s Bar. Bolder MPs are not flinching at the prospect of such revolutionary change. (Dozens of others are reportedly enquiring about post-election seats in the house of lords, although the prime minister says he hasn’t heard about that yet.)
What all these disjointed ideas lack is a coherent analysis of the root causes of our present discontents, and ways of tackling them according to an overall strategic plan. I have yet to hear of any proposals, credible or otherwise, for tackling, still less resolving, such fundamental problems as the West Lothian question, devolution for England, or a distinctive function for a second chamber. I put some thoughts on these and other matters in a letter to the Times a few days ago. Since the Times has unaccountably not seen fit to publish it, I’ll have to do it myself. Here it is:
Any worth-while constitutional reform (letters, May 20) needs to address the anomalies caused by incomplete devolution, including the West Lothian question: incomplete reform of the Lords: gross over-centralisation of power at Westminster and Whitehall, distancing politics from ordinary people: and the threat of Scottish secession.
The Westminster parliament currently tries to play two mutually incompatible roles: legislating for England on all subjects, and for the whole of the UK on subjects not devolved to the other three nations. Its composition, like the government’s, is manifestly unsuitable for the first of these; the situation is unsustainable.
The sole solution to all these problems is to complete devolution with a parliament and government for England and the transfer of all domestic subjects to the four nations of the UK, leaving Westminster responsible for little more than foreign affairs and defence under a written constitution — in other words, a fully federal UK similar to the federations in Australia, Germany, the US, Canada and many other comparable countries. We also need maximum devolution of power within the four self-governing nations under the principle of subsidiarity which we demand for Europe.
Such a wide-ranging reform would require inspired leadership and years of preparation, including development of a cross-party, all-UK consensus in its favour and gradual phasing in of the new institutions. But the goal and vision should be set now and a constructive debate begun. Anything less, failing to tackle these momentous issues, will be mere tinkering: a shocking waste of time and opportunity. In Danton’s words: De l’audace, et encore de l’audace, et toujours de l’audace!
Alas, what we are now seeing and hearing is precisely “mere tinkering”, devoid of vision, largely designed to serve sectional interests or to assuage a temporary fit of public anger: a failure to think big, or even to attempt to answer any of those basic questions that I had hoped to put to readers of the Times (who they? I hear you cry). But it’s now too late for Labour, which ought to be the natural party of radical reform, to embark on such an epic journey; and there’s precious little sign that Mr Cameron understands the questions, still less that he knows the answers. So we’ll just have to go on muddling through as best we can. That’s what we’re supposed to be good at, isn’t it?