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?


9 Responses

  1. Helen Wright says:

    Call me a flag-wagger, if you will, but I will continue to wag it furiously, until we in England are granted parity with the neighbours and have our own Parlaiment.  Only then will discussions on the various forms of devolution to the COUNTIES of England, be fair and relevant to all the citizens of England.  Juggling the county councils is in no way acceptable as a sop in order to prevent us having our own elected national government, but more notably, in an attempt to avoid the topic altogether.  This will not go away. If anything, the demands are growing and will continue to do so.

    The Labour Party will find that they are now considered the Scottish Labour Party and as such, are unelectable in England.  That’s their own fault, of course.  If those Labour MP wannabes had any sense, they’d regroup as an English Labour Party – after all, they have Welsh and Scottish Labour Parties, don’t they? – and work on some sensible policies for England, which do not involve taxing us heavier than other parts of the UK and do involve spending our own taxes looking after our own people first.   That’s the only way to show the people of England that they have changed and are remotely electable once again.  It would also put Cameron and Clegg on the back foot.  Until then, they won’t be getting a single vote from my household.  Nor will Dave “Sour Little Englanders” Cameron. 

    Excuse me now, while I wag my flag and shout my discontent elsewhere.  This is one topic which infuriates me.

    Brian writes: It’s a pity that those who espouse the perfectly reasonable case for devolution to England are so often shrill and unreasonable in making it. Too often the case is ruined by an unpleasant streak of hostility to Scotland and the Scots (and to a lesser degree to the Welsh and Irish). It’s also folly wantonly to antagonise the one political party — the Labour party — that might one day be persuaded to accept the case for devolution to England as part of a wider completion of the federal project for the whole UK on which we have already embarked. Those who genuinely want to see a parliament and government for England would also be well advised to join forces with those (such as me!) who are making the reasoned case for a full federal system, including a parliament and government for England, instead of SHOUTING at them.

  2. Peter Harvey says:

    I have been saying for years that the UK is heading for a crisis in its medieval constitution. It seems that the scandal over MPs’ expenses may trigger it. The question is whether it will be handled properly and on the enormous, revolutionary scale that is needed: both houses of parliament must be drastically reformed, the role and powers of the monarchy must be clearly defined, the Church of England must be disestablished, and local and regional government must be introduced. There must be a written constitution, which must incorporate popular sovereignty (and that, be it said loud and clear, is nothing to do with mob rule by referendum). This cannot be done by a committee of ministers, nor can it be done by locking the MPs in parliament all summer like a medieval papal conclave, for the simple reason that the government and Parliament are part of the problem and thus by definition cannot solve it. There must be a national convention of British civil society (and in this regard by saying civil I exclude all religious bodies) to set up a modern European secular democracy.

    There is just one slight problem; it’ll never happen …

    Brian writes: I agree with virtually all of that. I don’t believe our most pressing and difficult problems can be solved without completing the devolution process, including transferring all domestic subjects to parliaments and governments in all four of the constituent nations of the UK — which means creating a parliament and government for England, separate from what are already the federal parliament and government at Westminster. This radical re-shaping would require at a minimum intensive inter-party discussion of goals and procedures: a national constituent assembly for the whole country and another for England: at least one Royal Commission, and more likely two or perhaps three: and a series of referendums at every stage. Allowing for set-backs, no votes, collapses of essential consensuses, and so forth, I estimate that the whole process would take between 10 and 15 years. But I think it’s just possible that it (or something like it) could happen, given a sufficiently dramatic crisis to concentrate minds on the need for a massive shake-up and re-structuring. The task meanwhile is to point out on every possible occasion and in every possible forum that nothing short of this kind of radical federal solution can begin to solve the problems and anomalies and injustices which increasingly afflict us.

  3. Paulie says:

    Brian asked a question about Burke’s speech to the electors of Bristol. It’s only courteous to read and respond to it before commenting here, surely?
    Brian, that’s a really good post. I’d argue that the most important reform has to come from the bottom up within the parties. What do you think to this idea? http://www.reselect.org
    Brian writes: Paulie, many thanks. The idea in http://www.reselect.org certainly seems worth considering — if, but only if, your MP has been exposed as one of those seriously misbehaving over his expenses claims, or in some other way not doing his job properly. I’m lucky in that (a) I have a Labour MP, and I’m a fairly strongly committed Labour supporter, and (b) my MP seems on the evidence to have behaved impeccably, so I have absolutely no wish to put him through a re-selection process, still less to replace him. I also have my doubts about open selection processes in which people with no particular party affiliation can offer themselves as candidates. The coherence and stability of our parliamentary system depends in my view on the party system, although having a handful of independents in the house of commons could be a good thing.

    My other reservation stems from my Burkean view that we send our MPs to Westminster to exercise their best judgement on our behalf, not to decide every vote or action by reference to the views of their constituents. We shouldn’t try to micro-manage our MP’s voting and other behaviour between elections, although we can and should monitor it as a guide to whether he merits our support at the next election. Hence also my reservations about referendums, except on the most fundamental constitutional issues such as whether to end UK membership of the EU, or change the electoral system. Finally, I believe that an MP’s main job should be at Westminster — studying and influencing legislation, holding the government to account, participating in policy discussions in select committees, and the like. His constituents shouldn’t try to make him (or her) subordinate that top-priority work to looking after the personal problems of individual people in his constituency, the vast majority of which should be the responsibility of local Councillors or other local advice bodies. A constant threat of re-selection will tend to force an MP to spend a disproportionate amount of time and effort nursing his constituency at the expense of his much more important parliamentary work. We all suffer if that becomes the norm.

  4. Paulie says:

    We are of one mind on the Burkean understanding of representative government (It’s my all time bore-marathon favourite subject). On your MP, I (unusualy) quite like Brendan O’Neill’s argument here:
    So what if they’ve ‘behaved impeccably’? I’d really like to see more recall of politicians by their constituency parties – but crucially, that it’s not done on matters of policy as much as it is done on their abilities as a representative. Having been in the Labour Party in the 1980s, I saw the devastation caused by the CLPD’s demands for Alternative Economic Strategy / Anti-EEC / Pro-CND compliance from MPs and candidates.
    Many Labour MPs have hidden behind a need to resist accountability on ideological grounds to avoid answering questions about their conduct as legislators. For example, I’m not Frank Field’s greatest fan, but I’d love to have him as my MP – moreso than many of the bland Daleks that are probably closer to my personal politics.
    The current situtation with public trust is, I beleive, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to clear out a lot of deadwood and revive politics.

  5. Richard T says:

    As a scot living off the far north of Scotland, I am in full support of a federal Britain with the greatest possible internal devolution to the local units with all elections based on the Single Transferable Vote.  This gives the power to the voter and not the parties to nominate and I have little patience with the counter arguments about deals in smoke filled rooms, about the loss of direct contact with the voter (particularly when there is much talk about reducing the number of MPs) and weak government.  On this last point, if we are in the position we are presently with strong government ……  I don’t think I need say more.

    I have no problem with a single legislative assembly in the capital dealing with national defence and foreign policy and acting maybe where there are clear UK federal needs beyond this.  I always have had difficulty with the logic with which the Conservatives can decry the EU and yet preach a centralised British state.  All the SNP have had to do is to take unionist speeches and change Brussels to London and there you have their case made for them.

    There is another aspect which l believe has possibly been a root cause of the current malaise in British government.  It is, put simply, the decline in competence of the central state.  I’m  not in the first flush of youth and I’m well aware of the risk of a rose tinted perspective of the past but I cannot recall a time when the basic adminstration of government was so poor.  Take the inability to control personal information, the failure to manage defence spending, the quite appalling incompetence of the combined inland revenue and customs and excise, the level of benefit fraud and don’t get me started on the Home Office.  I can’t diagnose the reason – part may be that the centralised civil service tries to do too much; part may be the loss of accountability (I have always believed it was deliberately implemented to dodge it) by the transfer of work to agencies under what appears to be limited control supported by a bonus and tick box target culture.  I do not believe performance related pay particularly in the public sector achieves anything except the over-reward of participants for doing what they’re employed to do but that’s a topic for another day perhaps 

    Add to this the growth in secondary legislation which is not subject to proper scrutiny and the appearance of external influence on legislation and government policy, there is the substance of a government which is outwith democratic controls.

     Brian writes: As you know, I have been campaigning (perhaps too grandiose a word for my pea-shooter) for a long time for just the kind of constitutional shake-up that you advocate. I think the mounting incompetence of central government can be ascribed to two things: the increased centralisation of an already over-centralised government at Westminster, IOW government trying to do far too much in too much detail, despite limited devolution; and the destruction of an independent strong-minded and unified civil service, a destruction started by Thatcher and continued by Blair and (especially, perhaps) Brown. Far too many top civil servants these days are appointed for their tame loyalty to the political views of their ministers; far too few are willing to risk their careers by offering unwelcome advice and warnings to ministers. Would we have become embroiled in the criminal folly of the aggression against Iraq if (a) Foreign and Commonwealth officials had been brave enough to ensure that their warnings and opposition to the ill-conceived adventure were brought forcefully to the attention of the entire Cabinet, and (b) ministers had been prepared to listen to officials’ warnings, instead of supinely accepting whatever Blair said and did?

    I also agree very much with your strictures on performance related pay in the public sector, which completely misunderstands the motivation of public servants. The notion that public servants will work hard and conscientiously, or will offer disinterested and independent advice to ministers, only if they are paid extra money for doing so, is a blundering insult to the public service and a damaging misinterpretation of why people join the public service in the first place. Sir Humphrey was a wickedly funny creation, but actually nothing like the real thing — fortunately. Now he’s just a crafty appendage of his minister.

  6. Tim Weakley says:

    Richard T mentions “…the loss of accountability (I have always believed it was deliberately implemented to dodge it) …”.  Agreed.  Do you remember the days when there was a Postmaster-General in the Cabinet, the fellow who carried the can when where was a row about missing letters or bad management/staff relations in the P.O.?  Or when there was a Minister of Aviation who might be faced with questions in the House about the operations of the British Airport Authority, which in any case no longer manages most airports?  And where is the Ministry of Transport that ought to be overseeing our awful denationalized railway system? 

    Brian writes: I entirely agree. The Thatcherite and Blairite zeal for both privatisation of, and hiving off, core government functions to the private sector or effectively unaccountable ‘agencies’ has been a disaster, lining the pockets of new owners and managers and aggravating public anger at our impotence in the face of incompetence, corruption, exploitation and avarice. One of the worst examples (and one of the least noticed) was the hiving off by Michael Heseltine of the section of the Civil Service Department responsible for assessing candidates for membership of or promotion in the civil and diplomatic services, a core government function if ever there was one. That was vigorously contested in the House of Lords, which indeed voted decisively against it, but it went ahead anyway.

  7. Richard T says:

    Can I add a postscript to my earlier comment.  I have read an article in yesterday’s Guardian by Simon Jenkins which seems germane.  Essentially he diagnoses that part of the malaise in the British system derives from the lack of democratic accountability in government and the systematic weakening of local government occasioned by the allergy to any form of elected authority endemic in our government.  This is quite convincing – think of schools where the centralisation of education and its removal (in England) from local authority management places accountability with central government and hence the onus rests on MPs to challenge/question and in theory to control.  With Mr Balls’ involvement, child protection is going the same way.  This results in MPs having to take the role that elected councillors would held done previously and you only have to look at the BBC Parliament channel and adjournment debates to see it.  This has reduced the capacity of MPs to do their prime job which is to hold government not administration to account – a cynic might think this is a deliberate policy.  

    From some limited experience, the Civil Service has an elevated view of its competence and a wish to diminish the independent authority of other players so that everything they do is delegated from the centre and power therefore rests centrally.  When it meets politicians like Mrs Thatcher and Mr Blair we get the unaccountable central state; the transfer of work to quangos/agencies is a manifestation of this and needs to be reversed.   There is of course the equally appalling use of consultants who at huge cost make the centralisation worse and at least arguably diminish the effectiveness (and I think the efficiency) of government at all levels.

    Brian writes: Thank you for these further insights. I think the ‘allergy’ to elected authority is a chicken-and-egg problem: as central government systematically emasculates local authorities and virtually all other potentially democratic institutions, leaving them little or no real powers, so voting in elections to them becomes less and less meaningful or relevant; and as public involvement with them diminishes with their powers and functions, the calibre of local representatives also diminishes which reinforces public disenchantment with them, thus making it even easier for Whitehall and Westminster to deprive them of yet more powers…. As you and Simon Jenkins rightly say, MPs increasingly find themselves having to do constituency work which used (and ought) to be done by local Councillors and the like, instead of concentrating on their core duties in the palace of Westminster, especially holding government to account. Current talk of introducing a local power of ‘recall’ of MPs deemed locally not to be doing a satisfactory job, insistence that MPs must ‘live’ in their constituencies, and enthusiasm for decisions by referendum, all aggravate the problem by increasing MPs’ dependence on the day-to-day approval of their constituents, including their local party activists, for their careers. As I have written elsewhere, no-one reads Burke any more.

    The waste of money on consultants is, as you say, another scandal.

    I’m just a little surprised by your comment about “the Civil [Service’s] … elevated view of its competence”: my impression, FWIW, is rather that its morale is at an all-time low as a result of the destruction of its independence and public esteem, and the tendency of ministers to rely on advice from their political advisers (for advisers read cronies) rather than on their generally more savvy and experienced officials. But your direct experience of the Service is probably more recent than mine (three decades of experience of both the home civil service and the diplomatic service) and my impression may well be mistaken. Certainly in the distant past the civil service had a high opinion of its own wisdom and competence: perhaps its just an old man’s rose-tinted view of the past that makes me suspect that this high opinion was once broadly justified.

  8. Richard T says:

    I freely admit that I lack your direct experience.  Mine was largely second hand in the public sector and local government and as such, I am guilty both of short hand and of generalising from a particular.  The shorthand is derived from sources such as Richard Crossman’s diaries where the effortless superiority of the upper Civil Service is well described.  The recent particular comes from recent exposure in Scotland. 

    If you go back to the Crossman diaries and read Dame Evelyn Sharp’s view of the world and, inter alia, her preference for what are now quangos such as the New Town Commissions you may get (as I did) a clear view of the upper Civil Servant’s view.  I do not disagree that the esteem in which they held themselves was justified and was reflected as we have shared in the effectiveness of their management in the high quality and pride in the delivery of a public service.  What I intended to say was that to an extent, this has mutated, via consultants, politicians and I suspect lower quality Civil Servants, into what I see as a disregard for public service as an end in itself, a results driven culture where ticking off boxes has been substituted for quality and a dilution of accountability.  

    Brian writes: I don’t quarrel with any of that. I agree, in particular, that the old-style senior civil servants, such as ‘Crossman’s Dame’, were prone to mandarin-like conviction of their own superiority over elected politicians, voters, etc. But the best of them were glad to support a minister who had a mind of his own, was willing to make decisions and stick to them, and was ready to listen to unwelcome advice even if he or she didn’t in the end accept it. I agree with you that what we used to call “the public service ethos” has now all but disappeared. We are all the losers.

  1. 17 July, 2009

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