The Con-Lib’s may not be the real reformers

Posted by Richard D North under 'Power To The People!' / Dare to be dull / The Political Class on 23 May 2010

Nick Clegg’s constitutional reforms may be worthwhile. But the big shift to good government depends on MPs getting a bit bolder and braver.

Martin Kettle and Julian Glover are on the money (The Guardian, 19 May 2010). Nick Clegg on constitutional reform awkwardly compensates a new governmental caution with a claim to be transformative.  And Lord Falconer was surely right to tell Eddie Mair (BBC Radio 4, PM, 19 May 2010) that this was reminiscent of one of New Labour’s “big mistakes”: the trust-busting habit of “making huge claims”.

Above all, the deputy PM has oversold his willingness or capability to “hand back power to the people”. That’s just as well: The People don’t want more power. They’re British, for goodness sake: they want the easy dissidence of the well-governed.

On the up-side, the Clegg reforms may make our democracy a little more representative. But this is nearly the opposite of what heart and soul Big Society (and even “New Politics”) people want. Phillip Blond, the Red Tory, was quick to tell the BBC Radio 4 Today programme (20 May 2010) that doing good of this sort fell way short of the new “associative” (mutualist, bottom-up) politics he fancied. When democracy is representative, it is not direct.

Nick Clegg’s reforms don’t bear comparison with the acts of political enfranchisement of the last two centuries.  And anyway, the point of those was to channel and express the fact of the masses’ power through Parliament. The upshot was the deliberate, accountable, meritocratic and controlled elitism of representative democracy. The proposals of Tony Wright’s Commons Select Committee on the Reform of the House of Commons are in that tradition, and Nick Clegg says the coalition aims to enact them. David Cameron may be as keen, th0ugh his attempted scuppering of the backbenchers’ 1922 Committee is ominous.

Here’s the beef. It helps a lot if the coalition government wants or will encourage a revived Westminster and Whitehall. But if they don’t, Parliament can do the work itself.

At this moment, the biggest problem with our representative democracy is not that The People don’t have enough authority over Parliament, it is that Parliament has given away its authority over government. We perhaps ought to reform the electoral system, but doing so won’t much alter this crisis of the constitution. We almost certainly ought not to have a second chamber which is elected, but making that change may not make a big difference either.

Actually, the “New Politics” is quite likely to rebalance things almost by mistake. Sue Cameron in the FT (11 May 2010) quotes senior mandarins (Whitehall officials) endorsing this theory. Andreas Whittam Smith gives it credence (The Independent, 14 May 2010).

The rationale works like this: (as noted by Michael White in the Guardian, 20 May 2010) under Mrs Thatcher and Tony Blair, power slipped from Westminster and Whitehall to Number 10 (and the broadcast media). Parliament, the Cabinet and the Civil Service all lost power. It is quite possible that a “balanced parliament” will empower MPs because votes will be narrower and because party managers may be inclined to use the coalition as cover for allowing MPs more freedom on some issues. It is likely too that a coalition government will empower the Cabinet since that will be the most obvious way of ensuring that senior people from both parties have dipped their hands in the blood. It is possible, too, that the Civil Service will gain in power as it helps forge the political acceptability and the practical workability of policy. Notice, for instance, how the coalition’s leaders like to be photographed with Gus O’Donnell, the country’s senior civil servant.  (But again, Mr Cameron sends mixed messages: giving economic forecasting to outsiders risks enshrining the idea that the Treasury and government utterance are alike unreformably partisan.)  

Most of what needs doing can be achieved by a bold coalition of Members of Parliament rather than a coalition of their leaders. We ought to remember that the House of Commons has nearly total command, if only its members get out their Blackberries, network properly, and grasp it.

We have over-mighty Prime Ministers and party whips, but haven’t gained strong government in exchange. Those failures are consequences of MPs having forgotten that they have an obligation to ensure that representative democracy works. They need to do that by boldly and sometimes bravely defending a hierarchy of responsibilities. These obligations can be ordered in matching and mirrored pairs: to their country and constituency, and to Parliament and party. These are richly conflicted, but a sense of what is good for Parliament – for the representational part of democracy - will often be a good guide to the other dimensions.

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