Two forbidden words
POWER AND THE PEOPLE: A Guide to Constitutional Reform by Vernon Bogdanor, Gollancz pounds 16.99
Sunday 10 August 1997
The Great Cleansing on 1 May has restored faith in our political system, but, I fear, only temporarily. Genuine popular feeling is increasingly channelled into single-issue, direct-action campaigns against, for example, bypasses or airport runways. So constitutional reform, to which Professor Bogdanor's book is billed as a guide, ought to be a subject of urgent, consuming interest.
Alas, "constitution" and "reform", as any sub-editor knows, are words which should never appear in headlines. The precise powers of a Scottish parliament, the exact circumstances under which referendums might be held, the merits of different systems of proportional representation - the details of these are for political nerds. Professor Bogdanor, a likeable and liberal- minded man, is nerd-in-chief. His book, though lucid, is no more exciting than a computer user's guide.
Professor Bogdanor doesn't help his cause by coming to conclusions which are both limp and limited. He decides that the House of Lords should be left more or less as it is. He argues for the most horrendously complex system of proportional voting (an example from the Republic of Ireland requires five pages for the arithmetic alone), and then admits that it has next to no chance of adoption in Britain. He leaves the Queen undisturbed on her throne, though required to submit proper accounts. Except as a brief afterthought, he has nothing to say about a written constitution, a Bill of Rights or freedom of information, and very little about local government. He is quite positive about referendums, and makes them sound exciting (well, diverting on a wet afternoon), but doesn't venture into hypothecated taxation - the idea that we might vote on specific taxes for specific purposes, such as an extra 1p on income tax for schools.
It may be objected that Professor Bogdanor should not be criticised for his failure to write a book that he did not set out to write. But this is the trouble with the constitutional reformers. Despite their good intentions, they fail to connect with anything that the rest of us find important: the power of Rupert Murdoch to dominate our media, the power of the big City investors to enforce poverty-line wages, the power of motorists to change the world's weather. As Professor Bogdanor acknowledges, devolution, House of Lords reform and all the rest of it would greatly expand the class of professional politicians. There doesn't seem much point in electing these people if, confronted with real power, they continue to be as timid as they are now, occupying themselves instead by harassing single mothers, schoolteachers, squeegee merchants, and other harmless souls.
Perhaps this explains why politicians make constitutional reform sound so complex: it puts off the evil day when they have to do anything useful. "The British Constitution", writes Professor Bogdanor, "knows nothing of the people". His book, I'm afraid, knows little of them either, and, despite its title, knows still less of power.
Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treattv
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Eurovision 2015: Graham Norton returns with another cutting commentary - his best lines
- 2 Purity balls: Girls in the US making virginity pledges as fathers vow to 'protect purity'
- 3 Eurovision 2015 winner: Sweden beats Russia and Italy to take the title from Conchita Wurst
- 4 Mother 'will allow son's circumcision in return for release from prison'
- 5 Puerto Rico, island of lost dreams: People are leaving the debt-hit territory in droves as near neighbour Cuba's star rises
As a white man, I'm surprised more women aren't tweeting the hashtag #KillAllWhiteMen
Scotland may have to leave the EU even if it votes to stay in, David Cameron confirms
Report finds that Britain's wages are the most unequal in Europe
The day that Britain resigned as a global power
Almost a third of school pupils believe 'Muslims are taking over our country', study claims
Gay marriage 'Bert and Ernie' cake bakery found guilty of discrimination in Northern Ireland