Two forbidden words

POWER AND THE PEOPLE: A Guide to Constitutional Reform by Vernon Bogdanor, Gollancz pounds 16.99
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The real dramas and divisions in British politics take place within the parties, not between them. The "ishoos", as Tony Benn likes to call them, are therefore decided, Mondays to Thursdays, within a square mile or so of Westminster Bridge, and on long weekends at assorted country houses. This has been true for at least 150 years. The electors are spectators at a theatre in which much of the action occurs offstage. We may heckle or cheer now and then, in the manner of Elizabethan groundlings, and we may certainly enjoy peripety (the change from one state of things to its opposite) or the effects of hubris (as in Jonathan Aitken). Only once in five years, however, do we have the chance to boo the actors off-stage: thrilling drama, but not a particularly grown-up way of running our affairs.

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.