Thursday Book: Dark heart of our democracy

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ROUTLEDGE, pounds 22.99

THE BRITISH have never taken the idea of democracy very seriously. They have fought for it, died for it and claimed it as their own, but they have given remarkably little attention to what it might involve in practice. Untroubled for so long by revolution or conquest, they have never had to reconstruct a state or invent a new constitution. This unique good fortune has come at a price.

It has produced a famously "flexible" way of governing unconstrained by the sort of checks and balances found elsewhere. Strong government has been preferred to accountable government, a preference shared (for different reasons) by both major parties in the 20th century. The doctrine of Parliamentary sovereignty has provided a convenient cloak for executive dominance. The myth of ministerial accountability to Parliament has served as a substitute for more effective forms of accountability. A winner- takes-all electoral system has allowed a party to get its hands on a winner- takes-all political system.

The effect of all this is that Britain has developed a form of excessively centralised and concentrated government, with a bias against accountability. It is certainly important to be able to kick the rascals out, but it is also important to be able to kick them while they are in. Effective government matters, but so does accountable government. It is a question of getting the balance right, and in Britain the balance has been lopsided.

This is demonstrated in painstaking and devastating detail in this "audit" of British democracy. The democratic audit project, with Stuart Weir as its presiding genius, has made a huge contribution to political analysis and reform in recent years. Its researchers have burrowed away in the undergrowth of the political system, popping up from time to time to display their discoveries (as with their pioneer mapping of the quango state). The findings are then assessed against the audit criteria developed by the project, providing the basis for systematic judgements.

An audit of human rights in Britain has already been published, and this is the companion volume on elections and the central executive. The enterprise is a triumphant achievement. Anyone who thinks constitutional reformers simply trade in easy slogans should be referred to the hard analysis in this bumper book. It documents in cold and authoritative detail the accountability deficit at the heart of government in Britain. In turn, this defines the agenda for reform, aimed at rebalancing an unbalanced system.

Is this now happening? The audit ends as Labour comes to power and before constitutional reform takes off in a big way, but it is useful to measure what is being done against this analysis. In important respects the central state is being pluralised and constrained, a process all the more remarkable for being undertaken by a party with a huge Commons majority. New checks and balances are put in place on human rights and (soon) freedom of information, while devolution creates new centres of power. At the same time many of the unregulated spaces in British politics - for example, party funding - are being filled by legislation, as codification quietly transforms an unwritten constitution.

This is emphatically not business as usual. It is a system on the move, as the dynamic of change gathers pace and its effects reach ever wider. Surely, this process presages the fundamental rebalancing of British government? Well, perhaps.

The doubts concern the accountability of the central executive, the heartland territory of British government. It is not just that central control and communication within government are being strengthened as never before in peacetime (an entirely sensible and proper process as far as government is concerned), but that it is not being balanced by an equivalent strengthening of Parliamentary accountability. It is doubtful if Parliament has ever been weaker.

While the constitutional reform programme accelerates, it is significant that the Parliamentary part of it - at least in relation to the House of Commons - has stalled. The antique ineffectiveness of Parliament has remained untouched, despite the existence of a "modernisation" committee. This matters because Parliament is supposed to be the place where the executive is held to account. If that link in the chain is broken, no amount of fancy fencing will fill the gap.

Perhaps it is unrealistic to expect serious reform. A legislature whose members are primarily interested in joining the executive is unlikely to be a ferocious watchdog. A poodle that pretends to be a rottweiler is an absurd spectacle. It is possible that only the separation of powers would bring serious accountability, but that is on nobody's agenda. Electoral reform might strengthen Parliament against the executive, but it also might not. It may be, of course, that the Government will itself take the lead and beef up its own accountability. The next democratic audit, promised for the end of Labour's first term, will make interesting reading.

The reviewer is the Labour MP for Cannock Chase