Let's root out the rot in our sickly constitution

Reformers must do more than shift power among oligarchs. We need to have real, direct democratic processes
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The Independent Online
Richard North is the latest in a long line of commentators to have discerned the true virtue of the British Constitution. It is that it works. Critics, he argued in his three articles on these pages last week, have misunderstood the basic rationale of our system - which is not rule by the people, but strong government. The Constitution should indeed "appal any democrat who believes in rule by and for the people", since its purpose is quite different. For it is "a system for selecting and controlling a governing elite (the parliamentarians)" and in doing this, it succeeds in eliminating the "serious danger of direct democracy".

Defenders of the Constitution should, however, ask themselves why what was once a model so widely admired has now become a warning of what to avoid. In the Fifties and Sixties, the Westminster model was the paradigm of democracy, adopted in much of Africa and Asia. Today, none of the new democracies of central and eastern Europe has for one moment contemplated adopting the British system. None believes that an omnicompetent government, elected by the largest minority, yields a regime that is either effective or fair. All of them, therefore, have codified constitutions with judicial review; none uses the first-past-the-post electoral system; most have adopted one of the varieties of proportional representation.

For even in its own terms, the British Constitution fails. If the purpose of an election is to select a governing elite, it has not performed this function very well in recent years. The last three general elections have produced governments with working majorities in the House of Commons. Two of these governments - in 1983 and 1987 - enjoyed landslide majorities of more than l00. All three, however, rested on just 42 per cent of the vote. Can a government, however large a majority it enjoys in the Commons, be effective when it is in so much of a minority in the country?

In 1923, in an endeavour to secure a single-party majority, Mussolini amended the Italian electoral law so that the winning party would automatically receive two-thirds of the seats. That is electoral gerrymandering of a kind that we in Britain would never countenance. But we do not need to. For in 1983, the British electoral system gave Margaret Thatcher nearly two-thirds of the seats in the House of Commons for just 42 per cent of the vote. She achieved a massive parliamentary majority, although she was in a minority of more than four and a half million of the popular vote. How, in a democracy, can a government be strong when nearly three- fifths of the voters are against it?

The electoral system, moreover, discriminates even against the two major parties in areas where they are weak. Labour, in 1992, won only 10 seats in the South-east of England outside Greater London. The Conservatives, despite their electoral victory, won only five of the 54 constituencies in the major conurbations of Birmingham, Bradford, Glasgow, Hull, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield. No wonder conservative MPs sometimes find it difficult to comprehend the problems of the inner cities.

Our electoral system gives us not majority government, but government by the largest minority. Our constitution then allows that minority to govern, untrammelled by checks upon its power. Almost alone among democracies, we have no codified constitution, no judicial review of legislation, no federal system, a weak structure of local government, and a feeble second chamber.

Richard North defends the House of Lords by saying that it is "wiser than most of us". That would also be the opinion of most of their lordships. It is not, however, one that can be sustained by any dispassionate observer of the Lords proceedings.

In March 1994, the Lords rejected Lord Diamond's Bill allowing the first- born, whether male or female, to inherit a peerage. Lords Mowbray and Stourton objected since the eldest daughter of an ancient house "might marry, shall we say, an American film star from Hollywood". Even more "appalling" would be "if a daughter were to marry a Frenchman and the family became French". The Earl of Shrewsbury warned his fellow-peers not to tamper with "a system which has been with us since before the Norman Conquest", while the Earl of Strafford felt that their lordships were in danger of moving too fast. There is probably more wisdom to be found in a random sample from the local pub than there is in the House of Lords.

The inadequacy of the second chamber makes possible omnicompetent government. Such a government can, as Richard North notices, be checked by riot, as with the poll tax. Riot, however, is scarcely a constitutional mechanism.

The poll tax is indeed a graphic example of what happens when politicians ignore the people. Today, constitutional reform needs to go well beyond Richard North's elitist system. The widespread disillusionment with politicians and the increase in support for constitutional change, displayed in numerous opinion polls, has occurred precisely because our political system frustrates the desires of voters to participate in decisions that affect them. Constitutional reformers must do more than simply shift power among the oligarchs who aspire to rule us, which means a much greater emphasis on the instruments of direct democracy - not only referendums, but citizens' juries, people's parliaments and other innovations that technological advances have made possible.

The successful working of the British Constitution rested on contingent factors - it presupposes a deferential and homogeneous society divided by class. In such a society, most voters will find themselves in effect represented by just two parties, one broadly social democratic, the other broadly capitalist; and they will be happy for politicians to take decisions on their behalf. A society of this kind existed between the 1940s and the Seventies, but it has now passed away. Our political system thus needs to be refashioned to meet the needs of a new society. The point then today is not to reinterpret the British Constitution, but to change it.