Book: This Time: Our Constitutional Revolution by Anthony Barnett

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Anthony Barnett is the Sally Bowles of British constitutionalism. Maybe this time, he sings. This has been the year of New Labour and that effusion of popular feeling at the death of Diana. The people are no longer prepared to put up with our Venetian constitution, he concludes. But, like Liza Minelli's in Cabaret, there is a note of anxiety in his voice.

What if the people don't rise up and demand that Labour keeps its promises on reform? Worse, what if the people turn out (and the signs from Wales are hardly encouraging) not to want to become civic activists according to Barnett's Charter '88 script? We can hardly,to adapt Berthold Brecht's East German joke, elect ourselves a new people.

But Anthony Barnett has no time in this book for speculation or sociology and little time for the postmodernist speculations about the future of democracy coming from think-tanks such as Demos. He is one of those on the left who, diametrically opposed to Lady Thatcher in many ways, nevertheless share her affection for Victorian values such as the franchise and self- government; non-participators are frowned upon.

This is a tract written in a hurry. You know that because he is one of those authors who tells us he has not had time to look up this quote or that reference. But books are often written in a hurry so they can serve the function of agitprop. The puzzle in publishing a book of this kind at this time is: who does Barnett want to influence?

This is higher journalism, readable enough for those in the game who want a pocket guide to recent events. But isn't the challenge for reformers to make the arcana of proportional representation and parliamentary reform intelligible to British citizens at large, maybe even to make them things they care about?

Barnett is no populist. Yet it isn't just for the Government to make a clear statement of its intent, as he says. Reformist intellectuals need to join in the task of persuasion, too. He does not even try to explain what difference changing the shape of the state will make to ordinary lives.

Barnett begins the book by reporting chance conversations with the crowd waiting outside St James's Palace prior to Diana's funeral. However deep they may have gone, are the sentiments expressed in that peculiar week a reliable base on which to refashion the state?

He says we need decentralisation of power. Do we want it? Only the other day MORI reported - not for the first time - how suspicious people are of the tier of government closest to them, on their doorstep: the local authorities. Yes, he admits, people dislike fruitless meetings. But what if "fruitless meetings" are what makes elective government based on political parties tick? You won't find counter-intuitive thinking here. Anthony Barnett is too busy keeping his fingers crossed.

Vintage, pounds 6.99

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