It's baroque, but don't fix it

Essay: Concluding his series on the constitution, Richard D North defends our imperfect version of democracy and exposes the myth of a centralise d Britain in the grip of the ruling class
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Of course it's not government by the people. The genius of a democracy is to let everyone in a society feel that they have control, or at least influence, while at the same time sparing them the effort of exercising much of either most of the time. It is the second part of this proposition which makes one doubt the modern enthusiasm for quoting de Tocqueville quite so much. The French political writer admired American small town administration, especially the right of and need for everyone to take part. "Without local institutions a nation may give itself a free government, but it has not got the spirit of liberty."

As it happens, the people as a whole are neither especially wise nor very nice, and these deficiencies make an even better case for undemocratic processes. Democratic institutions are seldom in fact very democratic, but they produce outcomes which are cleverer and kinder than pure democracy would achieve, and most of us know it. It is also true that the "state" may be kinder than the community; the cosmopolitan centre more amiable than the repressive neighbourhood.

For proof of these propositions, consider only that most people most of the time think that murderers should swing by their necks, and that we should keep our hands in our pockets when we pass the poor in the street. It is our parliamentarians who dictate that capital punishment is immoral and ineffective, and who endlessly parade their intention to take less tax from us, but find their corporate compassion never quite allows them to do so.

All the same, it is right that people should constantly check that those who have power are in some sense accountable. On the whole, we believe that this is best achieved by what the Roman Catholic Church and the EU call "subsidiarity": the principle that decisions should be taken as near as possible to those they affect.

Periodically, enthusiasts argue that Scotland and Wales (and, rather differently, Northern Ireland) ought to be allowed more independence. Many English people would feel that they were welcome to it, especially if their influence, and charge, upon Westminster were proportionally reduced. Why not? We have already had the best of their mineral resources, and will continue to attract their best brains, however they govern themselves. But many Britons are happy enough with the arrangement as it stands: as Ralf Dahrendorf says, we rather like "the beautiful absurdity of `home international' football games".

It is axiomatic that Mrs Thatcher destroyed local government and centralised power. It is also wrong. Even if it were true, it might not matter. Local government is mostly about boring things such as drains and dustbins; firms are doing much of it pretty well. Where local authorities run interesting things, such as police forces and schools, there would be a massive outcry if standards were to vary around the country.

Mrs Thatcher's attempted revolution in local government was one of her many failures, not in the sense that it was a disaster, but that it was aborted. The poll tax, for instance, could have ushered in a system whereby local people raised local taxes for local services with a potential for a high degree of autonomy. One of her reforms looks like being a small success: the little-noticed but emerging system whereby a tier of local government is stripped out of the system may revitalise local democracy by allowing people to vote less, but for clear purpose. The reform overcomes voter fatigue, rather than creating a dangerous democratic deficit.

But the main thrust of the argument that Mrs Thatcher was a centraliser is wrong. There is very little power in the UK for anyone to centralise. You can look where you like and you find civil servants and politicians trying very hard to discern and then deliver what the voter wants, and to do it cheaply.

It is right that the only passion we should allow civil servants is for disinterestedness, which is not under half so much threat as is the anonymity that they need in order to pre- serve it.

You find people scrutinised and disciplined by (and here is a partial list): the Today programme, the rest of the energetic media, (the quite new) Commons select committees, the National Audit Office, the Audit Commission, judicial review, increasingly nosy and bossy judges (whom we should watch), occasional judicial inquiries, assiduous single-issue campaigners, vainglorious academics. And on top of all this we now face the biggest and loosest cannon ever to be mounted on to the deck of the ship of state: the threat of litigation.

People fear that Parliament cannot scrutinise the apparatus of the state it has sanctioned. Why should it, with this army of snipers? Given the modern excess of scrutiny, the ease of exacting retribution and the hunger for very visible redress, it is a miracle that anything good - but no miracle that little that is very bad - is achieved by the body politic.

It is true that by putting out much of government to tender, and setting up agencies of one sort or another, we have made the lines of accountability hard to follow, as we have seen this year in the case of the Prison Service. But if there are many more slip-ups of that sort, ministers will be forced to delineate the chain of command better, and the result should be a pretty effective improvement of a worthwhile reform.

It is a persistent myth that Britain is ruled not merely centrally, but by something called the Establishment. How this squares with the idea, also current, that Britain's ruling class (whatever that is) is as ignorant as it is distrustful of the commercial class, is anyone's guess. As is the problem of how it comes about that academia has little to do with either. There clearly is no ruling class, and the quangocracy especially should appeal to anyone who wants Britain to be classless; its chiefs are overwhelmingly provincial, grammar school and red-brick university types.

There were, of course, fears that the agencies lack a real sense of public service. But who can listen to the chiefs of the schools or the prisons inspection services without noting that they are freer of institutionalised humbug than conventional civil service institutions would have been? Isn't that exactly what we wanted to see? The reviled Citizen's Charter and league tables reveal to us regularly what we know already as people who use them: schools and hospitals are doing very well, considering how reluctant we are to fund them.

In any case, what is so often missed is that accountability lies like flotsam and jetsam all around the shores of the new Archipelago State, and most of us can't be bothered to pick it up. Schools and hospitals now really do make themselves open to customer influence, and, like most ministries, conduct long and serious exercises in public consultation. Most of us feel that little is wrong, so we let others play our part for us.

Much the same case applies to information as it does to accountability. The Americans are better informed by their government on a huge range of irrelevancies than are the British, but no one seriously believes that America's is a better run or more open government. Most other European societies are run by closed elites. But then their peoples are schooled in being citizens of a state, whilst we luxuriate as subjects of the Crown.

Where in the world does the Cabinet parade before the discerning classes at length every morning? Where in the world do senior civil servants delight to inform sensible journalists of every problem their political masters face? Or consider, too briefly, rights: do the British feel they have fewer rights because these have not been crammed on to a page of A4? Do they not sense that it is a bad justice system that destroys rights, rather than a piece of paper that might defend them?

The truth about the British constitutional system is that there are things we perhaps don't like about it that might be put right, but with probably largely disappointing results. Constitutions do not create the vigour in society, though they may play their part in repressing it. They certainly don't make a people energetic or entrepreneurial. The most one can hope is that a government reflects its people's temper. This is where one might make a case for reform: not that it will make our economy or government more efficient, but that we may be failing culturally because we are in thrall to our past, and thus need to throw over its trappings. In fact, it is more likely that as modernity sweeps through our culture like a gale, we would be wise to cling to such bits of the wreckage that provide us with comfort. The failings of modern British government lie much more with the alternating indolence and graspingness of voters and the vulgarity of its media, than they do with the constitutional system or even the people manning it. To pervert Disney slightly: the constitution is Baroque, but there's no need to fix it.

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