The Diary: Let's have an elected head of state

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Indy Lifestyle Online
MANY YEARS ago, when Henry Ford declared that "History is bunk", he can hardly have anticipated how widely his views would come to be adopted by New Labour, which regularly denounces everything that went before as old-fashioned, irrelevant and downright dangerous. A knowledge of, or even an interest in, the past is viewed with suspicion and those who are thought to be studying it run a risk of being marginalised. But those who worship modernisation are occasionally reminded, as they were last week, that life does not begin and end with the latest gimmick thought up by a focus group and put over in a sound-bite.

These reflections came to me a few days ago when a TV crew were filming the statue of Oliver Cromwell and the very place in Westminster Hall where Charles I stood at his trial 350 years ago, before a court set up by Parliament to try him, which ushered in the English Revolution.

That very same year, that same parliament abolished the Lords in a one- clause Bill drafted with clarity and brevity, declaring that the House of Lords "Shall not sit here, or purport to sit anywhere else", and the Agreement of the People, which was the basis of the constitution of the Commonwealth drafted by the Levellers, demanded that the supreme power be vested in an elected parliament. On Wednesday, ministers announced that a royal commission is to be appointed to look at the options and, meanwhile, as an interim measure the Lords is to be made up of some hereditary peers elected by other hereditary peers, alongside some "people's peers" carefully vetted to exclude all cronies - thus meeting the basic requirements of both the old aristocrats created by the Palace and new ones from the Fount of Honour in the Millbank Tower, with no elected element in it. I hope the second stage of this reform does not take us another 350 years, but it would not surprise me if it did.

MEANWHILE, a few yards away from the Cromwell statue, the seven Law Lords are hearing evidence before deciding whether General Pinochet is entitled to claim immunity from trial on the grounds that the hideous crimes he committed took place when, by a coup d'etat, he had become head of state of Chile.

This immunity was not accorded to Charles I and if Saddam Hussein or Slobodan Milosevic were to come to London for medical treatment, I doubt if they would be exempted either.

The doctrine of sovereign immunity must be based upon the medieval idea that nations are actually owned by their rulers, which is why, in law, the Queen can do no wrong. The judges have never caught up with the notion of popular sovereignty that the Levellers advocated in the Putney debates, and which appeared in the Agreement of the People, the Commonwealth constitution and later in the American and French revolutions.

And, as if to remind us of the continual battle for democracy, a little band of Chilean refugees have been standing in the cold across the road from where the Law Lords are meeting, arguing for justice after all that they, and their relatives and friends, suffered under the Pinochet Terror.

The presidential candidate of the Humanist party of Chile, Thomas Hirsch, came to see me at home on Thursday. In the long and interesting discussion we had, our common philosophy owed a very great deal to the inheritance we shared, including ideas of democracy, equality and internationalism which flowered during the Commonwealth period and which still reflect the aspirations of most people in the world.

ANOTHER REMINDER of our history emerged, somewhat surprisingly, from the threats of military action in Kosovo and the hints that the bombing of Iraq might begin again - both amounting to declarations of war. Declarations of war are, in law, part of the crown prerogatives, along with many others, including the right to sign treaties and enact laws in Brussels. Parliament has no right to be told, or even to be consulted, before Britain goes to war or to vote down European laws that are passed in the Council of Ministers by suing the royal powers.

That use of crown powers to legislate, which was abolished in 1649, only reappeared in 1973 when Britain joined the European Common Market and subordinated itself to a higher authority. Of course, crown powers are exercised by the Prime Minister and not the Queen, by an elected rather than by an hereditary person. But the gains made by Parliament in 1649 have, in practice, made much less difference in reducing the legal powers of the crown.

And when the flood of new life peers are announced to change the political balance in favour of the Government, they will all be created in the name of the crown and not by electors, as happens in almost every other civilised country in the world.

The British constitution does indeed require fundamental democratic reform, so that we can elect our head of state, both Houses of our parliament and hold the executive to account for the power it has. But if we are to do this properly we need to study our history a lot more carefully to avoid the danger of an absolute monarchy being recreated in the name of modernisation.

Meanwhile we must look for an effective way of introducing some checks and balances into the presidential system that has been subtly introduced in Britain, with hordes of personal advisers, or courtiers, who have begun to replace cabinet and parliamentary government. Backbench MPs, in all parties, should tell whips that from now on they intend to vote according to their convictions. In short, the legislature should notify the executive that it has a role to play in much the same way as Parliament did in 1649.

If such an attempt was made it would amount to a revolution, but a democratic one which escaped the dictatorship that Cromwell established when he made himself Lord Protector - the only real protector of a people's rights are the people themselves. Which is why the rich and powerful have always feared democracy.

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