It's all over for the old constitution

A 'State of the Nation' poll reveals massive support for change at the heart of government, say Patrick Dunleavy and Stuart Weir

The furore in the House of Commons over Lord Nolan's modest proposals to clear it of sleaze provides a foretaste of future conflicts over constitutional reform in Britain. The collapse of the bipartisan consensus between the Labour and Tory leaderships prefigures larger divisions between the parties on more fundamental questions.

The British constitution has survived unchanged since the Twenties largely because, once in government, neither Conservative nor Labour Cabinets were prepared to sacrifice any real power in pursuit of democratic reform, no matter what they had said in opposition. The elites in both parties simply sat out or sat on any demands for change, confident the majority of voters cared mainly about bread-and-butter issues.

Now there are significant issues, such as freedom of information and Scottish devolution, on which the leaderships of the two parties are unable to make the establishment deal stick. And today, a Rowntree Reform Trust "State of the Nation" poll, conducted by Mori, reveals a massive and consistent public consensus for change at the very heart of government in Britain. The public is rejecting the old ethos of unwritten rules and self-regulation at all levels.

Four out of five voters (79 per cent) agree that Britain needs a written constitution, "providing clear legal rules which government ministers and civil servants are forced to operate". There are similar majorities for a Freedom of Information Act (81 per cent) and a Bill of Rights (79 per cent). Three-quarters of voters (78 per cent) want a ban on all lobbying by MPs for private business - not just the consultancies which Nolan proposes to prohibit. The same majority wants a two-year limit preventing ministers from taking jobs with companies they have dealt with in office, and 70 per cent want the same rule for civil servants.

Public zeal for rules and transparency is just as strong in attitudes towards quangos. Four-fifths of voters (80 per cent) agree there should be "clear legal rules to ensure that all quango boards are balanced in their composition", and as many again (81 per cent) want all quango boards to meet in public and publish their papers. More than 70 per cent want all quango appointments to be subject to scrutiny by parliamentary committees, and believe the public should have a say in these appointments. Finally, three-quarters of those questioned support the proposal that political parties should make known the identities of major donors.

The figures for people who are attached to the status quo are just as striking - in reverse. On none of these issues does more than one in eight people want to keep things as they are. The opposition to change is often negligible. Only 3 or 4 per cent agree with Nolan that MPs' long-term business links should be allowed to continue, that MPs should be able to speak and vote on issues where they have a financial interest, or that quangos should meet in secret. Just one person in 16 dissents from the consensus in favour of a written constitution, freedom of information and a Bill of Rights.

This is a consensus which goes far beyond popular distaste for sleaze. The public is rejecting established practice across the existing constitution. Important canons of faith at Westminster and Whitehall have effectively lost all legitimacy. What is more, the survey shows that public demand for key reforms has been stable since the first survey in 1991. For example, support for a Bill of Rights has stayed firm at 79 per cent, while advocacy of a Freedom of Information Act has risen from 77 to 81 per cent.

The focus on rules and transparency amounts to an important shift in public attitudes to the way Britain is governed. At every point, the public states a preference for legality over discretion and independent scrutiny rather than self-regulation. For example, two-thirds of those questioned want the rules governing the conduct of MPs to be written into the civil or criminal law; more than three-quarters (78 per cent) want accusations of "serious misconduct" against ministers to be investigated either by an independent commissioner or by the police; only 11 per cent believe inquiries should be left to the Prime Minister's discretion, as now.

The demand for independent scrutiny and clear rules comes from voters across all parties and all social classes. The diehard Tory backbench idea that the "professional middle classes" share their interest in maintaining self-regulation is laughable. The demand for legal controls and civil rights is strongest among professionals and the upper middle class.

There is a second tier of constitutional issues which is opposed by a large minority. On electoral reform, the status quo still retains some legitimacy, thanks to a desire for strong single-party government. Rather fewer people now (46 per cent) want proportional representation than in 1991 (50 per cent), though the reformers still outnumber the opposition by about two to one. However, voters on both sides of the debate are now less committed to their views - possibly reflecting Tony Blair's conspicuous distaste for the reform and Paddy Ashdown's neglect of it.

There is still significant opposition to Scottish devolution in Britain as a whole, with one in four people against. But public acceptance of change has grown since 1991 (when 30 per cent were opposed); two-thirds of British voters favour either devolution (50 per cent) or independence (15 per cent) for Scotland. Devolution is a democratic reform which now looks almost inevitable, with Labour and the Liberal Democrats firmly committed and the Conservatives, after the Perth and Kinross by- election, clearly wavering. Popular support in Scotland is running at consensus levels (81 per cent) and more than two-thirds of British voters agree the Scots should have their own assembly if they vote for it in a referendum. The Welsh, too, may get their own assembly, though probably thanks more to Lab-Lib political commitment than popular support for the change.

Other reforms are clearly no-hopers, because neither Labour nor the Conservatives will introduce them, and because there is insufficient public support. The House of Lords has almost as many admirers as critics; and while 43 per cent favour an elected second chamber, 25 per cent are opposed. Devolution to the English regions is unpopular, with 60 per cent opposed and, partly as a result, Labour's enthusiasm is waning.

Voters are discriminating. They are not signing up to the whole Charter 88 agenda. But the growing consensus around key reforms is consistent in approach and over time. The survey shows dramatically the consequences of political inaction on the people's agenda. In 1973, nearly half the British public believed their government worked well; in 1991, a third did; now only just over a fifth do. Critics who want to improve the way we are governed have risen from under half the population in 1973 to three-quarters in 1995. In 1991, more than half (58 per cent) believed Parliament worked fairly well; in just four years that number has fallen to 43 per cent.

Popular faith in the political system is decaying fast. The State of the Nation poll suggests that far more than Nolan's first set of changes are necessary to restore confidence. The pressures for change at elite level are unusually strong, too, with more Nolan to come, the Scott report on Iraq-gate due this autumn, and scrutiny from the judges and media all bearing down on a hapless government.

Perhaps most important of all, the establishment consensus at Westminster no longer stands united against the popular consensus. Both opposition parties are irretrievably committed to key reforms, such as Freedom of Information and a Bill of Rights. No one should write the Tories off yet, but it may well be that the strongest opposition to change will come from its most bitter enemy: Whitehall.

The Rowntree poll also reveals that more than three-quarters of the electorate believe voters should have a "great deal" or fair amount of power between elections, but fewer than one in 10 believes he or she already has it. Where will it all end?

Mori interviewed more than 2,000 adult respondents across Great Britain between 21 April and 8 May.

Patrick Dunleavy is professor of government at the London School of Economics, and Stuart Weir is director of the Democratic Audit at the University of Essex.

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