Back to the age of patronage: William Wallace warns of the danger ahead should John Major reform Whitehall, but not Westminster

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The Independent Online
JOHN MAJOR has a vision: of an unreformed House of Commons at the centre of a patronage state. He is committed to dismantling the 19th-century reforms which introduced a neutral civil service, while insisting that the present structure and style of Westminster should be retained. Both these positions emerge clearly from his speech to the European Policy Forum this week. He called for a continuing revolution in Whitehall, 'dwarfing any changes we have seen since the modern pattern of government was established'. But he staunchly defended Westminster. 'I don't think this country needs politicians throwing the British Constitution up in the air to see how the broken pieces fall.'

So the Prime Minister has chosen to do battle with the opposition parties on constitutional territory. Judging by his speech, the passion with which he spoke of the Citizen's Charter and the 'revolution' that league tables for schools, hospitals and police performance have wrought, he seems to believe that this is firm ground for a political campaign. But he has left many openings for Labour and Liberal Democrats to attack.

The Major vision is of an appointed state, without much room for democratic representation. The word 'democracy' appeared but once in his 45-minute speech on 'The Role and Limits of the State', and this was in a negative reference to 'unnecessary layers of government'. Elected local government, for him, is a 'state-run collective'; schools are to be 'liberated from political control'. In place of elected councillors on police authorities, he proposes headteachers, farmers and businesspeople: the natural - though unelected - representatives of middle England. Was this a conscious echo of the Middle England of the 18th century, in which the Squire, the Rector and the Merchant similarly acted as local agents of the central state?

The English state 200 years ago rested on corruption and patronage. Young men entered the Commons seeking to make their fortunes through political preferment and government contracts. Revolutions on the Continent swept away other unreformed regimes, but the House retained its amateur habits and subordination to government patronage.

The creation of a strong administrative state, alongside Westminster's intermingling of representative and executive government, was a response first to the emergence of an alienated underclass in Britain's cities and second to the economic and political challenge the stronger German state posed to UK interests. Conservative reformers and enlightened businessmen led in using local government to provide public services and to regulate markets and factories.

Adam Smith's attack on the mercantilist state from which economic liberalism derives was against the unreformed, private-patronage 18th-century system. Friedrich von Hayek and other refugees from the European Continent were reacting against the authoritarian corporatism of Austria-Hungary and Prussia. They found a ready audience in the United States, where resistance to government as such is a legacy of the frontier tradition.

The capture of the Tory party by the anti-political, almost anti-democratic doctrines of the American right is, however, a denial of much of the Tories' own political tradition. Mr Major referred to our 'island race', and reasserted a view of national identity that included in 'the Union' not only Scotland and Wales but also Northern Ireland. Yet he said nothing about what makes or maintains a national community, nothing about the role of education in integrating children of different backgrounds into an understanding of common citizenship, and nothing about how the idea of the welfare state helps to give everybody a share in the national community.

The Prime Minister's concept of citizenship is of an individual consumer and property-owner. Those who fall through the net of employment and ownership, the 'new dependent' whom John Gray, the Conservative academic, has identified within the Thatcherite state, are in effect excluded from this shrunken vision. There is a direct link between this Unionist vision of a shrunken but still-centralised British state and the resistance to everything European that pushes the Prime Minister to the right. When Bernard Jenkin, MP attacked the European Parliament last week as having 'no more legitimacy than a district council', he displayed the current ascendancy's contempt for local government as much as for Brussels. Westminster is all that is needed to ensure democratic government in Britain, he was saying.

Count Otto Lambsdorf, the German politician closest to Margaret Thatcher in style and approach, was at Downing Street just as his country was celebrating 40 years of democratic government. Mrs Thatcher robustly said that she would not be confident about the stability of German democracy for at least another 40 years, to which he replied equally robustly that he hoped Britain might introduce institutions as democratic as Germany's within the next 40 years.

With their eyes fixed on America (and New Zealand), the anti-

political revolutionaries of the right ignore the democratic structures and checks and balances of their Continental competitors. The German state operates under four layers of government, which support and promote a much stronger small business sector than Britain's. The statistics and tables that Whitehall now releases pale into insignificance before the Freedom of Information rules under which Scandinavian governments operate.

But it is the creeping corruption of the patronage state that most threatens the sense of a shared and equitable national community. The aggrandisement of accountants, the accumulation of consultants, the mushrooming of public affairs lobbies, the spread of Conservative MPs across the boards of companies competing for privatisation contracts - all take us back towards the style of 18th-century London, in which the right connections could make your fortune and political influence could be bought and sold. Simplifying circulars from government departments - about which Mr Major enthused in his speech - is a detail compared with the transfer of public money and assets to private pockets that this involves.

The House of Commons is at the root of the problem. Conservative MPs are rewarded by the whips for organised barracking of their opponents with preferment to one of the vast number of ministerial posts at the whips' disposal. From there, they may either rise to Cabinet rank, and move directly on to major directorships, or else step sideways into political consultancy and influence-peddling. Any debate on the role and limits of the British state must therefore start with reform of the Commons - the imperfectly representative focus for British democracy, the London-dominated link between the nation and the state. That is where Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown should attack.

There is, however, something that holds Tony Blair back. He wants to cross the floor of the Commons into government. Having taken office with a minority of the popular vote, he would then control the patronage the Tories exercise today - to distribute parliamentary secretaryships among his frustrated backbenchers.

A constitutional revolution would force a change in the whole pattern of government, and this would limit the power of a Labour government, as it would a Tory one. John Major has raised his standard in defence of the British Constitution as it stands, and of the unreformed House of Commons as its epitome. The Labour leader still hesitates to attack.

The author is a fellow of St Antony's College, Oxford.

(Photograph omitted)

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