Andreas Whittam Smith: Blair must stop reigning like a monarch

Voters' truculence is a response to the way we've been governed recently
Click to follow
The Independent Online

I am as much concerned with the question how the country is governed as I am with which party is in power. I belong to the same school of thought as Sir John Baker, Professor of the Laws of England at Cambridge University, who published this warning just before polling day: "The destruction of the British Constitution by the Blair administration surely transcends all other election issues". And he added: "far from taking the country forward, the last Government cynically reversed all the constitutional progress of many centuries and led us back to a form of absolute monarchy - the monarch being the Prime Minister".

I am as much concerned with the question how the country is governed as I am with which party is in power. I belong to the same school of thought as Sir John Baker, Professor of the Laws of England at Cambridge University, who published this warning just before polling day: "The destruction of the British Constitution by the Blair administration surely transcends all other election issues". And he added: "far from taking the country forward, the last Government cynically reversed all the constitutional progress of many centuries and led us back to a form of absolute monarchy - the monarch being the Prime Minister".

Of course, constitutional issues as such were not discussed during the campaign, but in disguised form they powerfully entered the debate. Some of the questions about the Iraq war were, at bottom, constitutional. Was the Cabinet properly briefed? Was the war legal? Did the Prime Minister provide Parliament with the information it needed to make an informed decision? These surfaced in the admittedly crude form of whether Mr Blair was a liar and whether he should have taken responsibility when thing went wrong.

I shan't quickly forget the scene at Sedgefield, the Prime Minister's constituency, when the result was declared. Reg Keys, whose soldier son was killed in Iraq and who had obtained over 4,000 votes, was speaking. The Prime Minister was standing behind him. Mr Keys, with wonderful eloquence, declaimed: "if the war had been justified by international law, I would have grieved and not campaigned; if weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq, I would have grieved and not campaigned". Meanwhile, on the Prime Minister's left, one saw a woman wearing a circular white hat on which was inscribed in large letters the accusation - "BLIAR".

Now we all move on, though not in the manner that Mr Blair wishes. I hope the Military Families Against The War campaign will succeed in getting a High Court review of the legality of the war. And I was pleased to hear Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party, use his victory speech to confirm that the SNP plans to table a motion to impeach the Prime Minister on its return to Westminster. I merely hope to be more vigilant than before.

A new Cabinet Secretary, for instance, will shortly be appointed in succession to Sir Andrew Turnbull. Is he or she the sort of person likely to fight to maintain an impartial civil service, chosen by merit rather than attachment to Blairism; a civil service which will work in partnership with ministers rather than occupying, as now, a secondary role to political advisers?

Then there is the Ministerial Code Its first clause states that "Ministers must uphold the principle of collective responsibility". This means that new legislation or major decisions must be thoroughly discussed at formal meetings of the Cabinet with full papers made available to members in good time. We want no more President Blair.

The second clause states that ministers have a duty to hold parliament to account, and be held to account, for the policies, decisions and actions of their departments.

Actually securing proper accountability is as much a responsibility for individual members of Parliament as it is for ministers. If MPs don't ask, ministers won't say. I hope that MPs' recent chastening experience on the doorstep will have reminded them that their first duty is to their constituents rather than to the party machine. Party sound bites didn't save any seats, did they?

I shall, likewise, carefully follow the Government's plans for House of Lords reform. After all, it is thanks to the Lords, as it is constituted at present, that the worst aspects of the new anti-terrorism measures were removed. Mr Blair would like to make the Second Chamber at once more democratic yet less powerful. Or, as the Labour manifesto put it, develop "alternative forms of scrutiny that complement rather than replicate those of the Commons".

This would be classic Blairism. The Prime Minister likes to keep the forms of our Parliamentary democracy - a strong civil service, Cabinet responsibility, ministers' accountability to the Commons, revision of bills in the Lords - while hollowing out the substance. As Professor Baker put it: "the new monarchy has chosen to rule independently of legal advice, of civil service experience, and even (it seems) of collective Cabinet opinion."

In this light, the election result has been rather fortunate. It jolts the political system. It tells the politicians that we haven't been impressed with them recently. Indeed voters' truculence, which some deplore, is an understandable response to the way we have recently been governed.

Comments