Andreas Whittam Smith: One or two reforms won't fix our democracy

Our constitutional arrangements are like a very large and old machine with innumerable moving parts
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The Independent Online

Restoring democracy in this country is more than reforming the voting system. This was made plain in The Independent's announcement last week of its Campaign for Democracy. In truth, the job is an intricate one that has to be conducted on a wide scale.

Restoring democracy in this country is more than reforming the voting system. This was made plain in The Independent's announcement last week of its Campaign for Democracy. In truth, the job is an intricate one that has to be conducted on a wide scale.

For Britain's constitutional arrangements are like a very large and old machine with innumerable moving parts. When one examines the various cogs, wheels, chains, levers, dials and so on, one finds that many are faulty. I'd love to see an annotated parts list.

So by all means let us push strongly for proportional representation but don't at the same time, to give one example, ignore the way the Boundary Commission works. For its task is continuously to match population to constituencies so that there is no geographical bias in the system. Yet it failed badly so far as the 2005 general election is concerned.

One reason is that Parliament has set the commission a very slow pace of work. It need only complete a review every eight to twelve years. As a result, the 2005 election was conducted on the basis of a constituency map drawn in 1995. Yet between the start of the last review and the present one, the electorate of England grew by 692,000, the equivalent of nearly 10 constituencies. The current review looks as if it won't be ready until 2006.

How very convenient this was for Tony Blair. Given the strange constitutional practice that allows the prime minister of the day to choose the date of the election, our arrangements allow gerrymandering on a grand scale. In other words, if constituency boundaries were reviewed every five years and elections took place at the same interval, there would be less exasperation with the electoral system.

Or, to put it another way, proportional representation without both a reform of the work of the Boundary Commission and a move to fixed-term parliaments would inevitably produce a fresh set of distortions.

Now consider another aspect of the recent election. Loud and repeated charges of lying were addressed to the Prime Minister and his Government. This reflects a change in public opinion which is nowadays much more concerned with truth-telling in public life than it is with sleaze. In a recent poll carried out by the Committee for Standards in Public Life, honesty in its broadest sense came out as the top concern.

Yet the seven principles of public life that the committee has promulgated don't fully meet this requirement. Surprisingly, integrity is defined in a narrow sense: public office holders should not place themselves under any financial or other obligation to outside individuals or organisations. Likewise, honesty is seen as merely a duty to declare any private interests relating to public work and to take steps to resolve any conflicts. This falls far short of what is needed. Let telling the truth be the first principle.

As for the ministerial code of conduct, there is not a mention of fair dealing with the electorate. The Prime Minister states that "we must all serve honestly" and that is it. Thus we find that even these sets of principles and codes, which are working parts of our constitution, are defective.

In examining the ramshackle nature of how we are governed, a further difficulty arises. For when the Government speaks of reform, it doesn't mean what those who support this newspaper's campaign for democracy mean. The Government's sole objective is to remove any checks to prime-ministerial power. Thus when the Government tackles the role of the House of Lords, it means reducing its ability to scrutinise and amend government Bills, whereas the rest of us want the second chamber to be an effective revising body.

Lord Falconer, the Lord Chancellor, got things back to front last week. Instead of first deciding how peers would be selected, by election or appointment or some combination of the two, he starts with a plan to restrict the Lords' powers. This is the wrong way round. The revising capacity that would be appropriate for a fully elected second chamber is not the same as that which would be suitable to a wholly appointed body.

The watchword for the Campaign for Democracy must be "vigilance". Supporters have to interest themselves in everything that moves.

At the risk of appearing an anorak I shall, for instance, keep an eye on the Downing Street website to see how long each Thursday's cabinet meeting takes. When the meetings are short, we know that the Prime Minister is making the main decisions elsewhere with a small group of advisers - sofa government rather than cabinet government.

On these matters, nobody has bettered the famous admonition of the Irish judge John Curran, speaking in 1790: "the condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime, and the punishment of his guilt".

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