Why are we governed so badly?

This is a fair question to put to a Prime Minister seeking a third term in office
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Reg Keys, the father of a British soldier killed in Iraq, is standing for election in the Prime Minister's constituency. He says: "the last time I saw my son, Tom, was at a railway station when he marched off down the platform with his head held high, proud to do his duty for his country. He believed what he was told. But the Prime Minister misled the country, and Tom and 84 other soldiers who had their oaths of allegiance betrayed came home in coffins - having died for a lie. It's time to bring accountability back into British politics."

Reg Keys, the father of a British soldier killed in Iraq, is standing for election in the Prime Minister's constituency. He says: "the last time I saw my son, Tom, was at a railway station when he marched off down the platform with his head held high, proud to do his duty for his country. He believed what he was told. But the Prime Minister misled the country, and Tom and 84 other soldiers who had their oaths of allegiance betrayed came home in coffins - having died for a lie. It's time to bring accountability back into British politics."

Here Mr Keys has put his finger on a crucial issue, accountability. It is because he wishes to avoid being held to account that Mr Blair has dismantled some of the safeguards which protect our liberties. I don't see how one can vote for a political party led by somebody so careless of our constitutional arrangements. Unfortunately, other players take their cue from the Prime Minister. Thus Sir Ian Blair, the newly appointed Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, gave a television interview yesterday which discussed the contentious subject of terrorist legislation, seemingly oblivious to the convention that the police keep out of party politics.

This is why Sir Christopher Foster, who was a special adviser to many Labour ministers in the 1960s and 1970s, has just published a wake-up call of a book entitled British Government in Crisis. He argues that no part of our constitution is performing effectively: not Parliament, not Cabinet, not ministers, not the Civil Service, not local authorities, not other parts of the public sector. "The clothes are the same, the bodies inside are not."

Sir Christopher asks why we are so badly governed, a fair question to put to a Prime Minister who is seeking a third term of office. The new postal voting arrangements are a perfect example of bad government. Not long ago, such flawed proposals would never have got through. They could not have survived full scrutiny by the civil service, by the relevant Cabinet committee followed by the full Cabinet and then, finally, by both Houses of Parliament.

They did so with their faults uncorrected because many components of this process have recently been deliberately weakened in order to reduce accountability. In their different ways, Mr Keys, the former ambulance driver and Sir Christopher, the former Oxford don, are making the same point.

The Prime Minister has used four methods to reduce constitutional restraints on his actions. Stage One: by-pass the Cabinet. Read first the words of Harold Wilson, the former Prime Minister, writing in 1976. "Cabinet is a democracy, not an autocracy; each member of it, including the Prime Minister, seeks to convince his colleagues as to the course to follow.... It is the Cabinet, not the Prime Minister, who decides." Now turn to Clare Short's description of the Cabinet of which she was a member during the Iraq crisis. "There was no paper or analysis of the risks, the dangers, the military options, the political and diplomatic options, the strategy for the UK, there was never that.... It was not a thorough investigation of an options-type discussion, but kind of updates.... It is kind of giving consent, I suppose, by not objecting."

Implicit in the above is stage two: deprive Cabinet members of the relevant papers. Consider the enormity of this. The early delivery of papers enables ministers to think through the issues and decide what questions to ask. Yet this is the British Cabinet preparing for war! Would Britain have invaded Iraq if responsibility had belonged to the whole Cabinet? Almost certainly not.

Stage three: pay minimum attention to the House of Commons. Mr Blair goes there rarely. His business managers reduce the amount of time for the debate of contentious issues to a minimum. Unless it is hunting. The truncated discussion of the recent legislation to institute house arrest without trial for British citizens was a sad example.

Stage four: reduce the powers of the House of Lords in its role as a revising chamber. The Labour manifesto promises to develop "alternative forms of scrutiny that complement rather than replicate those of the Commons". Lord Strathclyde understood at once what this means. He commented: "Mr Blair calls this modernisation. What is modern about increasing central executive power and weakening Parliament?"

If re-elected, Mr Blair would continue to hollow out Britain's democracy. The forms would appear the same. But the reality is that the Prime Minister and the State are steadily gaining arbitrary powers while our freedoms as citizens diminish. Mr Blair has no interest in civil liberties. That is one more reason not to trust him.

Comments