Bruce Anderson: We need constitutional change – but now is not the time to do it

The solution to improve the quality of government is for government to do less
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The Independent Online

Suddenly, the constitution is under debate. The word is best understood by reference to the Latin root. It is something which helps us to stand together. At present, this country is not steady on parade. There is a widespread feeling that we are badly governed. Ultimately, all civilised forms of government depend on consent. Yet the House of Commons is more unpopular than at any time since 1832.

So it is hardly surprising that there are demands for change. But these are the worst possible circumstances in which to implement it. Constitutional questions are difficult to answer. Hard thinking is required, in a calm atmosphere. The public is not calm and this government has always been thought-averse; hard spinning is more its style.

Moreover, any serious constitutional debate ought to start from two premises. First, that on a long view – essential, where constitutions are concerned – the UK has not been badly governed and has enjoyed much of the most peaceful political evolution of any major country. Second, that there are no ultimate answers to the most important constitutional questions.

Take three basic desiderata: democracy, strong government and individual rights. Each is necessary; all are in conflict. If any one of them were given untrammelled precedence, it could destroy the other two. That is where politics should play a crucial role: arbitrating between the rival claims according to the circumstances of the moment. Isaiah Berlin was right: "The great goods cannot always live together".

Then there is representative democracy. Our current system has two obvious merits. It usually produces strong governments. It always makes it easy for the voters to sack the government. To paraphrase Lord Reith, we have elective dictatorship tempered by assassination. But one can understand why there are objections. Our elections can turn small pluralities into large Parliamentary majorities. In 2005, 22 per cent of the electorate gave Labour a majority of 60.

The British system is disproportionate. But the alternative to powerful dogs is uncontrollable tails. Proportionality can allow minor parties to indulge in a campaign of rolling blackmail. Israel is a classic example. If proportionality is the highest good, Israel deserves top marks. It also has a political system which makes it impossible to produce a strong government able to conduct realistic negotiations with the Palestinians. "Israeli proportional representation condemns the Middle East to endless conflict": discuss.

In Britain, the Liberals have been in favour of PR ever since they ceased to be serious challengers for government. It would be interesting to see if they retained their enthusiasm, should they ever displace Labour. Would they really want a voting system which placed a preservation order on a crumbling socialist rump? In recent weeks, the Liberals have been joined by some Labour supporters who were perfectly happy with the current arrangements for 12 years, and have only changed their minds because they seem certain to lose the next election. They are now advocates of hypocritical representation.

As for Gordon Brown, he has taken up the constitution in a desperate search for something to say which will not arouse the voters' instant contempt. But anyone inclined to take him seriously should first scrutinise his motives and the Labour government's record. Tony Blair came to power with an ambitious programme: Scottish and Welsh devolution, regional assemblies, human rights, judicial reform and Lords reform. But all these proposals had one thing in common. None of them had been thought through. Mr Blair had made a discovery. The size of his majority gave him the power to pass laws first and think later, if at all; legislate in haste, repent at leisure.

Scottish devolution was introduced, partly in tribute to the shade of John Smith and partly because Tony Blair was reluctantly convinced that it was needed, to deprive the Scottish Nationalists of political momentum. Although there was more force in that argument than the anti-devolutionists were prepared to concede at the time, the Holyrood Parliament has not had the desired effect. The Nats are stronger than ever.

Equally, the West Lothian question remains unanswered, even though Tam Dalyell first asked it more than 30 years ago. If Scotland had a devolved Parliament, he enquired, why should the Westminster MP for West Lothian (his seat) be able to vote on laws which would not apply to his own constituents? That would be manifestly unfair. In time, the resulting English resentments would threaten the Union.

That said, thoughtlessness can sometimes produce acceptable outcomes. Tony Blair embarked on Lords reform because he found hereditary peers aesthetically unacceptable. 12 years on, nearly a hundred of them are still there, and the hybrid House works surprisingly well. (The same cannot be said of regional assemblies or of the judicial reforms, both of which have been a waste of time and money.) Recently, there have been renewed calls for an elected second chamber. In practice, that would mean a second-rate House of Commons. Does anyone believe that this would be a useful contribution to British public life?

As for human rights, Mr Blair rushed another thoughtless measure through Parliament: the Human Rights Act. David Blunkett subsequently described it as the worst mistake of the Blair first term. Instead, the Government ought to have been deciding whether the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) was compatible with the rights of the British people to make their own laws, and to enjoy security.

Last week, British judges over-ruled the Government. Ministers wanted to constrain the movement of individuals who are considered to be a menace to national security. But our judges decided that foreign judges in Strasbourg, a long way from the threat, would not approve. Sovereignty is like an elephant. It is not easy to define; it is easy to tell whether it is there. Salus populi suprema lex. A government which has abrogated the right to take vital decisions on public safety is no longer sovereign.

Nor is parliament. Though all recent governments have been guilty of turning the Commons into a legislative sausage-factory, this lot have been even worse than their predecessors. There is a solution, which should strengthen Parliament and improve the quality of government. The government must do less. A smaller legislative programme would allow time for proper debates. The Queen's government must be carried on; ministers would still be able to use whipped majorities to enact important measures. But fuller scrutiny would ensure better legislation.

None of this will find favour with Mr Brown. He prefers strutting vagueness about referendums and change. If he wants a referendum, he should hold the one that was promised, on the EU constitution. As for change, the voters know what they want: a change of government.