It is no surprise that Clare Short's assault and battery on Tony Blair's style of government has commanded more coverage than the thoughtful analysis of the state of our democracy published by MPs in the Parliament First pressure group. It is typical of our modern obsession with celebrity politics to the exclusion of difficult issues that require serious thought.
Let us dispose first of the personality angle. For the record, I always found Tony Blair accessible when I wanted to raise a problem with him and patient when I tried to tell him he was wrong. Nor did I ever find him hostile to Parliament. Tony Blair is such a consummate communicator that he had no need to fear accountability. I had my opponents in Cabinet to my plans to modernise the Commons, but they did not include the Prime Minister.
I may have planted the idea that he should appear before the Liaison Committee which brings together the chairs of the select committees, but it was his own decision, after months of gestation, to volunteer for such scrutiny. As a result, he is the first Prime Minister ever to submit to cross-examination by an executive committee of Parliament.
Nor did Tony Blair resist my demand, with the stout support of Jack Straw, that Parliament must vote on a real motion before he committed troops to Iraq. Most previous debates on military action had been held on the procedural device of a motion for the adjournment.
I profoundly disagree with the decision that Parliament reached to go to war in Iraq, but I welcome the constitutional precedent of a prior decision by Parliament. I do not believe it will be possible for any future government to commence military action without the explicit approval of MPs.
It is odd that Clare should complain that power is uniquely concentrated in the hands of Tony Blair when she herself is such a close ally of Gordon Brown, who has achieved for the Treasury the same independence from Number 10 that he himself has conferred on the Bank of England. The standing joke within Number 10 is that their relations with the Treasury are the British version of cohabitation.
For the past fortnight, editorials in British newspapers have been calling on Tony Blair to assert the right of the Prime Minister to have the final say on the euro. I hope he does. But the doubt over which of these big beasts has the upper hand is hardly evidence of presidential government.
There are, though, real issues of concern obscured by the spotlight on personalities. As Parliament First argues, Cabinet government and parliamentary democracy are not what they were half a century ago.
Some years ago, I asked Jim Callaghan for his advice about an MoD demand to withdraw troops from the South Georgia islands, which I was resisting. I still remember my sense of surprise when he advised me to insist on taking it to Cabinet. The idea that anyone should use the Cabinet as a court of appeal to resolve a real decision seemed to belong to the past.
In part this is because the cult of celebrity enhances leaders at the expense of the team. The current preoccupation with whether the Conservatives can win under the leadership of Iain Duncan Smith only underlines the fact that no one is asking whether a Tory government would have a strong enough Cabinet to reach collective decisions, which may be as well for the Tory party.
The decline in collective government may also have come about because we have grown accustomed to the first-past-the-post system, which throws up mega-majorities that leave prime ministers in the comfortable knowledge that no political rival could conjure up an effective parliamentary rebellion. Yet few of those who complain about presidential government make the logical connection that the best way to put Parliament back at the centre of action would be to adopt an electoral system of proportional representation that obliged prime ministers to assemble a majority rather than take one for granted.
These are important strategic issues which will occupy constitutional debate for years to come. In the meantime, it would be a pity if the shock and awe language of Clare Short's resignation speech obscured her immediate point about Iraq.
I believe Clare was wrong to say that there would have been no point in her resigning as Tory support for war guaranteed a majority for military action. Had we both gone together, it would have had an added impact on backbench opinion. It may not have been enough to defeat the Government, but a more narrow majority could have left it less able to claim the wholehearted consent of the Commons for war.
However, I could see how Clare Short felt last March that it would be a dereliction of her duty to walk out of her post at the very time when it was confronted by the challenge of reconstruction in post-war Iraq. That, in turn, makes it all the more significant that she should now have been driven to the conclusion that US intransigence makes it impossible to carry out the task of reconstruction with international legitimacy. After brushing the UN aside in the run-up to war, we are in danger of compounding the damage by leaving it on the sidelines in the aftermath.
At the end of all other recent conflicts, it was the UN that was in the driving seat for the process of nation-building. In Cambodia, Kosovo, East Timor and Afghanistan, it was the UN in New York that set the strategy and UN officials on the ground who followed it through. Ironically, Ian Martin, who won praise from Britain for his courage and patience as the UN administrator in East Timor, has just resigned his Labour Party membership in protest at Britain's conduct in Iraq.
This time, it is going to be the US that puts together the new government of Iraq. It is going to be the US that will have de facto control of the rebuilding of the oil industry. It will even be the US that will be responsible for hunting down the fabled weapons of mass destruction. Clare is right to protest at this marginalisation of the UN as a matter of principle. But it is a policy that is also irrational from the practical point of view of our own national interests.
The complex and delicate task of stitching together a cohesive and representative Iraqi government will be even more difficult if the Iraqi people know that it is being undertaken, not on the authority of the international community, but by the might of the "occupying powers". Far from freezing the UN out of Iraq, our own interests would be best served by handing over responsibility to them and getting out fast.
What prevents us from following this sensible course is that we are tied to the Bush strategy in Iraq. The Bush strategy marginalises the UN, not by accident, but because the motivation for the conquest of Iraq was to provide for a permanent US influence on the region. Recovering independence over the pursuit of British foreign policy must deserve to be put as high on the agenda of constitutional reform as the important issues raised by Parliament First on our domestic democracy.
The writer was Foreign Secretary 1997-2001 and Leader of the House of Commons 2001-2003Reuse content