Leader: Major can pick up the Tory torch of reform

Click to follow
The Independent Online
If there is one argument that a change in the voting system is unnecessary, it is the Prime Minister's conversion yesterday to the cause of reform of the House of Lords. Who needs a multi-party parliament elected by proportional representation when flexible politicians like John Major and Tony Blair already effectively operate coalition politics within a two-party system? No sooner had the junior partner in Mr Major's coalition, the One Nation Tory Party, threatened to withdraw its support from his government and open talks with Mr Blair's Olive Branch Alliance, than the Prime Minister said he was prepared to consider "sensible reforms of the Lords".

Mr Blair's main objection to proportional representation is that it tends to give disproportionate power to small parties, because they are more likely to hold the balance of power. But that is in effect what happened this week. First Hugh Dykes, the European affairs spokesman of the One Nationers, asked to join the Labour-Liberal Democrat talks on how to make theLords more democratic. Then George Walden, the One Nationer's education spokesman, yesterday said he thought the hereditary principle in the Upper House was "totally and completely indefensible".

Now, Mr Major is in the strange position of declaring that constitutional change is one of the three key election issues that divides the parties, while conceding the strength of the case for change in one important area. But be magnanimous: welcome his acceptance of unspecified "sensible" reforms; even welcome his use of the cliche, "If it ain't broke don't fix it," since it is obvious to anyone with eyes and ears that the House of Lords is broke and needs fixing. Mr Major's feeble defence of the hereditary principle - that it was better than prime ministerial appointment - cannot hold.

The importance of the Dykes-Walden Declaration, of course, goes much further than this. It confirms that the One Nationers of Mr Major's coalition have decided that if it puts the survival of his government first, it will be steamrollered by its senior partner, the Thatcherite Party. And it asserts that One Nation Tories are not single-issue pro-Europeans. Mr Dykes is, along with Sir Edward Heath, the most forceful pro-European Tory MP. And it was Mr Walden who threatened to bring down the Government if Mr Major escalated the "beef war" of non- co-operation last summer.

The important lesson to draw from these recent events is that One Nation Toryism is a broad-based and distinct ideology with a long and venerable history. Anyone who suggests that people like Hugh Dykes are somehow behaving in an un-Tory fashion, or even that they should leave the Conservative Party, has little sense of history. These One Nationers may be a minority now, but they are the inheritors of a proud tradition of Tory constitutional reform.

Several heavyweight Tories, including Chris Patten and Stephen Dorrell, once supported electoral reform. Others, including Malcolm Rifkind and Michael Forsyth, once supported limited self-rule for Scotland. Yesterday, Mr Major insisted that these were dangerous causes, but the Dykes has been breached and the Prime Minister's attempt to save some prized possessions from the flood looks increasingly doomed. As well as the House of Lords, Mr Dykes wants to talk to Labour and the Liberal Democrats about electoral reform for the European Parliament. He did not mention devolution but, as shadow Lord Chancellor Lord Irvine pointed out last year, you can hardly argue for "subsidiarity" in Europe and deny it within the UK.

It has long been our argument that democratic reforms are connected - that one thing leads to another. This is the great tension in Conservative thought: the fear that if you pull at one apparently straggly thread, the whole tapestry will unravel. Intelligent Conservatives have always believed, however, that evolutionary reform is needed to head off pressure for destructive and escalating change from building up. We have not reached that point yet; and, as Mr Major pointed out yesterday, "we are not in a position of having a blanket opposition to constitutional change". He has indeed made changes to the workings of the Commons and set up the Grand Committee roadshow of MPs that now tours Scotland and Wales. But these are far too little, too late.

It is now time for the historic divide in the Conservative coalition between the "hedgers" and the (last) "ditchers" to re-open. In 1910, the Tory party split over the power of the Lords to block finance bills. The Tory former prime minister Arthur Balfour described the 1911 Parliament Act, which removed this power, as "the destruction of [the] constitution of this country by revolutionary means". He was wrong, as today Mr Major is wrong to defend the voting rights of hereditary peers, wrong to stop the devolution of power to Scotland, Wales and London and wrong to stand in the way of the people's decision in a referendum on the system for electing the Commons. There could indeed be dramatic changes ahead in the nature and form of democracy in this country and throughout Europe. Most of them are long overdue, and we do not believe that they will be destabilising. On the contrary, we take the evolutionary Tory view that the stability of the past 18 years has been unbalanced, and that a rebalancing of our constitution - at all levels - will produce better but still stable government.

And, if we should end up with a more pluralistic parliament, it would be no bad thing for a separate One Nation Party, perhaps led by Kenneth Clarke, to play a role in our government under its own proud colours, rather than in a state of permanent cringe.

Comments