Leading article: Democracy, not patronage

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IF HE wanted to, Tony Blair could sack all his existing ministers and appoint an exotic blend of media moguls, news readers, film producers and sports stars to all the positions in government. As with the new Scottish Office minister, Gus Macdonald, he need not even bother to have them in the House of Commons or the Lords. It would be easy to write the press release. "The Government has decided ... blah blah ... modernising mission ... blah blah ... unparalleled range of experience ... blah blah ... ministry of all the talents." Mr Blair would be quite within his rights if not within the world of political realism to make such a revolutionary change. There is nothing in our great unwritten constitution about ministers having to be members of the Commons, Lords, or for that matter, the Spice Girls Fan Club. And, of itself, Mr Macdonald's appointment is by no means unprecedented. Once, the glamorous figure of General Jan Smuts sat in Lloyd George's war cabinet, and he was not even British, let alone a Member of Parliament.

It is no reflection on the qualities of the Government's latest recruit to say that he should not have been appointed. Indeed, the Blair government should have moved in the opposite direction, towards a position where all ministers are MPs. There is no place for peers in the Cabinet. Even if the Upper House is reformed, its role as a revising chamber does not justify executive roles in government for its members.

It is perfectly possible that there are better men and women than our 659 MPs who are ready to become ministers. Many a doctor understands the realities of health care better than Frank Dobson. But the point about politicians is not that they are in some executive sense good at running Culture plc or HM Treasury Inc. Whether politicians are stubborn, clever, old or young, they are accountable. At the end of their term we can throw them out of office and replace them by another, fairly identifiable lot. If we had an American system of prime ministerial appointment, we would not know what bunch of incredibly talented business leaders - or corrupt cronies - would come in after an election.

Ministers selected from the Commons have another vital quality: independence. To be sure, it is much circumscribed by party discipline, but it is still greater than that of a mere appointee. Like Michael Heseltine in the Eighties or Frank Field today, if ministers disagree with the government then they can pursue this from the backbenches. Labour is free to select as many parliamentary candidates as it wishes from the ranks of big business, small business, the unions (remember them?) or the party leader's friends. If the Government wants to draw on business leaders' expertise, they can be advisers. They can head taskforces.

One of the reasons why so many people voted Labour last year was because they wanted less patronage, not more. Let us have some clear thinking about the nature of our democracy and not let it slide into a sort of Nineties corporatism, however talented the individual appointees.