Leading Article: The map is changing

Share
Related Topics
THE SENSE of drift and disorientation that pervades Britain today is not just the result of uncertain government, economic stress and the machinations of Tory rebels. Something deeper is happening to the structure of power. The focal points are shifting, opening up gaps in the network of checks and balances and leaving areas of unaccountability and paralysis. Not only the Government, but the system of government, is drifting towards a crisis of confidence.

Symptoms are more easily identified than causes or solutions. They derive in part from a long period of one-party government that seems likely to continue. Her Majesty's loyal Opposition has ceased to be the main check on abuses of government power and the main source of alternative ideas. Since it cannot present itself as a credible government-in- waiting, it has lost its main function. The House of Commons has become increasingly a place for scoring points, not debating issues or seeking information. The ruling party has been deprived of a time for reflection and renewal in opposition. The Civil Service misses the refreshing jolt that comes from transferring its loyalty to a new government.

Behind this trend lies the longer legacy of Margaret Thatcher. She set out deliberately to dismantle pillars of the old power structure, notably the trade unions, nationalised industries and local government. She was right to do so because they were using their power to block progress. To a large extent they no longer represented the true interests of their constituencies, merely the transitory wishes of their current employees for protection against change. The positive result was to liberate the entrepreneurial energies of the nation. The negative result was to concentrate so much political power at the centre that hubris became inevitable, exemplified by the poll tax.

John Major has been forced to become more responsive to party and public opinion at the price of being blown off course, notably over the miners. More willingly, he has tried to empower the consumer in new areas such as education, health and public services in general. The Citizen's Charter, worthy in its aims but still of questionable efficacy, is his personal contribution. But consumer power in these areas remains an uncertain force, not yet fully mobilised, either because the mechanisms are ineffective or because the public cannot generate the enthusiasm to test them.

The free spaces in the arena of power are being occupied instead by other forces. The most conspicuous are those that emanate from the European Community in the form of laws, directives and other constraints on the powers of national government, together with the individual and corporate rights that can now be sought from European Courts over the heads of governments. The other growing challenges to government power come from the money markets, the requirements of foreign investors in Britain and the imperatives of international trade.

In the domestic arena, the vacuum left by the opposition at the heart of the system is partly filled by dissident groups within both main political parties. These now make more headlines than the Opposition itself. The space is also being occupied by parliamentary select committees, whose growing power provides an increasingly effective check on hasty legislation. At the same time, regulatory bodies are accumulating influence to balance the power of the privatised public service monopolies. Other forces sucked into the vacuum include the single-issue pressure groups. It is to these unaccountable bodies, rather than to politicians, that people now often turn to have their interests represented. The power of the press to destroy is also increasing.

These are messy but not ineffective corrective mechanisms. Whether they are sufficient is another matter. If people are to have confidence in the system under which they live, they need to be able to understand it. Few can understand how Britain is governed today. The conventional picture is out of date, and the map is changing faster than perceptions. The absolute sovereignty of Parliament has become a fiction. The electoral system is no longer representative. The moral authority of the monarchy is in sharp decline. The judicial system is deeply flawed. The Government lacks the correctives and reference points that should keep it in touch with reality. Accountability is ill-defined and poorly enforced. Remedies such as proportional representation, a Bill of Rights and a Freedom of Information Act remain on the fringe of debate. One small step would be to move them to the centre.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Manager

£32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Manager is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Newspaper stands have been criticised by the Child Eyes campaign  

There were more reader complaints this year – but, then again, there were more readers

Will Gore
 

People drink to shut out pain and stress. Arresting them won’t help

Deborah Coughlin
A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?