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Leading Article: The map is changing

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.