Major launches a defence of the indefensible

Click to follow
Last night John Major told Britain he didn't claim to be a constitutional expert; and then, in the course of a lengthy speech, wholly substantiated his claim. Since this speech will help to set the terms of the next election campaign, it deserves close scrutiny. It began from the assumption that the British constitution was "vibrant and robust." We disagree.

To see why we need a roll-call of constitutional change in the Tory years. The powers and relative autonomy of local government have been swept away; under Margaret Thatcher and John Major more than 150 Acts of Parliament diminishing local councils have been passed into law and some pounds 24bn of public expenditure has been moved to unelected quangos. Was this, to quote Mr Major last night, a "footprint in our nation's story" designed to win "the affections of the British people"?

Of the 5,520 unelected bodies exercising executive functions on behalf of government, some 4,700 are operating locally. Some have been quietly effective; others have been grotesquely ineffective; almost all lack proper accountability. Is this really "organic" and "wise" evolution? Or is it, rather, a centralist coup?

Two years ago, a shadow system of regional government for England appeared, when 10 senior civil servants were appointed as bureaucratic "viceroys" to oversee policy on transport, the environment, industry and employment, spending some pounds 4bn. Was this wise? Mr Major said yesterday that English regional government was no good, asking, "what are the regions? How do we define them?" Leaving the merits of regionalism aside, he should be aware that his own civil servants have the answer.

Then there are the national quangos which have huge power, such as the Funding Agency for Schools, which can close down schools, open them, change their character, enlarge them or shrink them, without any reference to local people's wishes. This has been described by a free-market theorist as "an extraordinary range of dictatorial powers". Another example of giving people what they want; or the power of the centre?

Then there is Parliament and the ballot, the heart of our democracy. The polls show deep levels of cynicism and hostility to the whole business. Under the first-past-the-post system, very few of us actually shape the result - only those who happen to be swing voters in marginal constituencies. Some party strategists, targeting those voters, reckon that only 500,000 voters really matter. Is it really "pointless fiddling" to reopen the old question about how we vote? Or is it merely inconvenient, if you happen to be a Conservative minister, used to winning power on a minority of the votes cast?

The Commons itself is the gleaming, glorious cathedral of the Tory case against constitutional change. Yet the Commons has not proven itself to be an effective or vigilant eye over governments; and this government has treated Parliament at times with contempt. It has rammed through complicated and disastrous legislation without proper debate. Bills have arrived at their final stages in ragged and incoherent form. Select committees have been blandly ignored or refused proper account.

MPs have taken money to ask questions. Ministers have misled MPs without apologising, never mind resigning. The administration has moved, increasingly, to reveal important initiatives in radio and television studios, rather than in the chamber. If John Major really feels humbly impressed by the accumulated wisdom and experience of British parliamentarianism, all one can say is that he seems to have a funny way of expressing it.

Last night he said there was no need for a Bill of Rights because it would "diminish Parliament's historic role as the defender of individual freedoms... the supremacy of the elected representatives of the people in Parliament would - for the first time since the 17th century - be eroded. Is that really the way we want to go?"

This is extraordinary stuff. Mr Major is presumably feigning lack of knowledge of some of the most important constitutional developments under successive Conservative administrations, including the effect of the European Convention on Human Rights and the arrival of European Community law after 1971 which has been, in key respects, supreme. The parliamentary "erosion" Mr Major says he fears in the future is already history, and became so while he was happily in office.

In the Lords, a cast of hereditary peers make us the last country in the world to use bloodstock as part of our legislative process. The upper House should have been properly reformed in 1911, when Britain was promised a second chamber "on a popular instead of a hereditary basis". We are still waiting. Last night the Prime Minister said that the thing about the Lords was that "it works". We wonder how many debates there he has read or sat through recently.

Next comes Scotland. It was the Conservatives who produced a devolved bureaucracy without a legislature in Edinburgh. Throughout the Tory years, the Scots have voted in favour of their own assembly or parliament, by a large margin, consistently and repeatedly. If this is frustrated, it may eventually lead to a nationalist breakaway. It seems, however, that Scotland's more modest democratic desire is considered less interesting by Mr Major than any anomalies it would create at Westminster. For the Tories, the Scottish majority is merely a British minority which ought to belt up.

This doesn't hold for those Irish-British minorities whose political voice has been amplified by bombing and murder; Mr Major's blander explanation of the difference in approach was unconvincing. Last night he asserted that constitutional change "is driven by what people want". That depends, it seems, on where those people live.

The Prime Minister's modest, middle-of-the-road position on European integration was the part of his speech that sounded the most plausible and sensible. But it was like a few calm words spoken in the teeth of an uprising; all around him the Conservative Party is riven on the subject.

None of what he said makes him a cynical man. He was speaking as the leader of a party that has dramatically centralised and commercialised the constitution, ignoring inconvenient facts and people. But he may well not realise how badly damaged our system has become. His speech was a romantic defence of what we believe has become indefensible. It was a rousing call to battle. The only trouble is, it's a battle he richly deserves to lose.