National rot, patent remedy

The political and institutional malaise undermining our democracy is the theme of Andrew Marr's new book `Ruling Britannia', which sets out a powerful case for constitutional change. One reviewer hailed it as `the most original and compelling book written on the British political system since Bagehot'. Below, two seasoned commentators take up the debate
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Chris Patten, Governor of Hong Kong and former Tory chairman, weighs the case for change

Home Thoughts from Abroad are invariably an annoying provocation to those yoked to the domestic agenda. I have tried to eschew giving offence for the past three years. But Trappist caution is challenged by Andrew Marr's entertaining polemic, which will detonate an avalanche of prejudices wherever it is read. And it does deserve to be read widely. Mr Marr has become one of our foremost political commentators; his amiable common sense illuminates every column. So I hope he will not mind if one of his admirers notes that, like most of us, he is better at description than prescription.

To be fair to Mr Marr, he never pretends to have a boxed set of answers. Arguably that is for politicians, not commentators. But it is none the less mildly frustrating to get to the end of an interesting discussion of the European Union's institutional challenges, and a brief set of proposed remedies, and be told that if we don't much care for any of this we shouldn't blame the author, who is, after all, "no constitution writer".

Well, no, but if Mr Marr and other constitution rebuilders want us to take their premises more seriously, they should have a bit more confidence about their solutions.

Mr Marr's central argument is familiar from Primrose Hill to East Sheen. Few join Dicey these days in celebrating the matchless charms of our constitutional arrangements and ascribing to them our prosperity, order and liberty. Local democracy has, it is argued, been hacked down. Westminster - said to be the sovereign bulldozer - looks to the critics a ramshackle irrelevance, vainly seeking some way of exercising democratic control over European institutions.

The courts challenge executive decisionsmore and more often and puzzle over the tensions between domestic and European law. Scotland presses for its own parliament. Globalisation of markets, money and information sweeps over national boundaries and sweeps aside national pretensions about sovereignty.

Mr Soros passes judgement on currencies and chancelleries, and all the economic excitement seems to have drained away to India and East Asia. Political parties, rusted Dreadnoughts, pound one another with ideological ammunition long past its sell-by date. The "unmistakable signal of degeneration now", Mr Marr asserts, "is fuzziness and confusion, the destruction of clear lines of responsibility and blame".

There are three reactions to all this. First, some say that nothing is wrong. They may agree with Burke that "it has been the misfortune ... of the age that everything is to be discussed, as if the constitution of our country were to be always a subject rather of altercation than enjoyment". Or they may have a slightly queasy feeling that all is not well, but reckon that the best advice in such circumstances is: "Don't just do something - stand there."

The next category is those who largely buy the analysis but aren't sure what to do. "Something must be done," they argue, and hope that a good working model of "something" can be found soon.

Third, there are those who know exactly what is required: the constitutional Lego-builders. Given a weekend and the back of an envelope, a new constitutional settlement can be swiftly devised. There are several models on offer, for example those devised by Charter 88, the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Institute for Public Policy Research.

I find myself on the move, at least under cover of darkness, between categories one and two. Something must probably be done for two reasons on which Mr Marr only lightly touches. We are certainly going to face serious institutional challenges in Europe, not as we follow single currencies up a cul-de-sac but as we wrestle with the strategic and political problems of central and eastern Europe. We are told so often that the European Union was established so that there would be no more wars in Europe. But there is a war in Europe going on right now, with - ahead of us - more tensions and potential conflicts to contain within Europe's developing political structures.

Second, I am convinced that an important factor in ensuring the competitiveness of the developed countries of Europe and North America in the next generation will be to reduce the proportion of their national incomes consumed by the state. Doing this, while enhancing the authority of governments and preserving the fabric of our communities, will be an immense political challenge, which will be a little easier if we manage to secure a closer constitutional relationship between decision-making, money-spending and revenue-raising.

Where Asia faces the problems of discovering political structures that will accommodate economic freedom and an exponential growth in prosperity, Europe has to adjust its political arrangements to meet strategic problems and to make room for future economic advance, ensuring as a bare minimum that we take decisions at a human level, as close to the citizen as possible.

Just as we have arrived at a broad consensus about the efficiency of markets and free economies, we may be able to develop incrementally in Britain a common view of the constitutional reforms required. The first step might be to follow the approach adopted by Ferdinand Mount in his 1992 book The British Constitution Now by trying to set out the principles on which changes should be built. For Mr Mount, there are five qualitative principles: simplicity, stability, the separation of powers, subsidiarity (exercising powers at the lowest possible level) and patriation, that is incorporating external legal obligations in national law.

It falls to Mr Marr to explain why the debate itself is necessary and inevitable. As the argument unfolds in the years ahead, Andrew Marr will have plenty more to say, doubtless provoking even the temporarily bashful among us to leave the relative safety of the critics' seats in the stalls and join in the argument on stage.

Andrew Neil, former editor of the `Sunday Times', attacks the latest wheeze of the fashionable left

The post-war history of Britain is littered with the panaceas of the fashionable left for reversing this country's decline. Nationalisation in the Forties, indicative planning in the Sixties, the social contract in the Seventies. All failed. Worse, they hastened the decline they were meant to be reversing.

It was thanks to this disastrous track record that the left lost the economic argument in Britain and throughout the world. Almost everybody (apart from the reactionary British Labour Party left or the thicker elements of our own dear, demented intelligentsia) now accepts that a well-functioning market economy is the prerequisite for a free and prosperous society.

The centre-left has come to terms with this reality with bad grace, still hankering after collectivist solutions. So it now has nothing worthwhile to say about modern, post-industrial economics and has turned its attentions to other matters, in particular constitutional reform. This is the latest fashionable wheeze for putting Britain back on its feet.

The elevation of constitutional reform to the status of New Panacea is assured now that the project has been embraced in a new book by Andrew Marr, the erudite political columnist of this newspaper, the new high priest of the centre-left consensus. Mr Marr's mission is to reveal how badly we are governed, to expose those parts of our system of government on which the light of democracy rarely shines, to explain how this hinders our ability to thrive and prosper as a nation - and to float a few reforms. Most of it is sound stuff, if a somewhat familiar litany.

Parliament is almost wholly useless in calling the executive to account. Local democracy is moribund. We are increasingly governed by the quangocracy of the patronage state. Politicians are held in even lower esteem than journalists. Mr Marr believes this amounts to a crisis in British democracy requiring radical remedy, even if he remains strangely vague on what these remedies should be.

Mr Marr's work, admirable in purpose and content, nevertheless lacks the rigour or insight of Will Hutton's recent The State We're In. Part of the reason is that Mr Marr's Ruling Britannia is not really a book at all: it is one enormously long 349-page column.

On page after page, opinion is piled upon opinion in a relentless, repetitive marshalling of views often unsupported by facts but punctuated by an attempt at matey, chatty humour that grates. In analysing "the destruction of clear lines of responsibility and blame" in British government, he says "you could describe this as `post-modern' politics" - then adds in a starred footnote, "Though you'd be a wally if you did". Such unnecessary nonsense only serves to undermine his serious purpose.

Sometimes the opinionating descends to depths of banality: "The real challenge is to evolve a society which replicates, generation after generation, well-educated, adaptable and secure people who can think long and plan carefully." Eh?

Sometimes he is plain wrong. In his determination to show that Britain can do no right, he writes: "China grows each year by about our total national income." This is bollocks, our gross national product is still almost twice as big as China's. For Mr Marr to be correct, China would be growing by 200 per cent each year, pretty amazing even by Pacific Rim standards.

Most of the time, however, Mr Marr hits the mark. But even then he does not always understand the underlying forces at work. The British political system is largely the creation of an industrial society: adversarial, centralised, elitist, male-dominated, hierarchical. It looks increasingly archaic because we are fast becoming an information society in which the old conflict between capital and labour is increasingly irrelevant, in which power will be devolved, structures flatter, technology central and in which women will rightly expect to play an equal part.

Mr Marr would have served us well if he had dwelled much more on what the shape of our political system should be to meet the needs of the information age, in which most people will be brain workers. One consequence will be a politics that is more bottom up (in terms of ideas and laws) than top down. Mr Marr touches on the possible growth of referenda and other forms of direct democracy. But there is no real consideration of how they could be integrated into our representative system of democracy - or of how to overcome the opposition of our governing elite, which hates the idea of people voting on individual issues.

Indeed, prognosis is the weakest part of the book. Mr Marr rightly regards the House of Lords, for example, as an anachronism. But he gives us almost no idea of what the proper powers and functions of the second chamber should be, no vision of how an elected second chamber could be used to curb the untrammelled excesses of the House of Commons and enhance our constitutional rights.

My greatest objection to the Marr manifesto, however, is more fundamental than that, though I, too, want more powerful parliamentary scrutiny of the executive, more local democracy, fewer unaccountable quangos, a bill of rights, a more independent judiciary, an elected second chamber. I'm still even prepared to look kindly on the case for PR.

But I fear that even with far better governance, Britain will not necessarily be a better-governed country in terms of producing policies that will reverse our decline and make us more prosperous. Whatever the constitutional arrangements, we need to pursue policies that will produce a dynamic market economy, an education system devoted to excellence in the basic skills essential to employment in the information age and a welfare system that provides a safety net of basic needs without encouraging never-ending welfare dependency.

To achieve all that requires hard choices, difficult decisions, tough priorities - most of which our centre-left consensus would rather avoid. Even the best system of governance cannot be guaranteed to produce the right results if the political culture is wrong. Our political culture remains dominated by forces inimical to our success as a nation. As long as that remains so, constitutional reform, however worthy for its own sake, is likely to be a chattering class diversion from the central task of making Britain a success - and destined to join that long list of failed panaceas of the fashionable left.

`Ruling Britannia' (Michael Joseph) pounds 16.99.