New ecology in public life

The work of the Nolan committee proclaims the beginnings of a written British constitution; 'Major will look tawdry if he refuses to let the committee probe further'
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In the understated tones of a seasoned member of the judiciary, Lord Nolan yesterday began to engineer what could be - and should be - a profound shift in the tectonic plates of the British constitution. He and his committee did it first of all by bringing to the surface those "tacit" understandings that have governed public life in the past and examining them in the light of day.

Next they found them wanting; the rules, such as they were, were often imprecise and unenforcable. Finally, the committee recommended clarity, transparency and an element of independent scrutiny backed by a degree of force. Outside intervention, for example, in both appointments in the gift of ministers and the financial interests of MPs would represent "very major constitutional innovation" as Lord Nolan rightly said during his press conference in the Central Hall, Westminster.

A range of previously unregulated activities deep in Whitehall, over the road in Westminster and across wide swathes of quangoland will now, if the Government and Parliament concur, be subject to codes monitored by outsiders. The Nolan committee has set in place a range of gold standards of comparable lustre and rigour for all three aspects of the central state.

Not only does this represent the most formidable advance towards institutionalised probity and decency in public and political life since the late 19th century, it does, in a little noticed fashion, also proclaim the beginnings of a written constitution for those particular public activities. Constitutions, after all, are about rules of conduct, proper procedure and predictability of application.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and the Public Appointments Commissioner are eye-catching features of the report and could, if brought to life, change the ecology of both the House of Commons and public bodies on the behavioural side. But equally important, perhaps more so, are the committee's suggestions for rearrangements in the very engine room of central government.

For ours is an executive-dominated system which operates an insiders' constitution and those in possession of the state machine, whether ministers or senior civil servants, have shown a traditional genius for seeing off intruders. Yet Lord Nolan has an unequivocal message for them too - that the nuances and evasions of Questions of Procedure for Ministers, the do's and don'ts document for cabinet government, are far too squishy.

The Prime Minister is encouraged to rejig the document so that in effect it becomes a real code of conduct for ministers that he himself should enforce rather than leaving it up to individual ministers' judgement of what is fit and proper conduct for them. The role of the Cabinet Secretary, too, should be clarified according to the report. He should advise but not investigate when real wrongdoing, as opposed to fine procedural points, are the allegations in question.

Here, too, Nolan is in effect saying: would you kindly firm up your gentlemanly understandings into something of constitutional substance. And the real test of any reform arises when those in a position to chivvy and chide others accept inconvenient urgings that they too should raise their game.

Mr Major trod where none of his predecessors dared to venture when he published Questions of Procedure for Ministers in 1992. Previously it had been a cabinet paper carrying a classification mark. Lord Nolan could not have seized upon the document for embellishment and refinement had it remained secret. If it is reformed and tightened it would amount to a citizens' charter for ministerial conduct, something which might appeal to the Prime Minister.

Taken as a whole, the report is more than ministers bargained for. Like Sir William Beveridge in his 1942 report on social security, Lord Nolan has taken his terms of reference and run with them way beyond the expected touchline. Will the Government let him get away with it? If it tries to rein him back, it will certainly receive the same treatment as those who attempted to water down Beveridge in 1943.

The Cabinet has no real alternative but to accept the report in full. Lord Nolan was too gentlemanly yesterday to accept the argument that standards of conduct in public and political life have fallen. But implicitly he did just that, for he did not find in favour of the status quo. The days of the "good chap" theory of government are gone (when a chap, of either sex, in authority knew how far to go and no further within the vague niceties of constitutional and personal behaviour). The message of Nolan is that the "code of the Woosters" will no longer do. Henceforth standards must be written down, adhered to and monitored.

Should the process of inquiry and reform stop here? No. It was plain at the press conference yesterday that the Nolan committee is itching to examine the financing of political parties - which the Prime Minister, so far, has ruled out. Mr Major will look truly tawdry if he refuses to let the committee have its way should Lord Nolan ask for the removal of this prohibition. The committee should also glide into that most gilded of our secret gardens, the honours system - a patch of our constitutional- cum-patronage terrain were even parliamentary questions are banned.

Over a century ago Gladstone declared that the British constitution "presumes more boldly than any other the good sense and good faith of those who work it." Lord Nolan has implicitly accepted that neither can be relied on any longer as the 21st century approaches. He is quite right.

If the Nolan report is implemented in full, a deep pool of public queasiness will be drained. For example, fears that the Civil Service has been politicised and is even more open to contamination now through new performance-related contracts in an increasingly fragmented public service could be allayed - a matter of great significance if the Government does change between now and the spring of 1997. Similarly, the justifiable concern that has drawn much public activity into an unaccountable patronage state could be substantially eased.

Even the esteem in which the public holds our political class might recover. Glittering prizes all, and there for the taking - unless the Cabinet shows that it is indeed of a lesser breed than the political generations that have sat around that table before.

The writer is professor of contemporary history at Queen Mary and Westfield College, London. His book 'The Hidden Wiring: Unearthing the British Constitution' will be published by Gollancz in October.