Time to win some political gold medals

Parliament cannot win the public's trust without wholesale reform
Election canvassers in the forthcoming general election should not be surprised to be told on the doorsteps, "You politicians are all the same." It may sound like a denial of the value of the vote. But when Polonius played the politician with Hamlet, the Prince aptly responded "Words, words, words ..."

Some cynicism about our politics is unsurprising. It seems that the poor are always with us and the rich seem to manage. And the going is not easy for the great mass in the middle. If governments are to be judged by industrial investment, scientific innovation, educational opportunity and social provision, we had better admit that the gold medals are going elsewhere. Furthermore, there is some cross-party convergence of attitude as to the constraints upon fiscal and monetary policies. The public might reasonably doubt that the next election will mark a historic break with the past.

That is not, however, the full story. The next general election could herald significant change. The Liberal Democrats', long committed to reform, speak in shorthand of "the need to clean up the mess". Labour, too, has challenged the view that the Westminster model of parliamentary government is all for the best. The Tories relish the challenge. As we approach the end, or perhaps it will only be the interruption, of a regime (for the Conservatives have been in office for some 55 of the past 75 years), there is a rare opportunity to confront the need for radical, systemic change.

Modernisation in other countries has followed the horrors or war and revolution. In Britain we are prompted only by the inadequacies of our inheritance. The well-chronicled faults include the dominance of the Executive over Parliament, overcentralisation, excessive secrecy, an insufficiently representative legislature, weak remedies for the abuse of public power and, perhaps most widely resented, the failure to meet people's aspirations.

There is a strong temptation to play down constitutional reform in elections. It is, after all, about means, and the conventional wisdom is that people are concerned about ends, about health, jobs, crime. There is, however, a glimmer of hope that the public recognises that constitutional reform is needed to help those elected to achieve the purposes for which they are elected. It could help to repatriate some of those lost gold medals for good government.

Where do the principal parties stand? The Conservatives' preference for the status quo is easily understood for it has served them well. Labour has a reform agenda and some commitments. Nationalist pressure in Scotland, the stacking of the House of Lords against them and the sweeping aside of old constitutional conventions - such as ministers owning up when found out, and fairness in making public appointments - have helped to bring Labour to this watershed

This week, the Liberal Democrats are publishing a Constitutional Declaration and the text of a Reform Bill which could give effect to the core principles and provisions of the reform agenda. It shows how the interrelated elements of reform can best be implemented in one Act to achieve a coherent system of government for the UK.

To take one example: the transfer of powers to a Scottish Parliament cannot leave untouched for long the numbers and authority of Scottish MPs at Westminster. Similarly, an all-appointed upper House might deal with the problem of the political imbalance of the Lords but scarcely strengthens its democratic authority.

The Reform Bill would therefore tackle all these issues together. The two Houses of Parliament (their membership reduced but their powers over the Executive strengthened) would be reformed, along with provision for home rule for Scotland and Wales, fair voting systems and referendums. In particular, it would democratise the upper House, providing first for indirect election by the two Houses of Parliament and, subsequently, direct election from the nations and regions of the UK. It would offer a framework within which the electors in different regions of England could, by referendum, opt into regional government. The Reform Bill will specify which matters would be the exclusive responsibility of the nations and regions, which would be shared and which would remain the responsibility of the Westminster Parliament.

The Bill would provide that the next House of Commons, elected by a fair voting system, would be elected as a constitutional convention. Following the holding of a national referendum it would have the power to entrench the country's constitution.

That constitution would be the basic law of the UK, deriving its validity from the people, defining and separating sufficiently the powers of Parliament, the Executive and the judges. In particular, all executive powers would be derived from the constitution and not from the royal prerogative. Thus, for example, it would not be open to the Prime Minister to fire the starting- gun in an election since, by constitutional law, Parliaments would run for a set term only to be varied by Parliament itself.

Constitutional reform cannot be played like a game of grandmother's footsteps in which forward movements can only be made when no one sees them. Furthermore, it is unrealistic to believe that these interconnected issues can be sensibly spread across several sessions of Parliament displacing the bread-and- butter legislative needs of government. If the tide for reform is missed then, no doubt, future elections and their results will revert to type. The disappointed public will continue to sigh on the doorstep: "You politicians are all the same."

The writer is Liberal Democrat MP for Caithness and Sutherland.