Friday, 22 May 2009

An 1832 Moment?

Some commentators are drawing comparisons between events in 1832 with its ‘Days of May’ and the current crisis caused by MPs’ expenses.  Much as Lord Grey and ministers such as Lord John Russell and Lord Durham seized the political initiative in the aftermath of the 1830 general election to introduce fundamental political reform, so people are calling for politicians now to introduce fundamental constitutional change.  Purging Parliament of corrupt MPs and Lords may be a necessary first step but in the eyes of the people this is not sufficient.  Yet we must be careful is drawing too close comparisons with the ‘Great Reform Act’ that represented not a fundamental shift in constitutional practice but, as Grey always said, a broadly ‘conservative’ measure that extended the franchise to the middle classes but denied the same rights to working people and left in place the principle that the right to vote was enshrined not as a individual right but as a consequence of the possession of property.  It was not a case of ‘one person, one vote’.  It also demonstrated what has been the way in which our constitution had evolved, in a broadly piecemeal way.  Although the vote was made an individual right in the Third Reform Act, it was not until 1928 that all men and women over 21 had the vote and a further twenty years before the last vestiges of the pre-reform system were finally ended with the abolition of the university seats.  1832 marked the beginning of a process of constitutional change, not the end.

Since 1997 and arguably before then, there has been a chipping away of the British constitution in two important respects.  First, devolution of power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has not been paralleled by similar developments in England.  We have not resolved the ‘West Lothian question’ and have seen a Labour government buttressed by MPs from Wales and Scotland who can vote on English issues while English MPs cannot vote on many Scottish issues, now the purview of the Scottish Parliament.  Secondly, under the guise of security from terrorism, there has been an erosion of individual rights and the emergence of a surveillance society of a considerable, though largely hidden capacity.  A major problem since 1997 has been that although the government quickly introduced some constitutional reform, it appears to have run out of steam by 2000 leaving a hybrid House of Lords.  In addition, having been promised a referendum on the European constitution, it was unwilling to do the same for the Lisbon Treaty (something justified in terms of the previous Maastricht Treaty) despite its being, in essence, that constitution.  This angered many people who felt that the government was making decisions that it had promised would be subject to further popular mandate.  This, combined with what is recognised as the growing, largely unaccountable power of central government and the creation of nominated quangos, the creatures of government patronage and today’s ‘nominated boroughs’ resulted in the MPs expenses scandal marking a political tipping-point.    Having a general election, something most people want, to replace a discredited and corrupt government, will not sort this out.  What is essential is real constitutional change.

This means a written constitution and a bill of rights and a move away from representative to participatory democracy.  No longer should the people effectively devolve their democratic rights to MPs, MEPs or local councillors and then take the opportunity to pass judgement on them in elections.  The people need to be involved in and contribute to the making of political decisions at all levels of government.  That is one of the aims of introducing Citizenship in schools and it is essential if we are to hold those elected to account. 

First, Parliament.  Make the House of Lords wholly elected by proportional representation every four years with 200 members.  This would give it a popular legitimacy it lacks and increase its ability to scrutinise and review legislative proposals from the Commons with the right to delay legislation for one parliamentary session as is currently the case.   The House of Commons should also be elected for a fixed four year term with the elected for the Lords two years into a Parliament.  I am inclined to retain the first-past-the-post system but consideration should be given to proportional representation for both Houses.  The number of MPs should be reduced to 400, something necessary because of devolution.  As I have written before MPs should be paid a salary that includes expenses.  There should also be primary elections in constituencies to decide who the candidates should be.  The Speaker should be elected every four years and can hold the office only for two consecutive parliaments. Parliament should work business hours (10-6); there is no need to retain the arcane system of Parliament sitting after lunch. 

Secondly, the government.  We should elect our Prime Minister by proportional representation.  This would maximise people’s participation and ensure that the individual elected has the broadest possible support.  The Prime Minister then chooses his or her cabinet and its members, some of whom might also be MPs or members of the Lords, sit in Parliament without a voting capacity but should be held accountable to it.  It is the government’s job to formulate policy that it needs to persuade Parliament to accept and legislate on.  This would strengthen Parliament’s power to hold the executive to account.  This is a move towards the separation of the executive and the legislature but does not take it as far as the American model.

Thirdly, the European Union.  Since an increasing amount of legislative originates in Europe, we need to reinvigorate support for the European project as a union of independent sovereign states.  We need to build into the constitution the need for a referendum (on the Irish model) for all significant changes to Europe including all constitutional treaties like Lisbon.  One reason why many people in Britain are reticent about the EU is the unwillingness of governments to give the people a say. 

Finally, local government.  It already has fixed term elections and has recently undergone a move towards a cabinet structure so I would be inclined not to alter this at present except for local government finance.  The current rating system needs to be abolished and replaced by local income tax.  This would mean that local government finance would be based on the individual’s ability to pay and, since it would be administered through the Inland Revenue, would make collection easier. 

What we need is radical not cosmetic change that takes account of people’s desire to have a greater say in the decisions that affect their lives, to be able to hold government at whatever level to account and to do so quickly.

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