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Constitutional conventions: best practice

Charles Moore sallies forth

To laugh or to cry? Up and down the land people are asking themselves this question as they watch Harriet Harman, Nick Clegg or... well here is something by Charles Moore. He's an old adversary of mine having adamantly opposed Charter 88 and any attempt at reforming the British system in a democratic fashion since yonks.

Now he is following the lead of Douglas Carswell MP, the Tory backbencher who took the scalp of Speaker Martin and is calling for open primaries in the selection of MPs. Moore doesn't follow him so far as to support his audaciously titled book: The Plan (what socialist would dare to issue a volume with such a title!).

The ductile Moore slips away from embracing the idea that there is anything fundamentally wrong. Instead he has this delightful approach to an argument:

I keep asking myself how all this has come about. How is it that a Parliamentary system which really was the envy of the world even only a generation ago is now the butt of its jokes? I think I have a possible explanation.

For a hundred years, the great issue which Parliament debated most often was the franchise. Who should be allowed to elect MPs? From the Great Reform Bill of 1832 until the final admission of all women as voters in 1928, this argument raged. It made MPs super-conscious of the people who put them into Parliament, since they kept on debating who those people should be. And it made the public feel that the right to vote really mattered.

With these battles won, people felt satisfied, for the time being. But after the Second World War, politicians began to take advantage. With their legitimacy uncontested, they made things more comfortable for themselves. MPs forgot that their House was esteemed because it genuinely made the laws for the people it represented, and so they transferred much of that right to Europe.

So there you are. What went wrong was that they just stopped talking about the right things. Whoops, this led to them "forgetting" they were they to make the laws so they transferred this to Europe. What a slip! 

Having handed over their birthright, MPs then focused on their mess of pottage. Individual offices, more paid advisers, bigger pensions, shorter hours, second homes, free ginger-crinkle biscuits! It is not a coincidence that Tony Blair, the first prime minister in our history ever to show consistent contempt for the House of Commons, was also the first to make the hand-outs really gargantuan.

Corruption and ginger-crinkle simply followed loss of focus. Blair almost comes out of it well, or at least better than forgetful. He genuinely despised the place and so he pioneered a new level of corruption. One has to admire his consistency. However, "In the party conference season which has just finished, little bits of this subject came up", Moore laments, 

David Cameron, in particular, was specific about one or two tough things which he wanted to apply in the next Parliament, such as an end to the MPs' pension scandal. But the mood in all the leaderships was that they wanted to "move on". They are avoiding plans for real reform. They should be reverting to Prime Minister's Questions twice a week, relinquishing government control of parliamentary business, providing for referendums. But of course they do not want to strengthen Parliament against the executive which they themselves hope to lead.

Here, at last, there is a glimmer of the deeper picture. "They are avoiding plans for real reform". They? It can only mean all of them. The whole lot of them - enfolded into the hope for unchecked executive power.

Now where did I hear that analysis before? Blow me down if Charles Moore isn't starting to make the case for a new Charter 88 now that liberty and freedom are no longer safe. Will he ever admit that only a generation ago, well 20 years, this was already being set out loud and clear?

OK, let's put the trumpet aside and recognise the strange common ground that is emerging - like a fresh island from the sewerage emitted by our ancient constitutional arrangements. In a striking analysis  Timothy Garton Ash, just back in the UK after three months, wrote in the Guardian that he was puzzled and alarmed. Why has the constitutional moment not been seized? Where are the political forces and organised arguments able to take on a system in which all are, as Moore says, "avoiding plans for real reform"?

Garton Ash discusses Democratic Audit's hilarious 'Unspoken Constitution'. Set out for what it is, who can support the regime in its true light? Perhaps now that Moore recognises that the old regime has lost its vital link to the public even he will recognise the need for a new settlement.

Greenpeace, POWER 2010 and the unspeakable

I went along last night to the launch of the brilliant Democratic Audit pamphlet on 'The Unspoken Constitution' which starts with the immortal words, "We, the elite". You can get a taste of it here and the link to the pdf. The launch was in the Atrium on Millbank and it joined forces with Power 2010 and its call for your ideas as the start of a movement to reform the way we are governed. I was cheered on the way, walking past parliament, to see the Greenpeace protestors doing their heroic bit to change the system from outside by taking their concerns to its roof. It was great to see them, so much so I renewed my financial support for Greenpeace when I got home. I think there is something stirring in the air.

The coup squared? If Blair is our president and Mandelson PM then Brown will be...

I have repeated said and it bears a great deal more repetition that Labour was taken over by a coup whose ring-leaders were Blair, Brown and Mandelson.

Whatever their fights they all needed each other. Now yesterday's Mirror confirmed Mandelson's targetting of 10 Downing Street. Outrageous as it seems, we could have President Tony and Prime Minister Peter by March. Brown will be cared for with a prestige job - after all, imagine what he knows! - doubtless a role will be found for him at the G20. Even if Cameron wins the election in May or June as the "Heir to Blair" he will be safely surrounded as Peter will make sure the Labour party is in good hands, then he'll be off to President Tony's entourage.

The database state: it just gets worse

Every time you think to yourself, "It's bad but at least I know", Henry Porter comes out with another appalling revelation. Did you know that there is a Human Provenance Pilot operation underway, using methods tricked from scientists, to try and profile people by examining their hair and DNA to see where they "really" come from? How is it possible to invest in and launch such a thing without a public debate - or even, save us! - in parliament? Where are the MPs saying, 'hold on', who rules this country? It shows that the forces of the deep state in the Home Office regard the population as little better than animals, to be tracked and managed. That's us, I'm talking about. Read Henry's post in CiF's Liberty Central and wonder: what's next?

Sun spotted

The Sun has come out against Brown and Labour - as I warned was likely earlier this month. Nick Robinson is rightly clear about its potential impact. Sunder at the Fabians tries whistling in the wind

Blair to be Our President

The excellent Open Europe email service includes this item:

"French Foreign Minister suggests Blair is currently the only real candidate for EU President. In an interview with France Inter, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was asked if Tony Blair will become EU President if the Lisbon Treaty is ratified. He said, "In any case, Tony Blair is a candidate and people are talking about it a lot, yes."  Asked if there are other candidates, he said, "Not many."  Asked who, he said, "No, honestly", to which the interviewer replied, "So it's Blair then?"  Kouchner said, "At one point there was Verhofstadt.  Wait! There are others who will perhaps put themselves forward; it is not for straight away.  But for the moment, indeed..." Asked if he thought it is right that a supporter of the Iraq war should become the first President of Europe, he said, "He has given several speeches on Iraq for a long time; he has been a supporter of peace; he has been the representative of the Quartet for peace in the Middle East.  On the other hand, there will also perhaps be Mr. Rasmussen, the Danish President of the Socialist International who will put himself forward, but we don't know of any other candidate."

Mass hypnosis - we love him, we love him!

In Bulgaov's wonderful novel The Master and Margaritta, the Devil comes to Moscow. The desperate crowds lose their clothes in the various forms of mass hypnosis that follow. The story haunts me when I watch Mandelson at work. I doubt if he will lose his. Take a look at this

Flash (mob) Gordon? Or spitting back the rubbish

This weekend's German elections have been reported as utterly dull. Beware of still waters! It may come to be seen as historic - thanks to those who Chancellor Merkel calls "My friends from the internet".

Flashmobs in the tradition of the Swedish pirate party have arrived on the scene. Reuters report that

blogger Rene Walter, who writes for nerdcore, says there is a serious idea behind the light-hearted gatherings. “We are not just going to swallow the election messages, we are spitting back the rubbish Merkel speaks in the ironic form of a “Yeahhh!”, he says in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung daily.

You can watch a YouTube video here. Every single sentence of the Chancellor is greeted with a loud cheer of "Yeah" to the increasing hilarity of the crowd. It's been watched by over 330,000 so far! Somehow, if the leading candidates in our election next year are called David, Nick and Gordon can flash be far behind? 

A smell of sulphur

I smell sulfur, the cold and mephistophelian odor of Mandelson of trade, business, higher education, oligarchs and the Lords. All of a sudden a story is leaked to the Guardian that Brown has asked five times for a one-to-one meeting with Obama and been "snubbed". It's the five that arouses suspicion. It has a spurious accuracy about it. Who was doing the counting and then leaked it? At the same time Brown is asked questions about his health. He has been blind on one eye since, well since Obama has been black. He has never been interrogated about it by the press before. Now, all of a sudden, supposedly because of the book extract by Sky TV's Adam Boulton (married to ex-Blair aide Anji Hunter), the Prime Minister's 'health' has been put on the public agenda. Journalists have been given the nod that this is a legitimate line to pursue. By whom?

I wrote in June, at the time Brown was saved by Mandelson, picking up from a column by Steve Richards, that there was a plot to heave Brown out of the leadership at the Party Conference while using it to ensure a coronation - if he had not lifted the polls for Labour by then. Well, then is now next week! It looks as if Brown is resisting the deal and the gloves are off.

Well Done! A principled resignation

This is the complete letter of resignation by Stephen Hesford MP. It is clear and principled. I don't know anything about his record yet, but there is some judgement which has survived all the compromises and I think it is worth reading in full

Dear Gordon

It is with considerable personal regret that I find myself writing to inform you of my decision to resign my positions as PPS to several ministers, principally the solicitor general.

My decision comes about because as an aide to the Law Officers, whilst I have great personal regard for the attorney general, I cannot support the decision which allows her to remain in office.

In my view the facts of the case do not matter. It is the principle which counts, particularly at a time when the public's trust of Whitehall is uncertain to say the least.

We have to be seen to be accountable.

In addition, could I just mention matters of policy where I believe leadership is vital.

On the constitution:

We must legislate to offer a referendum on how we elect Members of the House of Commons.

We must finish off reform of the House of Lords.

Generally, I would urge you to move as quickly as possible to withdraw from Afghanistan and to signal a change in our position over Trident replacement.

Finally, on the economy, the Government is to be congratulated upon its clear-sighted and effective response to the downturn.

You have my continued support in your resistance to David Cameron's myopic and siren calls for an "Age of Austerity".

My constituents benefit greatly from using our much-improved public services and they would not wish to see these jeopardised nor have our continued economic recovery put in doubt.

With best wishes

Yours sincerely

Stephen Hesford MP

This would decide the election

This story would scupper any chance of a Labour fight back, even under a new leader. If ratification of Lisbon is postponed and the Tories can run with their pledge to hold a referendum on it, a lot of small party voters will switch and abstainers will turn out to ensure they can have their call on the Lisbon Treaty. It will also damage the Lib Dems who ducked out of being fearless democrats on the issue.


The Lib Dems - What's Wrong With Them!

I'm not being rude or cynical. But diplomatic concern seems pointless. The UK needs some kind of Obama force that offers a significant and positive change of direction and draws on new energy but can deliver inside the system. This is hardly a revolutionary desire! The Lib Dems, with over 50 MPs, millions of votes, a party machine, young leaders, are in the perfect position to be this force.

Much more important, they call it right on issues that are popular. They got the economic crisis right and are believed, immensely important in terms of credibility and popular respect. They led on liberty where the latest poll shows overwhelming, eight-to-one support for the view that the state is taking too much power, a classic liberal view and a constitutional one. Nick Clegg denounced our "rotten" system in the most robust and systematic terms since he became leader. He made a great speech saying that the acuteness of the economic collapse in the UK was caused by the political collapse of Westminster, well before the expenses crisis struck. On the issue of the Iraq war, that gave Obama his original moral authority, the Lib Dems stood out from the crowd. And this is an issue that those who vote still care about.

Why then, when their answers are so often right, principled, consistent and popular are the Lib Dems so useless? Why aren't they at 30 per cent support plus? Why should they have to ask for a place in any television debate, rather than being the main contenders?

The answer seems to be: It ain't what you say, it is the way that you say it.

I recall watching what I think was their spring party conference. For a few flickering seconds, Clegg was in the top half of BBC News. We need an act of faith. It sounded good. It disappeared. I saw no other report. But who was to make the leap? He was calling on voters to bet their faith on him. But what he and his party need to do is to take a bet on the people. It is they who need to make the change, not the voters.

The party's body language is way too Westminster. When push comes to shove, the Lib Dems are reasonable. Their leather radicals in the Lords look forward to an increase in MPs that will make them the arbiters of a hung parliament and their advice stifles the party - they are the UK's last true Establishment.

Now Clegg has written a Demos pamphlet saying it is The Liberal Moment. It's "jolly good". You can hear the plaudits from the noble Lib Dem Lords being dripped into his ears. Their murmurings are poison! Labour displaced the Liberals a century ago because of organised forces outside Westminster, in the Trade Unions and the Co-operative movement. The reshaping of British society now, that Clegg writes about, does indeed undermine traditional Labour. But its institutional forms are in the Scottish and Welsh parliaments and the London Mayor and movements against the EU. There are potential networks across civil society that could and should support the Lib Dems. But the party has to make the first move, demonstrate a hunger for power on its own terms, appeal to these supposedly dangerous elements. Clegg celebrates citizens as unruly and not wanting to be controlled by the state. I agree. No, I strongly agree. But the way it is said seems patronising. The Lib Dems need to be the unruly party if they are to appeal to the unruly majority.  

The Lib Dems have got to start being different and stop playing the game in the same old way.

PS - James Graham from inside the party makes a parallel, thoughtful argument that ends with a call for a Liberal Democrat "movement" as he gasps for oxygen of life.

PSS - The is a response from David Marquand that takes the argument further into a full OK post here.

PPSS - Sunny is in on the act too HERE

My Power 2010 idea - short and simple

The Rowntrees backed Power 2010 coalition for the renewal of politics launched yesterday (see Guy's post). Helena Kennedy had an article in the Independent with the headline "This is our chance to seize power - it may be the last one we get". They are calling on everyone to send in their ideas for reforms that will make a difference. Over 100 came in on the first day. You can post your ideas and proposals HERE on the new Power 2010 website and back it up with a video too. I'll be writing more about this important development. But here is the proposal I just sent in:

No More Lords - no more peers to be appointed to the Lords. None. Busta! Because people want to see an end to corruption and backhanders and the crony appointments to the Lords is the main source of corruption in British politics. Unless we stop them now there will be a tranche of Blairite riff raff all saying they have to serve out the rest of their lives there or get compensation. It is a simple demand with big implications and would provide a clear expression of public contempt for the status quo.


Henry Porter's Thriller

Tomorrow sees the launch party for Henry Porter’s gripping The Dying Light which leaves the reader wondering at the end about what he – or she – would have done, in the most satisfactory way. As The Economist put it in a professional book review, “For those who like political thrillers, this is one of the season’s best: scary, informative and, alas, eminently believable.”

In case a declaration of interest is necessary, Henry was completing the proofs and all those demanding final re-writes of The Dying Light while he was directing the Convention on Modern Liberty with me (and I know how hard he worked at that), publishing his Observer column every fortnight, launched and wrote his Guardian blog while going to the States as the London Editor of Vanity Fair.  I have to admit that it crossed my mind that no-one could manage to write a good novel as well.

He has excelled even himself. There is a small dark power that haunts this land. The power of the Prime Minister to call an election at his own timing, manipulating events in the interests of accumulating and continuing a personal influence that is rooted in kingship not democracy. We are witnessing the ruthless exercise of the power now by the PM’s Faustian proxy who longs to be himself officially known by his initials. The fact that it can be buggered up by incompetence (see October 2007) does not make it any the less dangerous. Someone can shoot themselves in the toe without taking away from their gun its potential as a murder weapon.

I never thought anyone would weave this dark power into a credible thriller. Not only does The Dying Light achieve this it also pulls off another quietly brilliant expose that only dawns upon the reader gradually. The Dying Light is set in the near future with an all too believable Prime Minister who has elements of Blair and Major about him, being run close by an opposition party that is… You are well into the book before you realise that you don’t know which political party the PM represents or what the opposition stands for: they could be Tory and Labour or Labour and Tory. Something that makes the story all the more believable.

If I pick out these two political points because they are so original, while the larger dark power the heroine finds herself threatened with is the surveillance society itself. It is wonderfully done - and there is a dubious player over whom a question hangs: the British people.

The Sun casts its shadow

There is an ominous article by Trevor Kavanagh in today's Spectator. It calls for the last minute resuscitation of British greatness by David Cameron. Greatness is seen in bellicose, military terms of projecting power, as viewed through the American optic. The tone is bullying, the longing is sheer will power. It concludes saying that a "profound sense of despair will take Mr Cameron into government almost by default":

But the mood is itself a problem. No senior civil servant has yet said that the government’s job is to ‘oversee the orderly management of decline’, as Sir William Armstrong, the Cabinet Secretary, famously did in 1973. But this time, no one needs to. The politics of decline is stamped in everything this exhausted government does. Decisions on our defence are being taken on the basis that Britain no longer can claim to play a major role in the world, that we are a little country, which should stop pretending to be a big one.

This sense of defeatism may be pervasive, but it need not be terminal. It can be turned around — as Britain demonstrated, to the world’s amazement, 30 years ago. All that is requires is the right kind of courage and leadership. Thatcher had it. Heath did not. But does David Cameron? It is not much of an exaggeration to say that Britain’s future now depends on the answer.

It is well worth a read, and in the first number of the Specator to have Fraser Nelson as its helm. There is no way, it seems to me, that the Sun can now endorse Brown at the election, without losing its Political Editor. More important will be its effect on the Tory leadership. As we know from New Labour this kind of bullying works. 

What we need is a strong political voice that absorbs the quite different tones of Paul Gilroy. Some hope, of course. But when it comes to rejecting a neuralgic obsession greatness, his meditation on Postcolonial Melancholia is a must read. Reflecting on the way that "greatness" is still at stake in the arguments over the nature of Britain he notes that Blair's efforts to mimic Thatcher's Falkland success in Iraq came up against a  popular oposition that "desperately seemed to want to become something different, something less great but more noble, more consistent, and more autonomous".

Andreas hits the spot

Excellent article by Andreas Whittam Smith in today's Indie does just what a columnist ought to do. He decodes David Cameron, gets a shattering blow in at Tony Blair, exposes in a calm and succinct way how spin has corrupted politics, sets out two questions that need to be answered if parliamentary authority is to be restored (it won't be) and establishes an intelligent base from which to judge what is going on, without an exaggerated word or a false note.

Rosemary Bechler is on her way

Stuart White set out a helpful and interesting four-section map of current political ideology in the Fabian blog Next Left. He says there are two defining contrasts: between centre and left republicans and between right and left communitarians. It's well worth a read as it get traction on the new ideas, as well as the retreads, of current debates triggered off as people prepare for a transition from Brown-Blairism to Cameron-Blairism. My own politics has elements of both left republicanism and left communitarianism, at least as Stuart describes them. So I was very engaged by a stunning response to Jeremy Gilbert from Rosemary Bechler. Jeremy did a major piece for OurKingdom which Rosemary queried and she got a swift reply. Her delay has given her the time to set out a two-part argument: first on the historic development and role of the individual in democracy and second on the nature of power in the era of gatekeepers that takes us beyond just the twin forms of Gramscian coercion and hegemony. In terms of Stuart White's typology, hers is a critique of left communitarianism from the historical perspective of left republicanism. We'll be publishing both parts this week.While I'm at it though I've three reflections on the limitations of Stuart's map. It leaves out the role of green politics and green economics. It does not embrace Ungar's experimentalism. And both these omissions stem, perhaps, from not judging ideologies enough in terms of what kind of future they offer and argue for. Apologies for being cryptic.

Conservative sportsmanship

Conservative Home continues its platform debate on patriotic renewal. Yesterday it ran Frank Field opposing the liquidation of historical memory from schoolchidren. I'm with him on this though he omits one of the key reasons for the importance of teaching history, which is that it opens up dabate in the best sense. It is not THE teaching of THE history of our country that we want, but it being taught so that we learn about the choices that were made and the sides that were taken. Whose side would you have been on in the Civil War? Do you support the restoration? Did appeasement contribute to the rise of Hitler? 

At any rate what we need is intelligent engagement with our national histories. This is just what is not on offer today from Jeremy Hunt MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. He looks at "the contribution of sport to patriotic renewal".

It's the feebleness of his rhetoric and the sloppyness of his language that appalls. Here we go:

"Last Sunday’s Ashes victory was a feel-good moment that we really needed."

Who is this "we"?

"Even the outrage over the release of the Lockerbie bomber was pushed briefly off the front pages as the nation was gripped with excitement."

Which country is this "nation"?

"The Today programme gloatingly reported the depressed coverage in Australia...Meanwhile our victorious sportsmen, perhaps remembering the post 2005 disappointment, behaved with great dignity and aplomb... It has not always been easy to be proud of sport in Britain."

Hold on a second, have I missed something? Wasn't it England that won the ashes, not Britain? This slovenly assumption that victorious England is Britain is one of the disrepectful Westminster tropes that humiliates Scots. (Gerry Hassan has been wresting it to the ground elsewhere in OK.) England's winning the ashes did not lift popular spirits in Wales and Northern Ireland in the way that a British team's victory may have done. Hunt then repeats the elision with a perfect example of its thoughtlessness: "A country’s characteristics are often reflected in the way their [sic] play sport...", the would-be Minister continues, "Andrew Strauss typified British decency in the way he reacted to victory at the Ashes." Only he was Captain of England.

"If sport defines nations, at its best it also unites them". Hunt concludes in philosophical mode - unaware that he has done his best to reinforce the division of Britain that he strives to oppose.

Say 'no' to 696!

When we were developing the Convention on Modern Liberty early this year we discussed the expansion of ways in which our lives are being surveilled and controlled. There was mention of form 696 as the Mets way of intimidating music and venues, preventing spontanity, getting to know the real names and addresses of anyone who picked up a guitar in public and, implicitly, their racial profile and the racial profile of venues as well. I was sceptical. There had to be a limit to what they would attempt! Until I read the form itself with its threatening language and intrusive level of detail especially concerning the artists.

So I signed the excellent letter Sunny Hundal just sent to the Guardian to support Feargal Sharkey who is taking the issue to the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

PS: Try as I might to escape from my sins, the print version says I am from Charter 88, so I've put the Guardian's correction process to the test.

Miliband admits torture complicity

Well, he would deny it. Or would he? In an article in today's Telegraph by David Miliband and Alan Johnson, the two ministers responsible for MI5 and MI6 say, "There is no truth in suggestions that the security and intelligence services
operate without control or oversight. There is no truth in the more serious
suggestion that it is our policy to collude in, solicit, or directly
participate in abuses of prisoners. Nor is it true that alleged wrongdoing
is covered up." But the phrase used by the Joint Committee on Human Rights of parliament was that the government was "complicit" in torture. That is very specifically not an accusation of soliciting, participating in or colluding with torture, it means  taking advantage of it and not actively seeking to prevent its use by others. By agreeing that they are indeed "risking" this the Ministers agree that it has happened. Read it for yourself to see how carefully drafted their exercise in denial-admission is. And note this as well. The first part of the passage I quoted. They accept unequivocally that there is always control and oversight and the security and intelligence services never operate without it. This means they are taking responsibility for the UK's complicity in torture. You might have thought, from the way the Telegraph and news services are reporting the article, that it is just a response to the Joint Committee. But it is surely also being written at the behest of the services whose operatives did the dirty work - with the approval of New Labour.