16 May 2005
“Hold on!”, says Andreas Whittam Smith. He takes a similar but in one crucial respect very different approach to mine in his cautionary column today about the Campaign for Democracy in the Independent, the paper he founded and now writes for. He says that reformers must not single out voting reform. “By all means let us push strongly for PR but…” Good points about his buts: Andreas compares the British constitution to a large and old machine, he calls for a list of its parts (stand by), he is eloquent on the need for a democratic culture not just different rules and institutions. He is also great on the corrupt way the government is changing the role of Britain’s second chamber. And then he calls for… vigilance. Sorry, Andreas, this is not good enough. Yes, of course, stay vigilant. Should we sleep while our masters play? But we already know what years of vigilance have witnessed. It is a system – the old machinery - that is broken and rulers unable to resist the temptation this offers them. The old machine is a humpty-dumpty long fallen off its wall. Why look at it any more? It won’t grow or inspire a new culture. It can’t. Therefore, there needs to be a democratic, written constitution brought about through an open process that inspires an honest public culture which can lay claim to it. Electoral reform, like second chamber reform, needs to follow this and be part of it, or it will become (this is where I share Andreas’s caution) yet a further piece of the eggshell. There is no panacea within the old machine, or to be found amongst the eggshell, that will right the worst of democratic wrongs and thereby put Britain back together again. Not even super-laser vigilance. In 1992 I organised four Sovereignty Lectures for Charter 88. They were given by Gordon Brown, Shirley Williams, Ferdinand Mount and Lord Scarman (perhaps the country’s most distinguished retired judge). Mount, then speaking as a Conservative, said he was for constitutional reform but argued that we should get off the train before the last stop of a written constitution. In the following lecture Lord Scarman made a lucid call for staying the course and taking train to its destination. Why is it that so few of the political class are still unwilling to get into his carriage? So here is a question for Andreas. In the same issue of the Independent Peter Facey of the New Politics Network and Ron Bailey co-director of Charter 88 publish a letter calling for a wide “mass movement” for reform of the system - and they want a written constitution. Would this qualify for his unqualified support?