Clegg makes the case for radical reform

Guy Aitchison
20 May 2008

Guy Aitchison (London, OK): Nick Clegg has a devastating op-ed piece in today’s Independent on Britain’s political and constitutional “crisis” (what we in OK have been calling our “good crisis”). Better than any serving politician I know of, Clegg diagnoses the rot at the heart of the system, making a powerful and intelligent case for radical democratic reform.

He begins by describing the pompous and degrading ceremony that still surrounds our democratic institutions. This isn’t merely harmless, tourist-friendly fun he says. It masks a “crisis in which the public feel ever more alienated from, and angry towards, the political class. And a crisis in which Parliament itself is neutered by the all encompassing power of the centralised Whitehall state.”

It’s fashionable amongst the political class to attribute historically low levels of turnout and public disengagement to individual satisfaction or disinterest. But as Clegg recognises, “This is head-in-the-sand madness that misses the fundamental point. Public cynicism isn't code for contentment. It is a logical, coherent response to a politics which appears increasingly introverted, to a governing system which is grotesquely over-centralised, and to an electoral system which discards the value of millions of individual votes.”

What is Clegg’s solution, then? Electoral reform, naturally, but also a new more transparent system of party funding in which individuals can choose to have a small public donation given to a party at election time. He wants to see a “citizens convention” to draw up a written constitution which will contain “a clear and simple statement of the relationship between the citizen and the state” and include a “new charter of privacy for the modern age” to shield us from the intrusion and incompetence of the database state. All alongside a massive devolution of power (including revenue-raising powers) to local government.

This is the kind of radicalism many had hoped for from Brown when he delivered his Green Paper last July, describing it as a “route map” to a modern and democratic “written constitution”. The Green Paper agenda is all but dead and buried now as Brown has proven both unable and unwilling to ditch the authoritarianism of Blair and address the imbalances of power in our system. We are left with a fudged Constitutional Renewal Bill and yet another White Paper on the Lords from Labour, followed by the prospect of a Tory party only too happy with a system that has once again started to work in its favour. In this context a Lib Dem strategy which made an intelligent case for far-reaching democratic reform, styling the party as the “anti-establishment” vote, could be fruitful indeed.

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