Better government? Wrong letter

John Jackson
30 April 2010

In today’s Financial Times is a letter signed by some of those present last week at a joint conference of the Better Government Initiative and The Constitution Society (you need to give the FT your email to access the letter). I was present at the joint conference also and was invited to sign the letter. I declined to do so.

My reasoning was as follows.

Whilst I agree that the conduct of government and the legislative process would improve significantly if:-

* New legislation was introduced only when genuinely needed and not as part of a governing Party’s attempt to dominate the media agenda

*  Policy was based on evidence and analysis

* Legislation was properly prepared and clearly drafted and

* New Bills were limited to their essential purposes and to a volume compatible with thorough parliamentary scrutiny without automatic guillotining in the Commons,

I do not agree, as the signatories to the letter do, that these highly desirable standards (which they assert correctly can be implemented without legislation) can be achieved without structural constitutional change. The ills that they address arise, in large part, from our present situation in which the Commons is dominated by the Party from time to time in government. And that will continue for so long as there is no separation between government and parliament and the first steps on the ministerial career ladder are first to be elected as an MP on a major political party ticket and then, as a ‘safe’ government supporter, to be put on the government payroll as a minister’s parliamentary secretary – the lowest form of ministerial life.

To expect  MPs, whatever their Party allegiance and in such circumstances, to represent their constituents ‘independently’, to insist on being allowed to do their jobs properly and to hold government to account if it does not comply with agreed standards, is ludicrous wishful thinking. It will not happen. Not unless and until there is popular insistence on a separation of government from parliament built into a written constitutional settlement – as in many other countries with systems of government based on democratic representation.

There are two other reasons for my declining to sign the letter. Firstly, it sends the wrong message. It plays into the hands of  Labour and the Tories. It makes it too easy for them to say that thoughtful and knowledgeable people do not attach importance to constitutional reform, that it can be dealt with at leisure and incrementally and that there is much that can be done ‘within the present system’ without too much upheaval. Those two Parties in particular are wary of constitutional reform because they are deeply attached to the notion of parliamentary sovereignty. Of course they are! It is the camouflage they march behind in the exercise of their sovereignty – over the rest of us! The upheaval they fear – and which we need – challenges their right to do that. They will use the letter in the wrong way.

And that leads into my second reason. Sovereignty was stolen from the rest of us – we the people -  long ago. That can only be put right in a ‘proper’ and clean way as the result of a popular movement based on freedom, fairness and openness. There is something wrong with a ‘private’ group, however well intentioned, seeking to influence decisively on behalf of those they see as ‘less well informed’ how national governance should be put right.

It is the same mistake as that made by the Power Commission when it suggested that the ‘rules’ for the relationship between government and parliament could be settled by a ‘concordat’ between those great and good with experience in the practicalities of the matter. That approach, fundamentally different from that encapsulated in the idea of a ‘citizen’s convention’ to examine our constitutional arrangements, implies a somewhat arrogant assertion that ordinary people cannot get important things ‘right’. I want no part of it.

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