Epitaph for a politician

A farewell to Minister of Justice Michael Wills
John Jackson
5 March 2010

An OurKingdom conversation: Michael Wills > this post > Michael Wills > Stuart Weir

‘They do not like it. If Michael persists it could be the end of his political career’.

I think that Michael Wills is a decent, highly principled, loyal, hard working and thoughtful politician with strong egalitarian and democratic instincts. Since Gordon Brown, for whom Wills has been a speech writer, became Prime Minister in 2007, Wills has been a Minister of State at the Department of Justice charged with the development of the tentative proposals for a start on constitutional reform set out in the Green Paper ‘The Governance of Britain’ issued shortly after Brown took office. We all know what that Green Paper has led to – very little - and it is clear that Michael Wills has had a difficult and deeply frustrating time. He has decided to retire from Parliament at the next election and, given our bizarre convention (it is only a convention and one with a murky history) that no-one may be a member of the government unless they are also a member of one of the two houses of Parliament, it is unlikely that he will ever serve us again as a minister.

What can we expect by way of a swan song from Wills? It seems that we may have had it already in a personal overview of Accountability under Democratic Constitutions delivered by him at the start of a conference in early February and published on OurKingdom very recently. Mythology tells us that the song of a swan before its demise is of great sweetness. Sadly, that personal overview comes over as a hoarse, tired and somewhat authoritarian croak.

This is partly because Wills has a rather dry, didactic style and likes to discuss constitutional questions in terms of the distribution of power - and the accountability of those who have power. ‘Our constitutional arrangements reflect – and determine – how power is distributed in our country. And that determines how every other question in our public life will be answered.’ he says.  Leaving aside whether that is a correct analysis, a belief expressed in such terms is unlikely to inspire people and will not ring as music in the ears of those – and there are many of them – who would like our constitutional arrangements – and the manner in which they are made – to reflect the way in which ‘we’, all of us, exercise our sovereignty as a free people.

It is also partly because of the way in which Wills seems to see the role of Members of Parliament, his support of the political party system and his conviction of the need for a strong, decisive central executive to govern us and support (some) approved ‘localism’.

Take a look at his own constituency website. It is highly informative and clearly reflects his views on the importance of accountability. He tells his constituents what he is doing about things of local (constituency) interest, how he has voted on national matters and what speeches he has made. His account of the expenses he has claimed is impeccable and an admirable example of how a responsible person should behave in relation to the use of other people’s money. It also reflects the way in which he engages with his constituents on local matters, what is happening in the constituency and how the elected and appointed members of the local authorities are ‘getting on’ in their relationships with central government.

But it is also clear that, in no sense, does he see himself as a delegate for his constituents – particularly in respect of national matters. He does not seek to represent (or, one suspects, to establish) their views on topics such as our electoral system or the invasion of Iraq. He makes no secret of his own views and those of his political party (when it has them) and stands by them. But they are not  ‘the views of’ those who elect him. If his constituents do not like the consequences they can chuck him (and his party) out at the next election. That is how he thinks representative democracy should work and, in that sense, he is a child of those politicians in the eighteenth century who killed off the notion of MPs as delegates, cautioned against too much democracy and established a party based system with Parliament (not the people) as sovereign ruling over the rest of us not as citizens but as subjects.

 It is very surprising therefore that, in a paper published by the Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr) in mid 2006, it was Wills who floated the idea of introducing a large degree of deliberative democracy into our national affairs by the establishment of a fully elected constitutional convention ‘to heal the fractures in our politics’ and ‘to explore and decide on the measures needed to rejuvenate not just Parliament but our constitutional arrangements as a whole.’

That paper was titled A New Agenda: Labour and Democracy and seemed to represent, in essence, the thinking of a politician on how to do something for his nation and, at the same time, to advance the interests of his Party as the proper servant and leader of the nation.  The opening words were ‘This essay is a contribution to the debate about the Left’s future. It argues that the circumstances that have sustained Labour for so long are evaporating and that the Government requires radical renewal to win a fourth term. And it suggests a starting point for that long and difficult process.’

I do not know whether Wills wrote those things entirely off his own bat or whether there was another hand in it. I set out the salient features of his starting point (the constitutional convention) below. But I remark now that presenting an imaginative idea based on the notion of popular sovereignty as part of a ‘radical renewal’ to enable a Labour Government ‘to win a fourth term’ was a terrible blunder. It was likely to alienate the many people, to whom it could otherwise appeal, who would neither think of themselves as being ‘of the Left’ nor that ‘their’ constitution should be in the tactical hands of any political party. It made constitutional reform a party political issue inviting opposition by other parties ‘de rigeur’. And, most importantly, it made it almost impossible for politically unaligned organisations (including charities with money) to pick the idea up, develop it and generate both popular and cross party support for it. Wills did not seem to have grasped that there could be something deeply wrong, even offensive, with offering recognition of ‘our’ sovereignty to ‘us’ as an inducement to keep ‘his’ party in power.

Assuming that he was not simply advancing ‘a good wheeze’ for Labour, Wills may have thought it necessary and expedient to present his thinking in that ‘good for the Party’ way.  He knew that it would be viewed with suspicion both by those Labour MPs who liked the security that the current, increasingly discredited situation gives them – the Roy Hattersley tradition that dismissed Charter 88 as ‘wankers’ in 1988 (the phrase was ascribed to Neil Kinnock, who in fact signed the Charter when John Smith became leader, it was leaked by Hattersley). And by those supporters of New Labour who had embraced the determining use of focus groups.

It is interesting that Gordon Brown had already been talking openly about the need to examine our constitutional arrangements apparently without thinking it necessary to put them in the context of potential electoral advantage. That had given the impression at the time that, on such matters, Brown was standing ‘statesman like’ as a man of principle above narrow party politics. Fairly or unfairly, Brown’s motivation is now regarded with deep suspicion. Ironically, in his ippr paper Wills came close to saying that David Cameron would say or do anything to ‘get the Tories in’. Brown is now suspected of being prepared to say or do anything to keep them out. Either way the inference is that part of the reason that our democracy is in such a horrid state is that the political establishment (which Wills is about to leave) deals with us, ’we the people’, with disrespect and deep cynicism.

Wills’ ‘starting point’ was not incorporated in The Governance of Britain but the thinking behind it undoubtedly influenced some of that Green Paper’s content. What Wills had suggested was far too rich a fare to be adopted as this government’s policy particularly in so far as it could ‘put the skids under’ parliamentary sovereignty (in practice executive sovereignty), something that his new boss, Jack Straw, was known to value greatly. When asked whether the omission reflected a change of his own views Wills would say, with a slightly embarrassed smile. ‘things are different when you are in government’. Not a new discovery for him! He had held a number of junior ministerial positions in Blair’s administrations before resigning over a European issue.

 At the beginning of last year, when it was already crystal clear that the Governance of Britain initiative was in terminal difficulty, I was one amongst a number who were exploring ways (particularly involvement by unaligned outfits) to help Wills rescue something from the mess. This was a forlorn hope, far too late, associated with a wish to get something  ‘on the go’ using, experimentally,  forms of deliberative democracy to engage ordinary people in the formulation of  policy proposals.  ‘Values’ was the rather vague heading in which Wills was interested. The obvious difficulty was that, following the implosion of the banking system and worries that the UK was sliding into deep recession, it would be easy for the Government’s opponents to ask, with some justification,  ‘What on earth are they up to giving any priority to or spending any money on airy fairy things that have no relevance to current problems which threaten our economy and the welfare of the whole population?’

 In the course of my explorations, I had a ‘private’ discussion with someone who had been close to the Blair administrations and claimed to be on good terms with the new ‘people who matter in number 10’. I asked him if he had any idea how the land lay. Was Michael Wills in an isolated position? He told me, with conviction and emphasis ‘ I have talked with them. They do not like it. If Michael persists it could be the end of his political career’. I do not know who ‘they’ were but it was clear that Wills had been hoist on his own petard and that an approach to democratic renewal which he had advanced originally as attractive in electoral terms was now ‘off the table’ because others including, I suspect, unelected others saw the electoral situation quite differently.

I did not like the implications of what was going on and I could hear the ends and means justification -  ‘If we don’t win elections we can’t do the good things we want to do’. A slippery slope! And one which we have all helped to fashion! Wills soldiered on and in the spring of last year a consultation was announced with views  invited on the possible contents of legislation in the field of rights and responsibilities. All that was overtaken by the fall out from the parliamentary expenses scandal (rights and responsibilities!) and little has been heard of the matter since. In the autumn Wills told his constituents that he had decided to stand down as an MP.

What has happened to Michael Wills and what obstacles have been put in his way over the last 30 months is a matter of conjecture but a comparison between his proposed ‘starting point’ in his ippr paper of 2006 and his recent exposition of the Governments achievements in the field of constitutional reform  is suggestive and illuminating.

In 2006 he wrote

A moral community, rooted in loyalty and pride in our nation, is fundamental in building political consent to the pursuit of equity, But it is not sufficient. The political manifestation of that community, in our system of representative democracy, must also command the consent of voters. To do that, it must be sufficiently transparent and accountable to inspire trust that it is representative and democratic. Today, the disengagement and disillusion of voters suggests these qualities are inadequately present in our political system and there is a growing realisation among the political class that something must be done about it.


A one-off, fixed term, constitutional convention could be called, to be directly elected at the next General Election, to explore and decide on the measures needed to rejuvenate not just Parliament but our constitutional arrangements as a whole.

To avoid domination by the political class, only those who had never stood for Parliament could be eligible to stand as candidates...


The remit for the Convention could be to assess the state of the constitutional settlement and make proposals for change which would be ratified by a referendum to be held within three years of the Convention being elected.

And, perhaps most significantly

Its remit could include validating the rebalancing of the powers between executive and legislature previously carried out by Parliament or completing the process if Parliament had failed to do so, It could seek to reach resolution of the debate over electoral reform and include a decision on the merits of a written constitution. It could explore how both Houses of Parliament should be composed. It could address the delineation between central and local government and how local government should be funded.

It could explore the implications of devolution and what, if anything, remained to be done to complete the process and whether the position of England within the United Kindom should be changed, to reflect the changes to the positions of Scotland and Wales and potentially, Northern Ireland, and if so, how.

The final element for the Convention to consider in constructing a new constitutional settlement could be how best to empower people in decision-taking, without compromising the benefits of representative democracy.


And the Convention could examine the case for and against tackling the domination of the legislature by career politicians.

By contrast in his recent ‘swan song’ Wills says:

The Government’s programme of constitutional reform –  - - -  has been driven by two assumptions. First: in healthy societies power is never concentrated in the hands of a few but diffused as widely as possible – and flows freely. Society is diverse and complex – so too must be the distribution of power.

And second that the struggle can never cease – power always clusters, chemically, round the powerful. And it requires rigorous and vigorous activity to reverse this law of nature.


The imperative now is to engage the people of this country once more with their democracy.


The diffusion of power through devolution was driven in part by the need to enhance accountability in those areas. The Freedom of Information Act is an engine for the transparency which secures accountability. The Human Rights Act secures in this country the accountability of the state for protecting fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual.

Our plans in the next term to change the House of Lords into a democratically elected institution are driven by the need for the second chamber of the legislature to be accountable.

The imperative for greater transparency and so accountability are helping drive our debate on a new Bill of Rights and Responsibilities and beyond that the full codification of our constitution which the Prime Minister announced last week as integral to the next stage of our reform programme.

And the move towards a new system of voting with our proposals for a referendum on the alternative vote, are driven by the need to secure greater legitimacy for MPs, so that every MP is elected with the support, in some form or another in most cases, of at least 50% of voters, while maintaining the direct accountability of Mps to their constituents.


Passionate advocates of measures of direct democracy, including plebiscites, can sometimes sound as if passing contentious issues directly to the people for decision is an unarguable good. It isn’t. While they can have a place in our constitutional arrangement, they can also be a recipe for passing control of our democracy to the wealthy and powerful. Plebiscites do not offer adequate opportunity for deliberation of complex issues. - - - - -. However, we believe there are ways in which our historic system of representative democracy can be augmented without opening the door to plebiscitary democracy. To that end we are introducing new processes of democratic engagement. The British Statement of Values is emerging from a deliberative process.

The comparison speaks for itself. Some of what Wills is now saying is fair, some is disingenuous humbug and some is straightforwardly driven by political calculation. Surely, somewhere inside, part of him must have gagged when he was saying it, particularly in relation to those matters (electoral reform for example) which he had wanted his Convention to think about.

People rarely change their stance so fundamentally inside less than four years without pressure. In Wills’ case it may well be that he found himself caught between his own integrity and his loyalty to his Party and its leader.

I still think Michael Wills has all those attributes I described at the start. If so, his departure from Parliament will be a loss. Perhaps he will find a way of helping the rest of us, whatever our political allegiances, to put right a situation which he knows perfectly well has gone rotten to its core. Then what I have written will not be an epitaph it will be simply a very cautionary tale.

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