Power inquiry, public debate

Roger Scruton
6 March 2006

The report of the Power inquiry into the workings of Britain's political system is the latest attempt to come to terms with the clash between a post-modern society and a pre-modern constitution. The British settlement is founded on long-standing conventions that are seldom examined and which are, indeed, protected from examination by being deeply buried in political practice. The Power inquiry – whose commission, headed by Helena Kennedy and Ferdinand Mount, reported on 27 February 2006 – was established to hold this settlement to the light, in the belief that the political process has drifted beyond the horizon of popular interest, and that in consequence government is losing its legitimacy in the eyes of the people.

The Power inquiry, an independent investigation into the condition of democracy in Britain, was set up in 2004. The members of its commission (whose chair was Helena Kennedy and vice-chair Ferdinand Mount) hosted meetings around Britain and heard submissions from a wide variety of interest groups, professionals, and concerned citizens. The commission published its report on 27 February 2006:

For details of further events and to find out how to get involved, click here

For debate and dialogue on the commission's proposals, go to mySociety's new site, commentonpower.org

The English question

Constitutional reform has been a hallmark of the New Labour administration that has governed Britain since 1997. But the reform has been random, ill thought-out, and insensitive both to the history of the nation and to the aspirations of its living members. All in all, it seems to me, the New Labour reforms have increased the distance between government and people and thus done the opposite of what they proclaimed.

Two examples suffice to make the point:

  • to abolish the hereditary House of Lords, only to replace it with a second chamber consisting entirely of appointed cronies, is no advance when it comes to making up the democratic deficit. Indeed, New Labour's preference for a wholly appointed upper chamber makes the house a fiefdom of the political class; the hereditaries were the only class in the kingdom that were above the politicos – now the politicos are on top.
  • to install devolved assemblies in Scotland and Wales (and in Northern Ireland, only to then suspend the assembly under pressure of the continuing political tensions there), while permitting those who vote for them also to send representatives to the House of Commons, is to do nothing to reassure the English that they are still governed by themselves.

The second example, even though it is evaded by the Power inquiry (as by many similar reform efforts), is central to the argument for democracy. New Labour has trampled on the central icon of British identity, which is England – considered not merely as a geographical location but as a moral idea.

For a variety of reasons the Labour Party (in its "New" guise as in its "Old"), does not like that moral idea:

  • it does not resonate to the offices and dignities of the English crown
  • it does not see (as foreigners like Friedrich von Hayek have seen) that the English common law is a better answer to social conflict than the decrees of parliament
  • it has no feel for the English countryside, which it would like to obliterate with concrete
  • it does not want to retain England even as a cogent political geography, but prefers to balkanise the country through regional assemblies (so fulfilling the ambition of one of the European Union's chief architects, Jean Monnet, and removing the very name of England from the map).

Add to this the tendency to legislate on every conceivable issue, to the point of inventing 100 criminal offences a year during nine years of government, and it is hardly surprising if "we, the English" are fairly alienated from our government. At the same time, the gerrymandering of devolution makes it very difficult for us to eject from office a government which sits in Westminster despite the fact that a majority of English voters voted for the Conservative Party in the May 2005 election.

These, the reflections of a self-consciously English person, are only part of the story that people who seek a more democratic political settlement in Britain need to hear and discuss. For its own part, the Power inquiry is right to discern a wider sense of malaise in our society, and a broader alienation from the political process. It proposes as a remedy a series of "concordats", designed to limit the power of elites within parliament, within the nation and also (in the inscrutable bureaucracies of the European Union) outside the nation.

In his openDemocracy article, John Jackson rightly points out that a concordat is not likely to improve popular perception of the government's legitimacy if the people have no say in drafting it. As it is, the proposal seems to be from the same stable as New Labour's constitutional reforms – ideas that issue from the political class, imposed by the political class, for the benefit of the political class. And it is the rise of this political class that is, it seems to me, the principal cause of electoral disaffection.

Also in openDemocracy on the Power inquiry:

Ferdinand Mount, "The Power inquiry: making politics breathe" (February 2006)

John Jackson, "A democracy in trouble" (March 2006)

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Government by interest

A close study of the careers of current members of parliament reveals a rough division into two categories. On the one hand, there are people who have worked their way up through NGOs, quangos, local government and think-tanks. These tend to be Labour members. On the other hand there are management consultants, professional sitters-on-boards and public-relations lobbyists. These tend to be Conservatives. The lawyers, meanwhile, are represented in all three major parties. Then there is a smattering of people who have done what my father would have called an honest job of work. But very few such people have the time or energy required to enter politics; far easier to enter politics through one of those professions which have politics as their focus and their goal.

When these political professionals arrive in parliament it is with an agenda shaped by their previous careers. Labour members are responsive to NGO and activist groups; Conservatives are in the grip of corporate lobbyists and public-relations gurus. All of them see life and business in terms of the interests of very narrow and self-defined constituencies, which may have little or no relevance to the daily lives of ordinary people, or to those upon whom they impose their legislative decrees.

Take the case of the badgers. We know that the Labour Party is closely linked to the NGOs that "speak for" dumb animals (and indeed that it received £1 million from one of them, in return for a promise to ban fox-hunting). These NGOs have made the badger one of their sacred causes, and have used the Labour majority in parliament to prevent any attempt to cull the massively expanding and fatally diseased badger population in Britain. The cost of this is borne in the form of bovine TB by our farmers.

But the farmers have no voice, since no Labour-friendly NGO is speaking for them. Hence they weep and tear their hair in vain. NGOs are in a unique position, superior from the accountability point of view to that of corporations. For they need account to no one; indeed, if they speak for the animals, they can account to no one, since their constituents lie outside the reach of accountability, and they don't have shareholders.

This is an example – and an important one – of the way in which the political class places an impermeable screen between its activities and the people who must bear the cost of them. I won't discuss the Hunting Act (2004, effective from February 2005) since it is now proving to be unworkable and unenforceable, and has the merit of having occupied 220 hours of parliamentary time that would otherwise have been devoted to criminalizing approximately (at New Labour speed) forty other innocent things.

I don't imagine that things will be better under the Conservatives. The rise of the political class is an inevitable consequence of lobbying and pressure-group politics, and of the rewards available when parliament can assume the right to legislate in any matter that it should choose.

One reason why written constitutions are welcomed in modern conditions is that they seem to set limits to legislation, to withhold from the constant meddling of the political class substantial areas of civil life, which the members of that class cannot use their office to plunder. However, in very few cases are written constitutions really effective – even in the United States the rise of judicial activism has made the constitution indefinitely permeable to lobbyists. For written constitutions too depend upon unwritten conventions – for example, the convention, in the US context, of accepting the words of the constitution in the meaning intended by those who first wrote them down. That convention has been trampled on; indeed, it has been dismissed (e.g. by Ronald Dworkin) as incoherent – so leaving the constitution hostage to whatever power-group can seize control of the Supreme Court.

The answer, surely, is to raise public awareness of the need for limits to the political process. We must question the right of lobbyists to set the agenda of parliament, the right of parliament to legislate about anything that is put on the table, the right of the prime minister to conduct himself as though any convention, however venerable, can be instantly changed. (Remember how he woke up one morning with the thought that we don't need a lord chancellor, and immediately telephoned the press to announce this as a fait accompli?).

Thus I welcome the Power inquiry as opening up a much-needed debate (indeed, it is in itself a significant and large culture shift that the commission refers to power, not authority). But the debate has to go on in public, with politicians being compelled to take part in it; and on the public's terms, which politicians must be obliged to respect and respond to. Moreover, it should be clear from the debate's outset that the question is not just about the accountability of politicians for what they do, but about the need to limit what they can do. Only in this way can we ensure that it is the interest of the nation, and not the agenda of the lobbyists, that prevails.

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