What's Cameron saying?

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
26 May 2009

I have a different take on David Cameron's speech to Iain Dale's celebration. He wants to modernise parliament but not really democratise it or our politics. There are some good ideas. Unlike Stuart White's otherwise excellent analysis of the Tory leaders 'populism' I think open primaries are much better than the closed system of selection we have - think Obama. But overall, there is not a chance that he is going to "give power to the powerless", his market model ensures otherwise. What is missing is any inclusion of deliberative institutions that really would be a check on Prime Ministerial dictatorship. No mention of an English Parliament (Iain himself excellent on this) or replacing the Lords (with either election or sortition) and a ludicrous caricature of PR. On one issue where he could have been decisive, fixed term parliaments, he equivocated. Iain greets the signs of movement as mana:

I am delighted that he has come round to the idea of Fixed Term Parliaments. In October 2007, together with several others, I set up the Fixed Term website as a reaction to Gordon Brown's dithering over calling an election. We put the case for fixed terms, and if this has been accepted by David Cameron, it's a real step forward. I remain of the view that it is totally improper for a Prime Minister to call an election at the time of his or her own political convenience.

I'm one of those "several". Indeed I am the site's facebook administrator along with Iain - who did totally all the work - and Stephen Tall. As you can see Cameron has not actually committed himself. He says he is worried about what happens with a hung parliament. But a few seconds research would have led him to the German model, where the term is fixed for four years unless a motion of no confidence is passed. This would take the decision out of the hands of the PM but allow parliament as a whole the flexibility to go to the voters in an impass.

The main thing I want to say about Iain's post however is that he should not go on about how hard reform is and how radicalism runs into the sands of procedure. Not unless you want it to, it doesn't. Blair's talk of the "forces of conservatism" was blather. This is what Iain worries about:

Can you imagine how difficult the crusty clerks in the House of Commons will make it for him? They will resist any change to their centuries old traditions and find 20 good reasons why something cannot be changed. So will the whips. So will the civil service. So make no mistake, David Cameron will have a fight on his hands if he is really determined to effect such radical changes.

I recall how Robert Hazell of the Constitution Unit went on about how long Labour's legislation on a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly would take, not to speak of the Human Rights Act, etc. Derry Irvine just blasted it through. A clear aim, a bit of a bully, and those traditions and clerks prove to be smoke without mirrors. You could not have found an expert in the land who would have said that Labour could have passed the amount of very far-reaching constitutional reforms it pushed through in its first term. What matters is the will to change. That's why Cameron's careful let-out clauses speak louder to me than the fine words. 


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