Thursday, September 16, 2004

They need lessons in politics

Specifically, they need lessons in British Constitution. No, I am not talking about our unfortunate schoolchildren, who have, for generations, had politicians and officials experimenting on them. We have reached a stage when if any of them manage to be educated it is a miracle.

The people who need lessons in constitutional democracy and the British Constitution are our politicians. Their inability to understand the importance of the proposed EU Constitution is rooted in their ignorance of the British one.

Yesterday we reached what may have been a nadir in modern British politics, at least as far as the politicians are concerned. I consider the fact that the people of this country are ready to revert to their normal pre-Peelite behaviour quite a healthy development.

I shall not rehearse all the arguments about fox-hunting (or hare coursing, or beagling or any such thing). Our British readers are undoubtedly bored with the whole subject and our overseas readers probably find it hard to understand what this is all about.

What I want to look at in this blog is the constitutional implications and the inescapable conclusion that we are governed by people who have not the first idea of what they are supposed to be doing. In the circumstances, it is not really surprising that they cannot understand the implications of our EU membership or the added danger that Constitution poses.

Yesterday the House of Commons took the unusual step of passing a particular bill in one day. Normally, the various stages: First Reading, a formality; Second Reading, the substantive but general discussion; Committee and Report, both for amendments; and Third Reading take weeks, if not months, though in recent years the Commons have done very little close scrutiny of government legislation, leaving the hard work to the unelected and unpaid House of Lords.

There are provisions in the Constitution for emergency debates, when a Bill can pass through either House or, even both, in one day. This is the sort of legislation one has to do if there is threat of war, terrorist attack or possible nuclear attack. So, one might inquire, was there a threat of nuclear war or a terrorist attack on London yesterday? Errrr, no. The unusual emergency measure debated in such exceptional circumstances was the banning of hunting with dogs.

The Bill has now gone to the House of Lords, who have on several previous occasions interpreted the general mood of the country better than the MPs and threw the Bill out. If they do so again, they will be forced to comply through another exceptional measure: the Parliament Act, a specious and probably illegal piece of legislation that had been given the Royal Assent without the House of Lords passing it.

All this extraordinary flouting of normal Constitutional behaviour simply to pass a piece of unpleasant and oppressive piece of legislation, that is of very little importance to ninety per cent of the country. The politicians, particularly Labour MPs are showing themselves to be ignorant and, worse, too frivolous to be entrusted with anything more serious than a yo-yo.

What lies behind it is an ignorant misunderstanding of the intricate pattern that is the British Constitution that relies on checks and balances, some written, some not and, essentially, is a rule by an elected government with the consent of those who did not vote for it as well. The government, however, is or ought to be, constrained by the two Houses of Parliament and legal decisions. Unfortunately, this difficult and carefully balanced system relies on the understanding and good will of the ruling party in the Lower House, since it is they who form the government.

The most immediate problem we have with politicians and, one must admit, the media and the electorate, is the assumption that democracy means simply elections. An elected government, on this assumption, can do anything it likes to whom it likes and nobody can gainsay it. The twentieth century saw plenty of bloodthirsty dictatorships that were allegedly brought to power through the ballot box but it was never considered that these were democratic governments. Yet the logic of anything is allowed if you have had a sufficient number of votes cast in your favour leads to one-party dictatorships spiced with periodic elections.

Tony Blair may not have been particularly keen on the hunt ban (more for political than constitutional reasons) but he, too, seems to be oblivious to the whole constitutional structure of this country, that has evolved over centuries. How else can one explain his propensity for taking out the odd brick here and there and chucking it away without bothering to find out how that affects the whole building?

Nothing can rival the destructive frivolity of politicians who can use exceptional measures to pass a narrow-minded, vicious, oppressive Bill. The procedure makes a mockery of parliamentary government, constitutional democracy and any understanding of justice and liberty. What makes it even worse is the clear display of incomprehension on the part of the ruling majority in the Commons. We were elected, they say, and we have every right to do this.

This, in a way, is the best argument we have for a referendum on the EU Constitution, though it is not the most attractive prospect, especially when one thinks of the shenanigans that await us on the way to that event. We cannot possibly agree with the argument that in a representative democracy Parliament should be the body that takes decisions of this kind. When the elected members of Parliament show themselves to be so ignorant and so uncaring of the great constitutional tradition they have inherited, they cannot be trusted with decisions that crucially affect the country’s future.

We have to go further than this. It is no longer possible to rely on the intricate and delicate structure that is the British Constitution, because its guardians do not understand it and do not want to. We have no checks and balances in this country; we have no Supreme Court that can control the Executive; and we have lost the Bill of Rights, passed in 1689. When we finally extricate ourselves from the mess that is the European Union, we shall have to rectify much of this. As a minimum, we shall need a new Bill of Rights. And, maybe, we shall have to think of one single Constitution, that, in a few articles, limits the powers of the government, sets up checks and balances and ensures that in the future oppressive measures cannot be passed so lightly and frivolously.

Luckily, we do not have to look far for a model. The United States Constitution formalized what the Founding Fathers saw as the best of British political thought and theory. We could do worse than study it and the debates that surrounded its writing and passing, in preparation for the day when we shall once again be able to decide our own political and constitutional future.

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