Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The modernizers' champion

Bombs may come, bombs may go but the Conservative Party leadership elections trundles on with the relentlessness of a determined snail.

Today it was once again the turn of David Cameron, the darling of the modernizers, to come up with what are laughingly known as ideas. He spoke at the Carlton Club and proclaimed the need for constitutional reform, in order to win back the alienated electorate.

The public, in his opinion, viewed all politicians as being the same because the parliamentarians had lost so much power to the government. Indeed, both of those statements are true. I, for one, find it hard to tell a Conservative modernizer apart from an old-fashioned Labour socialist quite often, but maybe a constitutional reform will sort my problem out.

So what are these reforms:

The first is a fixed term parliament so it is not left to the prime minister to decide when to call an election. A reasonable point, though I cannot see that it makes much difference one way or another.

“The failure to scrutinise laws effectively, the power of the whips and patronage, a second chamber, which performs well in so many ways, but which has been left in limbo and the unchecked growth of government by bureaucrats - in Britain and in Brussels.”
A little more detail might be in order and the answer he provides, select committees chosen by members rather than whips is not exactly going to set the electorate’s pulse racing. It is such a niggling little suggestion, as is his other one for cross-party alliances.

There is nothing in the British constitution that prevents cross-party alliances, which existed for centuries until the parties became more set institutions in the second half of the nineteenth century. No reform is needed to restore that situation if it keeps Mr Cameron happy but I would like to hear him trying to explain it on the doorsteps of his constituency.

According to the BBC website he called
“… for the dilution of government control of the Commons timetable, limits on the numbers of bills that can be introduced and restrictions on numbers of ministers and special advisers.

He is also pushing for "sunset clauses" which would mean new laws and regulations automatically have to be revisited after fixed periods of time.”
None of this is constitutional. It is all procedural. If the MPs want to introduce all these ideas, they can do so at any time by some very straightforward legislation.

There is nothing in the British constitution that gives the government unlimited time to introduce unlimited number of Bills. Neither is there anything that can stop them doing it.

Then he got to the nub of the real constitutional problem as he saw it: the House of Lords. It must be elected because, although, he said rather superciliously, the life and remaining hereditary peers have made an “invaluable contribution” to politics,
“… real legitimacy in politics flows from elections, and we in the Conservative Party must make clear our commitment to a majority elected house.”
Says who? Real legitimacy stems from doing one’s constitutional duty, which in the case of the legislature is to legislate carefully and meticulously and to hold the executive to account.

On all those counts the House of Lords, unelected though it is, has done far better work than the apparently “legitimate” elected, though on an ever smaller vote, House of Commons.

Since this is the only real proposal for a constitutional reform, one would like to hear some details (at present in the development stage, one assumes).

How would the peers be elected? On the same basis as the Commons? Then what is there to stop the second chamber simply replicating the problems of the first and become enmeshed completely in party politics? What is to happen to the cross-bench peers and how are we to ensure that the present independence is maintained? Through those rather inadequate suggestions Mr Cameron makes for the House of Commons?

If not on the same basis as the Commons then how will the House of Lords be elected?

What of payment? At present the peers receive expenses only. If they are elected they will have to have the same not ungenerous salaries and expenses that the MPs get.

And, of course, they will no longer consider themselves to be a revising chamber only but will demand the same rights in parliament as the Commons have. Governments can say good-bye to one of their much favoured method of legislation: the Parliament Act.

Above all, is this really the most important issue that this country faces on the constitutional front?

Although there is a brief mention of the bureaucrats of Brussels, there seems to be a certain absence of the “E” word. Would it be too much to expect a man who wants to be Leader of the Opposition to refer to the fact that, according to the government, 50 per cent of our major legislation and 80 per cent of the total comes from Brussels and the Westminster Parliament has no right to reject any of it?

Indeed, most of it does not even come before their eyes, as it is introduced through secondary legislation (not mentioned either) or implemented by such bodies as the Food Standards Agency that is accountable to nobody.

Am I missing something here? To me the concept of legislation coming from Brussels and being superior to the British one is very clear. Why do our politicians find it difficult to grasp it?

Have they really not heard of the European Communities Act 1972 with all its amendments?

How does Mr Cameron think Parliament will be brought back to the centre of political life if it legislates in ever fewer spheres of that political life and cannot reject laws and regulations imposed on it by a completely separate body?

And why does he think that anybody should take him and his political, since they are not really constitutional, ideas seriously if he cannot quite bring himself to discuss the central crucial constitutional problem: that to all intents and purposes this is not an independent country any more?

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