Rip it up and start again
Our battered country sorely needs a moment of national healing. With excellent timing, Andy Murray offered us just that when he carried the Union flag ahead of the British Olympic team at the opening ceremony in Rio. We will all, apart from the most dead-headed separatist, feel tremendous pride in our athletes and wish them success. Many of us will enjoy a warm flush of patriotism — enough to override the acute political differences that have so shaken our faith in each other in recent times. We know without question that each individual in the team will do their best for the country.
The contrast with how we have come to view our politicians could not be plainer. The purity of the Games, what it says about the finer aspects of human spirit and motivation and grit and achievement, shows up the more corpulent and individualistic end of our public life — think, say, Boris Johnson. If we trust Murray and his fellow Olympians to give it their all, we don’t trust our politicians as far as the very short distance we could throw them. Instead, we see networks of elites across our national institutions that support and protect each other, in effect keeping the golden circle intact and the riffraff out.
To her credit, Theresa May has identified tackling this problem as one of the main challenges of her fledgling premiership. But she also faces an equally dangerous and complementary issue that is no less pernicious than this crisis of trust, and that threatens to make everything much, much worse before she has a chance to make it better — a failure of accountability.
The public wants to be in control of the country’s politics — or at least to have control closer to them than it has recently been perceived to be — which is what led to the Brexit vote. They were not happy that decisions on immigration, trade, economics, agriculture, fishing and much else were being taken in Brussels by people who did not naturally have and were not incentivised to have the interests of the British at heart. In some of these areas the Brexiters had a case in fact, and in all, even where the Leave campaign’s claims were exaggerated or straightforward lies, they were supported by perfectly legitimate political philosophy. Thus, control will be ‘brought home’ once the process of Brexit is completed.
The question then will be this: having repatriated political decision-making (as much as is possible in this inextricably globalised world), are our main democratic institutions fully fit to take those decisions in the interests of the country as a whole? If they have been so weakened by lack of power over past decades — if, as the Brexiters seem to see it, our politicians have been playing in the Sunday Leagues and are now being asked to start for, say, Chelsea — are they truly match-ready? Are they accountable to the people they serve or have they been fatally weakened? If the latter, what should be done?
At present, Mrs May can speak blithely about ensuring ‘the motives of the Government will never be in doubt’. I’m sure she genuinely means it. But it must be remembered that she governs with a majority that only just creeps into double figures. Her backbenches are full of Brexit-supporting, emboldened right-wingers with a long track record of hissy-fit rebellion. Her Cabinet contains a powerful cadre drawn from that same swaggering wing, and they are individuals whom we might generously call ‘temperamentally fragile’. The fact that there is no Opposition in the Commons worthy of the name will only harden their sense that they are the masters now. Give it six months, and the Prime Minister may have cause to regret ruling out until 2020 a general election that would give her a personal mandate.
As for that sorry excuse for an Opposition… anyone who watched Jeremy Corbyn debate his leadership challenger Owen Smith on Thursday night can be in no doubt about the direction in which Labour is headed — down, down, deeper and down, as Status Quo eloquently put it. Mr Corbyn will clearly keep his job — the party members who formed the audience cheered his every daft utterance and jeered Mr Smith when he raised the toxic anti-semitism that eats away at the party’s heart and attempted to explain politely why unilateral nuclear disarmament is a juvenile, dangerous and election-losing policy.
And so Labour will stagger on under the yoke of the hard Left, largely irrelevant to the parliamentary process, deservedly ridiculed or ignored by the electorate, bitterly divided against itself yet with neither side willing to break loose as they plummet towards a sticky end on hard ground. The party will be run the way Mr Corbyn explicitly wants it to be: for Labour members, affiliates, unions and European socialists, with the voters sitting precisely nowhere on that list. The work of Her Majesty’s Opposition will not go on.
The total collapse of the Lib Dems means that the third party in the Commons is one that gives not a stuff for 90 per cent of the British population. The SNP’s constitution commits it to ‘the restoration of Scottish national sovereignty by restoration of full powers to the Scottish Parliament, so that its authority is limited only by the sovereign power of the Scottish People’, and to ‘the furtherance of all Scottish interests.’ Fair enough — no one expects otherwise of them. But the Nats work to an agenda that explicitly is not about serving the interests of the British people as a whole.
Our politics is in the grip of sectional interests to a worrying extent. The Prime Minister attempts to deliver the manifesto of her predecessor, but on the sufferance of the wing of her party that was never reconciled to David Cameron’s moderate Conservatism and that has recently seen him off; the Labour Party is interested solely in internal procedures and romantic Leftist alliances; the third party wants only to break up the United Kingdom. It is not entirely clear that the best interests of the electorate are being served by any of this. The Commons displays all the maturity of playtime at a nursery. It is the low chamber.
Nor does the Upper Chamber offer much comfort in our hour of need. David Cameron’s resignation honours mark a new and cynical trough in the ‘rewards for flunkies’ process that always follows a PM’s departure. He has basically installed his closest friends in the Lords — whether these individuals will add to the effectiveness of the place or not, their newly-minted peerages should certainly make it easier to secure high-paying boardroom jobs outside of it. The fact that this insult was dealt by a traditionally minded Tory who well knows the value of institutions tells us something of the poor regard in which the Lords is now held.
I’m increasingly of the view that we have reached a moment in British politics where big, sweeping reforms are not just likely, but necessary. The 21st century has caught us out. The speed of global change, the great technological upheaval, the dramatic impact on the psychology and behaviour of voters, Brexit and Scottish exceptionalism — all demand a response of appropriate weight from the centre that acknowledges the heightened expectation of accountability but that is about more than trotting out a series of punishing and divisive referendums.
If it’s hard to know where to start, we could do worse than take a fresh look at Lords reform. I was once a fan of the wigs and tights and the rest of the historical apparatus, but today they serve largely to exclude and diminish. I was against an elected chamber because I felt the last thing we needed was more cheap politicking, especially in an institution that was supposed to be of independent mind and revise the doings of the Commons with wisdom and for the better. But time has moved on.
There is still plenty of merit that goes on in the Lords. Its debates often take place at a heightened intellectual level. Its committees are places where considered, unpressured thinking gets done. The crossbenchers, especially, bring phenomenal expertise in their professional areas.
But the good bits could all be protected while legitimate changes are made — and they are badly needed. As one peer tells me: ‘This has become a place for favours granted by prime ministers and opposition leaders. Too many people here make lots of money in business and then pursue the interests of those businesses in their Lords activity. Too many never show up, or very rarely — look at Marcia Williams, Harold Wilson’s chief aide and the original “lavender list” woman. She comes every Wednesday in her wheelchair, sits there for 15 minutes and then leaves. She has been a peer since 1976. She has never, not once, spoken in the chamber in 40 years.’ The figures back him up: Margaret Thatcher and Ted Heath created just 104 Tory life peers between them over their combined 15 years in Number 10. Tony Blair installed 162 Labour peers in his decade in power. David Cameron introduced 110 in just six years. It has become a house of cronies in an era that is intolerant of such stitch-ups.
So here’s a plan for change that could reinvigorate our democracy and inject some fresh accountability into the democratic bloodstream. Get rid of the remaining hereditaries. Introduce tougher attendance requirements and enforced retirement at, say, 80. End the process of PM patronage. Appoint peers via an independent panel for a maximum of three Commons cycles, so they have time to take the long view and have immunity from whips and leaders. Bring direct democracy to the Lords without added expense by introducing significant numbers of representatives from the UK’s various devolved bodies.
Of course, none of this would necessarily shake up the House next door. But it would show the electorate that British democracy is not frozen in some sort of Victorian aspic. It would tie the regional parliaments and assemblies into broader national decision-making. And it would help us manage more smoothly the seemingly inevitable constitutional transitions that await us in the future.
It may be that MPs will frustrate any meaningful reform of the Lords, as they have done in the past, worried about their own pre-eminence in our national affairs. But given the state of our democracy, I don’t think it can be argued any longer that they are doing us a favour.
This article appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on August 6, 2016