Thursday, 21 May 2009

What would Bagehot say? Forward to the past

The expenses scandal may be a constitutional crisis. But it's a crisis in what is now, sadly, the relatively unimportant part of our constitution. The really serious crisis - to do with the bit where the power is - was thrown into stark and horrible relief earlier this year as a consequence of the McBride affair. Happily, the pressure now building for parliamentary reform - if properly directed - gives us a wonderful and very rare opportunity to rectify this more serious constitutional problem. How? Well, Bagehot helps explain.

Walter Bagehot, a 19th century journalist*, is probably Britain's best known constitutional theorist (in a not very crowded field). His best known idea was his distinction between a 'dignified' and an 'efficient' part of the English Constitution (as he termed it), the former being the monarchy, the latter the Cabinet, which was appointed by and reliant on Parliament.

The monarchy provided a unifying focus for loyalty through its traditions, air of mysticality and eye-catching ceremonial. This allowed the proper, dirty and divisive business of government to carry on effectively and peacefully, rarely opening up divisions that couldn't be civilly managed. The Commons being a genuinely representative assembly with the ability to quiz, investigate and debate the matters of the day meant decisions were well-made, robust and broadly reflective of the will of its electorate (being the 'public' rather than the 'people' in those days of limited franchise).

Richard Crossman, Labour intellectual, Wilson-era minister, and Wykehamist bully wrote the introduction to the 1963 edition of the English Constitution. He foresaw the 'dignified' vs 'efficient' dividing line as soon to be drawn between Prime Minister and the rest - Cabinet and Parliament - with the last providing an engaging bit of knock-about debate that was sometimes entertaining but almost always inconsequential.

This charade would provide the electorate with the illusion that the people they voted for ran the country and did so in a constant state of parliamentary struggle with the class enemy. The reality was that a party leader, surrounded by a small cabal drawn loosely from the ruling party, would run everything; the rest, a side-show.

So where are we now, after the series of farces and traumas that have enlivened our year? Crossman's projections have come to pass, at least for most of the time. Thatcher's later years put the seal on that. Indeed, this year the 'efficient' part of the Constitution has been conclusively revealed to reside in about two or three smallish offices in 10 Downing Street, as overseen by the Bulbous Marauder and his henchmen. That makes the rest of it, in Bagehot's terminology 'dignified'. This word for reasons that are obvious will no longer do: 'decadent' is better (monarchy excluded, ma'am).

It should be evident that this state of affairs - a species of elective monarchy - is not actually democratic in process. It militates against serious, genuine and open debate, meaning it's not conducive to the production of sensible and robust decisions. In short: it's a poor means of governance.

The MP's expenses scandal, then, is not a symptom of corruption at the heart of government, in the part of the Constitution that wields the power. So it's serious but only incidentally. There's a more serious issue to be resolved as should be evident. We experience government by cabal - we've got it right now and may have it again in the future - and we're fortunate that this has now been clearly revealed for all to see. To paraphrase Bagehot, daylight has been let in upon the black magic.

So the expenses scandal has come at a propitious time. It has - and this is potentially of the highest importance - opened up the path to reform, and a potential end to the unhealthy twisting of the Constitution and the capture of its power by a secretive and underhand clique. As Rahm Emmanuel, Obama's Chief of Staff, noted in a dictum that has already established itself in the dictionary of political quotations: 'you never want a serious crisis to go to waste'.

So what do we do? I think representative democracy as Bagehot knew it - even as Crossman knew it - is dead. The political party is not a vehicle to organise the interests of MPs and by extension that of their constituents; it's more the patron of MPs, to all practical purposes their employer. So most MPs are become a cadre who, rather than representing our interests to government, end up representing their party's interests to us. Only by yanking this relationship back around will we return to a form of democracy that could be described as truly representative. So open primaries, recall ballots and any other ideas that put the whip hand more firmly with the voter would make sense.

And how do we ensure a well-informed electorate and one which can clearly monitor the behaviour of its elected representatives? Openness and transparency. Publish everything and let the journalists, bloggers and citizens crawl all over it extracting the good and the bad and then shouting all about it (mostly electronically of course).

With MPs well and truly oriented towards their electorate we can also start moving power back to the Commons. Select Committee members and chairmen need to be appointed on a basis that cannot be nobbled by the whips: appointment by free vote, seniority and random lottery need to be investigated. The Speaker's power should be beefed up and more clearly codified so that he has more influence in ensuring the executive is held to account. Term limits - on MPs and/or ministers - could be imposed to discourage politics becoming a profession and to encourage independence of mind.

What would we aim to have at the end of this radical process of reform? Well, we'd hope to return to the 'efficient' part of the Constitution being Parliament, an assembly in attentive and dynamic dialogue with the people. The 'dignified' role (having lost all vestiges of decadence) would once again be vested solely in the monarchy. That's the sort of radical reform we should aim for: one that is actually a restoration. In fact, restoration to a form that Bagehot would find familiar.

*It seems appropriate that he should be a journalist rather than an academic or jurist. Gifted amateurs have often done rather well in the rambling ecology of Britain.


Kevin Musgrove said...

Given that the fourth estate is as much a party to this decline as the other three I suspect that you're being extremely optimistic. In my experience increased "openness" and "accountability" would just mean more time and resources wasted on paperchases and box-tickings by staff who'd much rather be getting on with the business of providing services to the public. Meanwhile the cabals would carry on with business as usual and the conscientious journos will be in the dole queue because their editors are Googling up such copy as fits with the day's suite of straw men and bugalugs.

Gadjo Dilo said...

Fascinating stuff, and for the moment it's delaying my re-ordering of The Guardian Weekly. Jounalists (mainly of the red-top variety) have surely done as much as politicians in persuading Britons that responsibility and thoughfulness are optional virtues.

David Cohen said...

You do realize you've just invented the United States, right?

Gaw said...

I'm not so sure about the fault of journalists. I think they follow public opinion more than lead it to a greater extent than thought.

David, I think we could absorb many features of US politics with some benefit, particularly in relation to the local and grass roots level. However, I do think it's more corrupted by money than our set up. The big (and remaining) difference of course is our 'confusion of powers' vs the US's 'separation of powers'. A directly elected president is something I'd rather not have over here.