Monday, 13 January 2014

I Come not to Destroy the Constitution but to Restore it

A constitution is like a fireplace. It must give sufficient heat to counter the cold winds of outside, while stopping the flames from engulfing those huddled round for warmth. For the first 600 years of British mixed government, from 1215 to 1810, the fire of executive power was provided by monarchs, who performed as well as you would expect from those chosen by hereditary lottery. The genius of the system was strongest in the nineteenth century when men of talent were enabled to assume command but, crucially, were held in check by the roughly one third of MPs who were independent of party affiliation. Parliament was a genuine debating chamber which passed legislation that had been shown through argument to be necessary and governments which ran out of ideas, or had the wrong ones, were instantly booted out. The proof of this success lies in the fact that the scope and competence of government increased markedly in this period, while its cost relative to GDP did not.

This system became corrupted in the twentieth century as the Independents disappeared and politics completed its transformation from a service to a profession. To exercise choice over the executive voters had to cast their ballots for a representative chosen by the party they wanted to govern. The MPs so chosen learned that loyalty to party interest is a currency with which to buy advancement. Parliament became the servile, bottomless purse of Charles I’s wet dreams, as whichever party found itself in power was given carte blanche to pass vainglorious schemes of national improvement without hesitation or scrutiny. Local and Municipal Government was diminished in every respect except the salaries of its principals. Prime Ministers ascended to their office not by presenting us, the people, with a compelling vision of the future, but up one of two greasy poles in Westminster back rooms marked 'Labour' and 'Conservative'.

Three simple changes would end this corruption and make our constitution the glorious hearth it once was and could be again. The first is direct election of the Prime Minister. Executive power affects us all equally, we deserve an equal say in who wields it. The second is a name-only ballot for in general elections. Prospective MPs may choose to call themselves 'Conservative', 'Labour' or 'Monster Raving Loony', that is their right, but in the polling station we choose a person to represent us and defend our interests, not a party. The third concerns the House of Lords, which should play the most important role of all: ensuring that central government doesn't assume control over decisions better made closer to the people they affect. To achieve this the Lords should be the appointed representatives of Local Authorities. Superficially, an appointed House of Lords appears less democratic than an elected one, but by ensuring power resided locally, rather than in Westminster, democracy would be stronger not weaker.

Britain was untouched by the revolutions that swept through Europe in the nineteenth century because, to a far greater degree than was common elsewhere, ordinary people had a say in how their country was run. As we head into a century of scarcer resources and higher food prices we urgently need to reclaim that right.

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