The Conservative Party leader David Cameron has today published in the Guardian the text of a speech in which he outlines a programme of constitutional reform. What he says is interesting, but shouldn’t be taken too seriously. We mustn’t forget that David Cameron is no political thinker. He is and has always been a political operator. He is the type of individual we need less of in Parliament. Still we must make do with what we have, and maybe he can serve an important purpose. Certainly he may have jumped on the right bandwagon. Labour, having promised constitutional reform to appeal to their less tribally-committed supporters over the years, have as far as Westminster is concerned signally failed to deliver. Indeed it is practically (and may effectively turn out to be so) criminal that the government has not transferred many of the systems trialled in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly (proportional representation, powerful and independent committees, transparent expense arrangements, to name but a few) to Westminster. It is probably too late to claim the initiative back on these issues, and so we have the strange sight of the Conservatives leading on them.
Positive, not negative freedom
Cameron’s exposition is unsurprisingly incoherent. ‘This wouldn’t be so bad if the powerful simply left the powerless to get on with their lives.’ he says. This is a bald statement of the true Conservative ideology of ‘negative freedom’: ‘freedom from’ rather than ‘freedom to’. It is and has always been the wrong sort of freedom to focus on. The powerful are only so because they exert their power on the powerless. In doing so they always further diminish the power of others. Negative freedom is always unsustainable. Only positive freedom: ‘freedom to’; is meaningful. Thus Cameron extols the virtues of private enterprise. No redistribution of power, no transparency is apparently required for businesses or banks. There are no lessons for the Conservatives from the economic crisis.
Culture change is needed
David Cameron wishes to transfer power ‘from the state to the citizens; from the government to parliament; from Whitehall to communities; from the EU to Britain; from judges to the people; from bureaucracy to democracy.’ We must be clear that this is not a natural Conservative position: Margaret Thatcher’s government was responsible for much movement in the opposite direction; Anthony Steen and other back-bench relics tell us something about the Tory default position; Cameron and his shadow cabinet do not hesitate to hold the government responsible for anything that goes wrong on its watch. This is all going to have to change if Cameron is serious. And it will be hard because there is now a vicious relationship between politicians, the media and public expression of opinion in the dealing of anything that ‘goes wrong’ in any sphere of public life. The focus is always on individual figureheads and scapegoats, in an upward pathway that inevitably leads to the government. When individuals are ascribed such responsibility as a matter of course they feel they must take the power to match. When Ed Balls, the relevant Cabinet Minister in the Baby Peter case, had to deal with the fall-out his reaction was not to devolve more power to Haringey local authority and its voters, but to himself ensure the immediate sacking of the Director of Childrens’ Services and to look to introduce more, not less oversight of child protection procedures. Are we to believe that a Tory minister would have reacted differently in the current political climate? To change this pattern, irrespective of whatever party is in power, requires a massive cultural shift in the way not just politicians behave, but in the way the media and even the way that we, the voters, react when bad things happen.
Converted to devolution?
Cameron doesn’t really understand why some decisions are taken at higher levels. This is illustrated in his example of ‘some distant regional government decision to dump thousand of new homes in your town without any thought about the impact on traffic, public services and the character of your community…’. This is any case a straw man – it is the fact that such issues are indeed endlessly debated that annoys supermarkets! But in any case, the problem is that if such decisions are solely in the hands of local areas the probability is that no new homes are built. It is only in the wider context that such allocation can take place most fairly and efficiently for everyone. To determine which decisions should be taken where demands careful analysis, not political opportunism.
David Cameron wants to return power to local councils. We should remember that the removal of power from councils was a major Tory agenda under Thatcher. Why? Because too many of them were behaving in ways she didn’t like. Are we seriously to believe that a future Conservative government will accept whatever decisions that come from local government in the future? Thatcher may have had some justification in believing that local government lacked an adequate democratic basis. But did she take steps to improve public engagement with local government and introduce fair (i.e.: proportionally representative) voting systems? No, she did not. Cameron is right to demand more information on government activities and influence for individual citizens and Members of Parliament. Why is this on his agenda only now? It is because he knows all the major parties risk losing their power in the wake of the expenses revelations. Labour started off on the right foot with this agenda when they set up the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assemblies. They have stumbled since. Don’t forget the Conservatives bitterly opposed even this start. What credibility should they be given now?
PR must come first
In rejecting proportional representation for the Westminster parliament, but suggesting fixed terms, Cameron has got the cart before the horse. Whether parliaments have fixed terms or not is a relatively minor issue compared to that of how parliaments are elected. And the idea of a fixed-term legislature in which the make-up of the members bears little relationship to the voting proportions is surely particularly worrying. Cameron’s argument against proportional representation (PR) is poor. He knows that a Conservative government is very unlikely under proportional representation. That is why he is against it. The ‘secret backroom deals’ he warns of in his article are no more an integral part of PR as of any other electoral system. They are however an integral part of our current party political and government system. The germ of truth that lies behind this over-used objection is that PR is less likely to produce an outright majority for one or another political party, and so makes coalition or minority government more likely. But this achieves precisely what we (and ostensibly Cameron) want, which is to transfer power from the government (formed by one party) to Parliament (containing the voices of several parties and occasionally none in the case of independents). Frankly, without some from of PR, all other reforms will fail or even make things worse.
Same old Tories
And of course the EU, the European Court of Human Rights and quangos get their turn. What is it about the Tories and the EU? And what is their problem with human rights? The confined nature of the modern world means we cannot adopt an isolationist view either at the European or the human level. Any unilateral withdrawal from the EU or the declaration of human rights is frankly absurd. Only greater engagement, not less, with these institutions can shape them for the better. Many quangos were set up to in the Thatcher era to take power away from local councils. Their abolition must therefore mean power returning to councils and allowing them to work together in new ways. This will be something very difficult for a one-party central government to stomach. Again we must remember that a lot of the other suggestions Cameron makes here were built into the setting-up of the devolved governments of Scotland and Wales. Which party was the sole objector to this devolution? The Conservatives.
The concrete proposals he makes for opening up parliament and government owe a lot to work done in setting up the Scottish Parliament in particular. The Conservatives took zero interest in that. As to open primaries, and opening up Conservative candidacy to those who have not previously been involved in politics, this might produce some interesting results in the short-run. I think the chances of anyone ending up as an MP because of it must be fairly unlikely. Cameron must know that were this to be the way things worked in general, it would be the end of the party system. Why would the Conservative party arrange a process in which their members neither decided who became the candidate, nor could be sure that the chosen candidate would be a member of the party? There is little evidence of coherent thought going on here.