Tag Archives: constitutional-reform

The Steel Convention has no place in modern politics

I’ve had enough articles published in newspapers now to know that you can’t blame the author for the often shockingly misleading titles that appear above their articles, so I will give Lord Steel the benefit of the doubt and assume that he is not so disingenuous as to actually baldly state that “The Lords needs reforming now, not in 2025“. The article beneath the headline is a bit better. But only a bit.

Where does one start? Well first of all, if he is serious about his package of interim reforms, then the simple answer is to put them into the Lords reform bill and ensure it gets passed without delay. Yet for some bizarre reason he points this as an either or option: either we make some incredibly minor changes in the short term or we focus on reform for the long term. This is an entirely false distinction. What’s more, the Lords only started talking about these piecemeal reforms once they had realised that the electoral reformers weren’t going anywhere.

To offer dire warnings of the cost of an elected second chamber while demanding pensions and increased remuneration for unelected peers is a particularly audacious claim, but not the only one. Of equal status is the demand for an “independent” appointments commission. This commission would indeed be independent – of everyone – except for the House of Lords itself which would then exist in a state of permanent self-perpetuity. One of the main reasons for having elected members of the second chamber is to get away from the idea that the only people suitable are the usual clubbable suspects: here Steel is claiming we should take the status quo a step further.

It is remarkable to read a former member of the Scottish Parliament (which uses the Additional Member System) issuing non-specific yet dire warnings about what might happen if we have “elected senators (with a 15-year tenure as proposed), possibly of different political parties, wandering about their constituencies claiming, correctly, that they too have a mandate.” Strangely, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland somehow manage to struggle on in such circumstances – as indeed do parish, county and district councillors (not to mention MEPs).

The old canard about the House of Lords challenging the “primacy” of the House of Commons should also be put to rest. What on earth is wrong with a bit of competition? Is Steel really suggesting that it would be a bad thing if the Lords were seen to be doing a better job at representing people than the Commons? That we should stick with mediocrity because it might force MPs to raise their game? Linked to this is his deliberate obfuscation between the concepts of “powers” and “conventions”. The debate over what powers the second chamber should have has been settled: essentially it should have the same powers it has at the moment. And yes, the Cunningham Report did indeed say that a change in the Lords’ composition would mean that the conventions too would need to be rewritten, but those are two entirely different things.

The Parliament Acts limit what powers the Lords have in terms of delaying and rejecting legislation, but the Salisbury Convention has – until recently at any rate – held the Lords back from using those powers in full under normal circumstances. Will we need a new set of conventions if the second chamber were to be elected? Of course. But then, as I pointed out last week, with governments elected with 36% of the vote and now a coalition government, we urgently need to tear up the existing ones and start again in any case. This isn’t a problem that magically disappears if Lord Steel has his way and gets to kick elected second chamber proposals into the long grass.

To make things worse, Steel himself admits that the current Lords is pretty much a law unto itself. In the final paragraph, he makes the oblique threat that “the risk the coalition now faces is that its plans will get bogged down in endless argument in both houses, clogging up valuable parliamentary time.” Or, to put it another way: “nice legislative programme you’ve got there; it would be a shame if something was to happen to it…”

Perhaps he could tell us: what is the name of this “convention” that dictates that the Lords gets to derail a government’s legislative programme whenever its future is open to question? In what way is this form of blackmail in any way defensible? Perhaps we should name it the Steel Convention?

I could go on but really: why waste my time? This isn’t an intellectual argument being offered, but a threat. It will be a test of the coalition – and of the leader of the opposition – to see how they respond.

Is thwarting the will of the Lords really “unconstitutional”?

The Times poll today showing that the majority of peers are not only opposed to Lords reform but feel it would be “unconstitutional” to proceed without their blessing begs an important question: in a country without a codified constitution, what on earth is “constitutional” anyway?

Where the peers may have a point is that when the courts looked at the Parliament Act’s applicability with regard to the Hunting Act in 2005, there was a suggestion by some Law Lords that judges might be able to strike down attempts to use the Parliament Act to affect constitutional changes. Of course, this has not been tested, but it is at least contestable and it is just conceivable that the Law Lords might come down hard on any attempt to use the Parliament Act to force through an elected second chamber.

Yet while the use of the Parliament Act may be considered illegal, it could equally be argued that for the Lords to block reform, and thus make the use of the Parliament Act necessary, could only be done by steamrollering over the conventions which have allowed the House of Lords to stay its execution for the past 60 years. The Salisbury Convention was introduced specifically to prevent the unelected Lords thwarting the will of an elected Commons. Its precise formulation has come under strain with the advent of governments being formed with just 36% of the vote – and let’s not get started on how it should work with a coalition government. Despite this, nobody has contested the basic underlying principle at its core: public will, as expressed through the ballot box via the party system and the House of Commons, should always win out.

It is with this in mind that I feel the need to point out that all three major parties fought the last election with a specific manifesto commitment to reform the Lords. It would be an absolute scandal for the Lords to presume to exercise a veto, akin to the worst examples of clericocracy that we are all too ready to condemn when it happens in Iran. By all means let’s see the Lords doing their job and scrutinising the legislation with a fine tooth comb, but blocking it outright should be considered out of bounds.

All three party leaders should come down on this, and hard. Anyone else wondering why they haven’t done so already?

UPDATE: I’ve written a piece on Comment is Free, building on this.

You might also be interested in Mark Pack’s article about dissolution honours on Left Foot Forward.

And finally, I should have urged everyone to sign Unlock Democracy’s petition on reforming the House of Lords.

If you’re not cop, you’re little people.

With the Convention on Modern Liberty now less than a week away, the Sunday papers have been filled with revelations about MP’s making extraordinary claims on their Additional Costs Allowance. I can’t help but feel the two are inextricably linked.

I’ve spent pretty much my whole career defending politicians – first as a paid party organiser and, more recently, working for a cross-party pressure group. I still believe in representative democracy (although I’m aware it has its limitations), I still believe that political parties are necessary (ditto). I defend the right of MPs to draw out of pocket expenses (indeed many ‘expenses’ are in fact office costs); I would even defend ministers having access to the car pool. But I find it extraordinary at how the political class, as a whole, seems to go out of its way to render itself indefensible (and while there are plenty of honorable exceptions, it does appear to be the class as a whole – why else is it that when we hear about the latest scandals about a few bad apples, no action seems to get taken?). The key question is why?

The main problem appears to be a total disconnect with the public. Has this always been the case? I think it probably has, but as the age of deference has come to an end, politicians have only discovered the values in mouthing platitudes about being the servants of the people. Making the actual changes necessary to make it a reality still escapes them.

So it is that Michael Ancram, the 13th Marquess of Lothian and Earl of Ancram, can claim that painting his mansion is “an additional expense which wouldn’t normally occur” if he wasn’t an MP and keep a completely straight face (my other favourite line is ‘He said he was “very careful” and had always taken “satisfaction” in not claiming all his expenses.’ – as if it is okay to fiddle expenses so long as you do it slightly less than somebody else). So it is that Jacqui Smith can max out her expenses paying for her sisters home and be completely nonplussed over what everyone is so annoyed at her for.

The most outrageous thing about the ongoing scandals over Additional Costs Allowance is that the solution is not only simple, but largely government policy. We already operate a scheme whereby ‘key workers’ such as nurses can have a proportion of their new homes bought by the government so that they can afford to live in areas where they are needed but property prices are sky high. When they sell up, the taxpayer gets the equity back (and makes a tidy sum if the property doubles in value). There is nothing – absolutely nothing – to stop MPs from operating a simily equity scheme. Indeed it was actually suggested by a number of MPs as part of a review run by the Speaker last year. Yet the suggestion was rejected out of hand. What possible reason did they have for doing that, other than simple greed (if MPs think they should be better paid and that in lieu of that fiddling expenses is adequate compensation, then let them say so)?

When you are so disconnected from reality, when you have reached a point where all this sort of thing seems normal, is it really any wonder that they value civil liberties so cheaply? If you regard the public as proles who need to be protected for their own good and regard yourself as something else, then why wouldn’t you?

In short, we have reinvented feudalism while no-one was looking (the subservient role local government plays in relation to national government is another aspect of this). Part of the reason it has happened is rooted in our electoral system. Listening to MPs talk about the “constituency link” in semi-mystical terms is extremely reminiscent of how a squire might talk about his God-given stewardship of his fiefdom. Indeed, this is a relatively recent phenomenon; a century ago, MPs generally regarded the constituency as, at best, an inconvenience. These days, MPs seem to be obsessed with casework, at the clear expense of performing their constitutional role as a member of the legislature. MPs then aren’t just condescending about their constituents; they end up with less time to actually scrutinse legislation.

The problem with all this is it isn’t sustainable. With the economy in the parlous state it is in, there is a faint whiff of revolution in the air which looks set to grow stronger as times goes on. Revolutions rarely end well for anyone, and most in reality get pre-empted before they actually happen, yet the political establishment appears to have losts the flexibility which it is famous for. We aren’t getting reform; we aren’t even being given the illusion of reform.

I went to see Mark Thomas live on Thursday. I enjoyed it, but I couldn’t help but notice that after years of being a cuddly national institution, pulling crazy stunts for the entertainment of the chattering classes, he had a regained certain edge. I have a feeling this is what he was like in the eighties before Channel Four took him under its wing. At times, he simply descended into swearing tirades. Now, I seriously doubt that Mark Thomas will become a latter day Cromwell or Lenin, but it was notable at how indulgent the audience was of this.

As a professional campaigner, it is my job to whip up a bit of revolutionary zeal. I’m proud of the part I played in forcing Parliament to back down over its attempt to exempt its expenses from the Freedom of Information Act last month. But I’m aware that with such anger out there the chances of it resulting in actual riots (such as we saw in Greece at the end of last year) are starting to increase. The one thing violence on the streets is unlikely to result in is the a government u-turn on its anti-civil liberties agenda; quite the reverse. And the public; already whipped into a frenzy about crime, terrorism and immigration, will probably go along with that.

My big hope is that the Convention will wake people up to the wider agenda. If the agenda is purely negative – i.e. to stop the government attacking civil liberties and to scrap its existing agenda for a database state – then it will a) be less effective and b) fail to connect with this wider sense of dissatisfaction. We need to link the two, which means both talking about constitutional reform and a more engaged, proactive citizenry.

Eight for 2008

It’s still 2007 (just) so just enough time to do Iain Dale’s Eight for 2008 meme. Over the next 12 months I would (realistically) like to see:

  1. Clegg to learn to trust his instincts, distrust his yes men and subsequently the Lib Dems to get back up to the low twenties in the opinion polls and to make steady progress over the year.
  2. After another period of stagnation, and Brown’s Black October a distant memory, the Tories to resume the civil war which was giving them so much fun up until September.
  3. A House of Lords Reform Bill to receive its third reading in the Commons (could easily happen and with the next general election now likely to be 2010, there is time to stand down the Lords obstructionists).
  4. Following much faffing about with this upcoming citizen’s summit, the government to formally begin a constitutional convention in which electoral reform is very much on the agenda.
  5. ID cards to be scrapped.
  6. Clegg to hold a third tax commission, rowing back from the disappointing second one which (despite Vince Cable’s assertions) saw us embrace the conservative consensus to cut IHT and a withdrawal in Lib Dem support for wealth taxes.
  7. The government to finally wake up and introduce a German-style feed-in tariff to promote micro-generation.
  8. The public to embrace the Sustainable Communities Act.

I’m supposed to tag five people so I tag (with apologies to those who have already taken part – I’ve not been paying attention much recently): Alix Mortimer, Anthony Barnett @ OurKingdom, Antony Hook, Jennie Rigg, Jo Angelzarke.

Democracy and deckchairs

As David Heath alluded to, the media are studiously ignoring any discussion of democracy at this conference, so it’s incumbent on those of us who happen to think it is important to report what has been decided. Much as I agree with the motion on packaging, the fact that it has been prioritised (by whom? the media? the press office?) over and above proposals to fundamentally change our constitution is appalling.

I’m pleased that For the People, By the People was passed overwhelmingly and unamended. And while I only got to make a one-minute intervention, I’m pleased that there were two speakers who explicitly rejected the idea of an English Parliament to only one who spoke for (using the usual tired threats about “sleeping giants” – even Don Liberali would baulk at the disgraceful tone of English Nationalists – “nice country you’ve got there – it’d be a shame if something were to happen to it”).

Debates about democratic renewal are always an opportunity for certain people to make bonkers speeches, and we were not disappointed. Sandy Walkington did the rhetorical equivalent of a dad deciding to dance at the school disco by informing us that apparently there’s these things called the internet and text messaging that young people use a lot, and that because the paper wasn’t all about the internet and text messaging, it missed the point and that the members of the working group were thus all face slapping morons fit only to rearrange the deckchairs on the Titanic.

It all sounded remarkably similar to the sort of speech New Labour ministers would make in the early noughties. Never mind all this bollocks about having a constitution; if we want to engage young people we need to embrace text messaging! Despite Sandy’s exhortation, I don’t think Twitter is about to take the political world by storm just yet. He failed to appreciate two fundamental aspects about MoveOn. Firstly, in the broad scheme of things, despite huge numbers of supporters it hasn’t actually been terribly effective. Since its creation, every single presidential and mid-term election apart from the last one has gone Republican not Democrat. The Democrats’ victory in 2006 was more due to Bush’s incompetence than net activism; indeed the net’s most high profile intervention in 2006 – the attempt to oust Lieberman – was a crushing failure. That isn’t to say net activism hasn’t had an impact in softer, more subtle ways, but it hasn’t changed anything fundamental about American democracy.

Secondly, the model has not exported well in the UK. OurWorldOurSay failed to fly. Avaaz is going well, but that’s because it is a global movement, not just a UK one. The model hasn’t worked here mainly because we have neither the political culture associated with aggressive political advertising on TV, nor the philanthropic culture of giving to political causes. The tectonic plates may well be shifting, but there is no evidence to suggest we are sitting on the political equivalent of the San Andreas fault.

Fundamentally though, these developments only make the case for an entrenched constitution and Bill of Rights even more pressing. I’m all for an initiative and referendum system for example, but without a written constitution I fully accept we would need to be extraordinarily careful to prevent it being abused. Without these safeguards, the changes in culture that Walkington alludes to could lead to chaos. Far from rearranging the deckchairs, the working group has made a strong case for the need for the Titanic to change course.

And then there was the ironically named Paul Baron, who managed to combine a Marxist view of capitalism with a paean to the hereditary principle. His argument was that hereditary peers would be less corruptable than elected politicians – you could audibly hear the spirit of David Lloyd George groaning as he spoke. Presumably the argument goes along the lines that if you are already utterly corrupt, your price will be much higher. I could go on, but it is cruel to mock the afflicted.

So. We’ve renewed our policy on democratic renewal. In manifesto terms, the main points in it are the commitment to STV and the establishment of a constitutional convention. I have no doubt that both of these will appear in the manifesto, but have less confidence they will end up listed as a top priority. This will be a missed opportunity: the Lib Dems’ critique of the political system is one of our USPs. If we run away from it instead of building it into our overall narrative, we will simply end up with another 10 disparate bullet points that only appeal to people’s basest self-interest. That may make sense for fighting target seats where the swing voters are the only people who matter, but it fails to sell us as a party of government to either the public or the media.

If the Lib Dems are about anything, it is bringing power to the powerless. That applies whether we are talking about health, education, poverty, local government or democratic renewal. That connects with the widespread sense of alienation within the public. That challenges the other two parties who are nakedly only concerned with feathering their own nests. It is high time we started to shout about it.

Great policy Ming – now let’s campaign on it! (UPDATE)

Over at Our Kingdom I’ve given my view of the new Lib Dem policy paper on British governance. Broadly I think its great; but then I did have a hand in writing much of it!

That isn’t the whole story though – predictably I have an amendment to propose. Watch this space for more details.

UPDATE: I’ve now posted an article about my proposed amendment on Lib Dem Voice, and have set up the obligatory accompanying Facebook group. Please sign up!

Scottish Lib Dems don’t need Perfidious Albion butting in

Alex Salmond’s White Paper on the future governance of Scotland has brought forth another round of English Lib Dems (and supporters of other parties such as Pravdale) bemoaning the fact that the Scottish Liberal Democrats are ‘undemocratically’ not backing the SNP’s support for a referendum. As I’ve said in the comments on Lib Dem Voice, this is a ridiculous argument as the Scots both voted against independence in the last Scottish Parliament election by two-thirds and reject independence by the same proportion in opinion polls.

But what annoys me most of all is that these people have ignored what the Scottish Liberal Democrats are actually calling for. What they are arguing for is not the status quo, or even for their own Steel Commission to be introduced verbatim. Instead, they are joining the growing call for a new Constitutional Convention, independent of Government and Parliament, to sort the issue out.

They aren’t alone either. The campaign for a Scottish Constitutional Convention is backed by a growing number of Scots. Iain MacWhirter made similar noises on CommentIsFree yesterday, as did Unlock Democracy.

The Scottish Lib Dems could do what Perfidious Albion is advising them to do, go meekly along with a referendum on independence that the majority of Scots don’t want, wasting millions of pounds of taxpayers money in the process and embedding the idea that Scottish politics is entrenched into unionism versus seperatism with the Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems squashed together in an impromptu alliance on one end of the spectrum. Or, they could stick by their instincts and hold out for a process that has a strong chance of getting what the majority of Scots do appear to support: greater powers for the Scottish Parliament. In the process, they can put clear distance between both the the SNP and the nay-sayers within the Tories and Labour and present themselves as the champion of centrist Scottish politics.

When I see these two options before me it looks like a no-brainer, so what am I missing?

Deny everything, Baldrick (UPDATE)

For me, the most interesting thing about the Guardian’s exclusive today about Lib-Lab talks is that it is credited to an anonymous “staff writer.” Clearly whoever wrote it (Wintour? White? Mulholland?) considered it so explosive that they didn’t want to alienate their sources by being outed as the author.

The other interesting aspect is the non-denial denials. From Lord Kirkwood:

“We are getting this sort of speculation all the time from people who want to write stories about cooperation [between the parties] at levels which are in their imagination.

“But they [Mr Brown and Sir Menzies] talk all the time, they talk about Fife and other things. If you start getting into particular meetings it’s impossible. This suggestion is not known to me and not admitted. Some of these players do have to trust each other in relationships one-to-one.”

From Ming’s office:

“We are not commenting on this tittle-tattle or any other story based on rumour and speculation, now or in the future. We are an independent party which firmly disagrees with Labour and Gordon Brown on the issue of Iraq, civil liberties, including ID cards and 90-day detention, nuclear power and council tax to name but a few.”

What the latter source appears to not appreciate is that this tittle-tattle was nipped in the bud between 1999 and 2006; basically the inter-regnum period between Ashdown and Campbell. Kennedy had many faults, but he at least appreciated the danger of a third party getting distracted by this sort of endless speculation. By contrast, and in spite of his rhetoric, Campbell is developing a talent for getting dragged into this non-issue.

And of course Ashdown used to make a habit of dismissing this “tittle-tattle”. He used to enjoy denouncing anyone who claimed he had been having secret talks with Blair as fantasists and liars. I should know; back when I was the (elected) LDYS sabbatical, his office leant on the LDYS Chair to get me sacked. Then, months after stepping down as leader, he flogged his diaries to Rupert Murdoch for a six-figure sum in which he proudly boasted about the wool he had been pulling over our eyes.

As such, Liberal Democrats ought to be highly sceptical about statements that, once again, we should believe that there is smoke without fire, especially given how integral Campbell was last time around.

As for the substance of what is being suggested, it seems hard to understand what the Lib Dems’ role is here. Apparently “Mr Brown is thinking of launching an all-party initiative on the future of the British constitution, and it may be that he would like a senior Liberal Democrat involved on a specific basis. He may also make a move on Iraq that could require the help of other parties.” So why aren’t these talks happening with Cameron as well? Is this a return of the Joint Cabinet Committee on constitutional reform? Back then it turned out to be a complete waste of time; bipartisanship on constitutional reform in any case leaves almost as much a sour taste in the mouth as unipartisanship. Both models are concerned primarily about self-interest as opposed to the nation’s. The debate in democratic reform circles is currently coalescing around new models such as Citizens’ Assemblies: these ideas don’t require bipartisanship and have the advantage of being under the control of members of the public. The thought of Campbell and Brown stitching up the electoral system and other reforms together isn’t just undemocratic (and I can guarantee that we would never get PR for the Commons out of such a negotiation), but frankly a little old-fashioned.

The lesson that the Welsh Lib Dems have taught me over the past month is that we should never say never to the idea of coalition. We should have red lines. But Campbell’s infamous Harrogate speech earlier this year illustrated all too clearly that Labour is currently in breach of pretty much every red line we might care to come up with. So what is there to discuss? There is no halfway compromise between the Lib Dems’ position on civil liberties and Labour’s. It’s all or nothing. Sorry if I come over all tribalist here, but I don’t consider human rights negotiable in exchange for local fucking income tax (or even, dare I say it, LVT).

Instead of this distraction, Ming ought to be redoubling his efforts to give his own party better definition. Last week’s housing policy launch demonstrated that we still have much work to do on our presentation. Any negotiation now is from a position of weakness, not strength. I still believe the party can turn itself around in time for the next General Election, but not if Campbell keeps allowing this sort of speculation to break out.

UPDATE: The official Party line –

There is no prospect of any Liberal Democrat joining the Brown Government.

On so many issues, the Tories and Labour are part of a cosy consensus and Liberal Democrats are the real opposition.

Tories and Labour now agree on:

  • tax breaks for the richest
  • the Iraq War
  • council tax
  • nuclear power
  • student tuition fees

The need for a strong independent Liberal Democrat party, to challenge the cosy consensus of Labour and Conservatives has never been stronger. We are committed to remain that strong and principled voice of opposition.

Sounds good to me. I would wryly observe that some of us have been pushing this ‘cosy consensus’ line for some time and have been rebuffed. Indeed, I recall Ming dismissing it during the leadership election Question Time last year when Chris Huhne mentioned it. C’est la vie.

Brown Meme

Praguetory has tagged me with Matt Wardman’s Brown Meme. Unlike a lot of memes, this one seems to have the potential for an interesting debate, so here goes:

* 2 things Gordon Brown should be proud of.

– Helping to make Labour electable
– (Most of) Labour’s constitutional reform agenda in their first term of office – although none of it was as systematic or as well thought out as it needed to be.

* 2 things he should apologise for.

– Helping to make Labour electable (too cheap I know – this one doesn’t count)
– The tax credits fiasco
– The PFI fiasco
– The monstrous centralising target culture

* 2 things that he should do immediately when he becomes PM.

– Declare an intention to establish a fully elected second chamber – and follow through quickly.
– Restart the SFO’s Al-Yamamah arms deal investigation

* 2 things he should do while he is PM.

– Establish a Citizens’ Constitutional Convention
– Reform municipal taxation, decentralising local government revenue, scrapping council tax and introducing a system of site value rating as part of a package of measures of fiscal measures which local authorities could use to raise their own money.

I have to tag eight people, which will be Anthony Barnett, Stephen Tall, Tristan Mills, Duncan Hames, Jock Coats, the Millennium Elephant, Tom Papworth and Ming Campbell.

Simon Jenkins: how many points can one person miss?

I suspect that one of the things that most irks Simon Jenkins is that despite the fact that he clearly loathes the Lib Dems, so many of us have a grudging affection for the old git (okay, not all of us). Maybe we’ll end up killing him with kindness. His article in the Guardian today is a real shame because while the first half is dreadfully woolly headed hack journalism, he does actually have an important point to make.

Okay, first the dreadful hack stuff:

Ask a Liberal Democrat what he or she is for and you get only a susurration of platitudes.

Ask the member of any political party in the abstract what they are for and you will get platitudes. Clause 4 is one long list of platitudes. The Conservative Party’s Big Brain Oliver Letwin got enormous publicity for his speech yesterday that sought to define his party with lots of platitudes.

The “what are the Lib Dems for?” rhetorical question is a peculiar one because it would appear that we are the only party who are required to answer it. In truth, all parties struggle to develop meaningful narratives and definitions. At best, parties can only articulate their principles with the broadest of brushes. When Letwin claims that the Conservatives are essentially a pragmatic party, the fact remains that all mainstream parties are fundamentally a mixture of pragmatism and ideology. The precise balance at any one time varies depending on a whole range of factors. That doesn’t make his point wrong – Labour and the Lib Dems are broadly more idealistic than the Tories – but it does suggest that no crude delineation will ever be sufficient.

So to answer Jenkins’ question with an inevitable platitude, the Lib Dems are about freedom. We might disagree from time to time about how much emphasis to put on economic, social and political freedoms. Occasionally – like all other parties – we may lose the plot entirely; we certainly have a problem persuading certain people at the top of the party to talk about such things. Similarly, Labour are ‘for’ social justice, the Tories are ‘for’ continuity and the status quo. If anything they have been less consistent over the past two decades than we have.

In Scotland the Lib Dem leader, Nicol Stephen, has decided it would be inappropriate to maintain Labour in power yet has told Alex Salmond’s nationalists he will not coalesce with him. He cannot tolerate a referendum on independence. That the party of Irish home rule should reject so liberal a proposal as territorial self-determination is odd. Nor was Salmond demanding support for independence, merely for a vote on it. Under PR there is a majoritarian argument against almost any controversial decision. So what do the Lib Dems fear? Instead they have exchanged responsibility without power for power without responsibility, and are retiring to carp from the backbenches. They will smoke potency but not inhale.

Here, Jenkins gets very confused as this paragraph directly contradicts his later assertion that we shouldn’t have anything to do with coalitions in the first place. But to answer his point (which is being made in lots of other places at the moment I notice), Nicol Stephen is correct to hold out against an independence resolution because that is what his party has just been elected on a platform on. You can guarantee that the same voices denouncing us for not going into coalition with the SNP on this basis would be just as shrilly condemning us if he had done so (indeed Jenkins’ article does read as if he wrote it before the party ruled out coalition thus requiring him to shoehorn in an alternative reason for having a dig).

Why are we any more spoilers on this issue than Labour or the Tories? If a vote on independence is such a trivial matter, why isn’t Annabel Goldie not being denounced for not cuddling up to Salmond equally? The biggest crime that Stephen (and, for that matter, Mike German) seem to be guilty of is not fulfilling what other people have judged is our preformatted role as kingmakers.

It would be ludicrous to go into a government where most of the cabinet was looking at every issue through an independence referendum prism. One of the things I have repeatedly tried to point out on this blog over the last few weeks is that separatism is not a simple matter: it will have an impact on every single policy issue and will potentially have all sorts of unforeseen consequences. I’m all for Citizens’ Initiatives, and I’m surprised that the SNP have not yet called the Lib Dems’ bluff by calling them to support a Bill for a general Initiative & Referendum system, but for independence to happen you need an executive fully committed to pushing it through in fine detail. It isn’t ‘just a vote’ for the simple reason that, despite Salmond’s assertion, independence is not reversible.

Frankly, it would be foolhardy for any government that doesn’t enjoy a majority to attempt it, as I suspect the Scots are about to witness. Refusing to pander to the SNP’s dogmatism isn’t ‘undemocratic’ – it is simple, old-fashioned, common sense.

I don’t entirely disagree with Jenkins however, although I really don’t understand why he feels it only applies to the Lib Dems:

Lib Dems claim a bizarre interpretation of democracy, that the share of votes should be reflected in a share in power. This confuses quite different concepts: executive government and assembly representation. The first requires a coherent team, a declared programme and some mechanism to account for its delivery to the electorate. To this end, France and the US directly elect presidents, governors and mayors. They are checked by a second concept, that of a separately elected assembly, in which PR is both fair and just.

It is true that the Lib Dems have no policy to decouple the executive from the legislature and are unlikely to adopt one in the foreseeable future. I would even agree with Jenkins that it would be nice if we did so. But is this really a criticism of the Lib Dems? Labour and the Tories are hopelessly confused on this point as well, it’s just that they work on the opposite misapprehension that the electoral system should be about electing an executive-by-proxy (the worst thing about this is that first past the post can’t even guarantee such an outcome – look at Canada where hung parliaments are now the norm). Don’t expect to see Cameron or Brown calling for full separation of powers any time soon.

In fact, the Lib Dems do at least acknowledge the problem. We have a longstanding commitment to reduce the payroll vote in the Commons and the Lords. We fight to promote the independence of Parliament and don’t use the whip in anything like the heavy-handed way Labour and the Tories do. I suspect there are more people in the Lib Dems who support full separation than there are in the other two parties combined.

In short then, Jenkins is attacking the Lib Dems for being both kingmakers and refusing to be kingmakers, for supporting a constitutional situation supported by all UK parties and for failing to define ourselves any better than any other party. Deadline or no deadline, he really ought to be able to do better than this.