Tag Archives: constitution

The anti-people’s budget and the constitutional crisis that isn’t

The government rhetoric about the House of Lords’ threat to derail their cherished plan to cut tax credits has been extraordinary over the last few days. To believe it, you would have to think that we are in the deadlocked position Parliament found itself between 1909 and 1911, when the then Liberal government attempted to force through David Lloyd George’s so-called “People’s Budget,” which established the foundations of the modern welfare state and, less successfully, sought to introduce a new system of taxation based on land values. It resulted in a constitutional showdown and eventually the Parliament Act 1911, which limited the powers of the Lords and sought to eventually replace it with a chamber “constituted on a popular basis”.

Then, the landed gentry clubbed together in the Lords to thwart a popular mandate for a more caring system of welfare for the working poor. Now, the Conservative government (which includes a number of members of the landed gentry) are throwing a hissy fit because our semi-reformed House of Lords is threatening to block an attempt to penalise the working poor. We aren’t talking about legislation here, which the Parliament Act prevents the House of Lords from being able to block, but an unamendable and thus unscrutinisable statutory instrument, which the government could retable the very next day if it wished to. In the past, governments have got extremely frustrated by the parliamentary ping-pong which has necessitated when the House of Lords and House of Commons disagree. Here, the government is losing its shit before the first serving volley has been fired.

I suspect this rather shrill reaction has more to do with George Osborne’s insecurities – possibly related to him seeing his future Prime Ministerial career retreating into the sunset – than it has to do with any true constitutional outrage. It was therefore extraordinary to hear this morning that Corbyn’s Labour have already capitulated. Of course, it is reasonable for Labour and the Lib Dems to have a fall back position to support if the crossbenchers are not prepared to support the fatal motion to kill the SI; but to go one step further and adopt the Tory position on constitutional sclerosis is bizarre. This puts Jeremy Corbyn in the odd position of a man who won’t bend the knee before the Queen but is all too eager to prostrate himself before the Prime Minister.

It should not be too hard to see that the Tory position on this is all bluff and bluster. The Tories can’t unilaterally suspend the Lords, as they were suggesting a few days ago. To change the powers of the Lords would require a new Parliament Act and re-open the can of worms on Lords reform, which they insisted was not a priority three years ago. To stuff the Lords with Tory peers would be an act of political suicide; it would make democratic reform of the Lords almost inevitable and make Cameron and the Tories look like the most corrupt administration in parliamentary history; don’t forget that even the Liberal threat to do the same in 1911 was part of an electoral pledge in the face of an overwhelming majority of flagrantly self-serving hereditary peers sitting in the Lords. Even Cameron cannot believe he is in the same position, not matter how great his powers of wishful thinking might be.

If this is their threat, I say bring it on. Fortunately, so does Tim Farron. I’m baffled that Jeremy Corbyn isn’t similarly energised at the prospect; just what is the point of him?

You can’t be a half-iconoclast

If there’s a problem with the Unspoken Constitution its that it barely qualifies as satire. The shenanigans surrounding MPs’ expenses, Carter-Ruck’s single handed attempt to rewrite the UK constitution to favour their client Trafigura and this torrid little paper sneaked out by the Ministry of Justice today (which patiently explains why Royal Prerogative powers are, in fact, all wonderful and the only thing that stands between us and authoritarianism), all amply illustrate that Stuart Weir and co’s attempt to write the famously unwritten constitution is more a reflection of reality than an exaggeration of it. A Modest Proposal is satire. Yes, Minister and The Thick of It are satires. The Unspoken Constitution is merely frank.

I have to admit to finding this week somewhat depressing in that it is clear that a great many MPs have returned from recess determined to shut down any further discussion about reform and that, to an extent, they are succeeding. The media itself has been very helpful in this respect, detailing the process almost moment-to-moment but almost entirely lacking in analysis. Let us not forget that the people who are now complaining about the unfairness of Sir Thomas Legg applying new rules to them retrospectively are for the most part the same people who attempted to keep this little scam of theirs shrouded in secrecy – in defiance of the law – for years. All the indications are that for the most part, they still haven’t learned why that was an utterly stupid and damaging thing to do.

The media, frankly, loves the status quo because it means it can write about politics on its terms. Everything can be about story; the notion that politics is about a battle of ideas takes a back seat. There has, if truth be told, always been a tension between the two, but the latter took a distinct turn for the worse 20 years ago and has never recovered.

The paucity of vision in politics today was on display at the Vote for a Change/All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Continuation of First Past the Post debate on Tuesday. I won’t attempt to sum up the debate because there wasn’t one to speak of; as Oona King pointed out very early on, almost everyone in the room had made up their mind already so what was the point? But I was struck by the number of MPs who stood up and waxed lyrical about how they regard their main role being to represent their constituents and their constituency, above all else.

Historically, that is quite a new notion and I know it is a notion that has a lot of support within the Lib Dems. But it is a dreadful one nonetheless. MPs’ primary role is to scrutinise – both the executive and legislation. Their first duty should be to the national interest, surely?

I’m not suggesting, incidently, that a sense of place for MPs is unimportant or that local issues should play no part. My beef is with the notion that this should be the priority. What’s worse is that it is a fiction to suggest that they do. Most MPs put party loyalty above parochial concerns most of the time. Local campaigns can force them to abstain or even defy their whips, but only if a lot of pressure is created. True, MPs are generally more likely to defy the whips than at any point in the recent past, but this is still the exception rather than the norm.

Either way, the notion of the MP as an independently minded individual who cares passionately about working within the system to bring forth their vision of the good society is extremely unfashionable. This is true whether we are talking about party politics or even this current vogue for indpendents; in fact, when it comes to the Martin Bells, Richard Taylors and Jury Teams of this world, ideas appear to have gone out of the window entirely – at least political parties have manifestos still. What I found on Tuesday was that the supporters of FPTP were united in arguing for this idea of parliamentary politics.

It’s a real problem for supporters of proportional representation because it is an argument that holds real resonance amongst the public. Who wouldn’t want an MP who is committed to doing whatever you tell them to do (leaving aside the fact that there will be 70,000 other constituents with competing interests for one second)? This idea of the ultra-local politician has taken a firm grip in the popular psyche; people even imagine that it was ever thus.

The problem for electoral reformers is that thus far we have failed to take on this argument. Worse, a great many electoral reformers actually agree with it. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard people tell me that they are a) pro-proportional representation and b) in favour of retaining the constituency link. It is one of the main arguments that people who support the Jenkins system assert.

I don’t believe we can ever win the argument for proportional representation until reformers can agree that what we need is a radically different kind of politics. Each time someone argues for essentially the status quo with a few tweaks to neutralise the worst aspects of it, they concede almost all the ground to the other side. It becomes, essentially, a narrow and technocratic argument about systems and practicalities. The moral force behind the argument for PR is entirely lost. We might as well not bother.

Ultimately this argument applies to the reform debate more widely and brings me back to The Unspoken Constitution. Our current system has become so toxic that the time for incrementalist change is now past. We need a fundamental shift, not an attempt to meet the status quo halfway. Tim Garton Ash is correct when he says that the Lib Dems aren’t arguing for this any more and that it is a crying shame. What’s odder is that Nick Clegg’s language nine months ago – before the MPs’ expenses scandal erupted – was significantly more radical. Even Cameron comes across as more forthright on this area now, even if he is hopeless when it comes to specifics.

Maybe it doesn’t poll well, but I’m not convinced that sounding like everyone else does either. Either way, the lack of a clear iconoclastic liberal voice in this debate at the moment is lamentable.

Dangerous Complacency over the Damian Green affair

Sniping at Tory mendacity aside, I can’t help but feel a palpable sense of complacency in the Observer today over the Damian Green affair.

First up, we have the normally sensible Vernon Bogdanor. WTF? It doesn’t take a Professor of Government at Oxford University to tell you that the police actions were constitutional. The “virtue” of our unwritten constitution is that pretty much anything the state decides to do is, unless Parliament has the foresight to see that it might happen and the backbone to prevent it (that would be a no, then). The real question is whether it should happen in a democratic state. And here it gets murky: I would be the first to argue that individual MPs should have some kind of exemption from the law. But that isn’t the same thing as saying that the office of Member of Parliament should be treated in the same way. I am hardly the first to point out that we expect MPs to deal with confidential information on a daily basis. It may well be the case the 19th century convention dictates that parliamentary privilege is limited to the floor of the Commons itself, but we live in the 21st century now. If that privilege doesn’t extend to MP’s hard drives and filing cabinets, it bloody well should do. And the whole point about conventions is that they can be revised with a wave of the hand. All it took was Michael Martin to say no, and that would be that.

Bogdanor also magics up this straw man:

‘If an MP were accused of theft and keeping stolen goods in his office at the House of Commons, should he be exempt from a police investigation?’

…to which the answer is of course no, but how can you compare that to receiving leaked information? If the test is, did Green do anything as serious as theft, then it is a test he will almost certainly pass by any measure. It is an utterly daft thing to say.

Andrew Rawnsley nails a lot of Bogdanor’s flummery in his article, pointing out that the 18th century law that Green was arrested under should have, if it was not a dinosaur statute that should have been scrapped alongside the law banning Welshmen from Chester years ago, have resulted in both Gordon Brown and Winston Churchill being banged up. But so caught up in the political mess of it all, Rawnsley too lapses into complacency, arguing that because the government is the big political loser in all this, and because no-one is being arrested for calling the UK a “police state” we have very little to worry about.

Yet this is classic wedge politics. I’m trying to avoid referring to boiling frogs here, because that is an unforgiveable cliche, but how much more ground do we have to give up before people like Rawnsley will accept that enough is enough? As he more or less acknowledges in his article, yet another line has been crossed. We’ve had two solid decades of lines being crossed now. The fact that we don’t live in a police state (and we don’t) doesn’t mean we can afford to dismiss it every time we take a baby step in that direction.

It can be no coincidence that this arrest happened during an interregnum period at the Met and a day after Parliament “prorogued” (a fancy word people use to make themselves sound intelligent which means Parliament wasn’t sitting, as it won’t do until Wednesday). Equally deliberate was Jacqui Smith’s act on Andrew Marr this morning, waggling her eyebrows meaningfully and casting innuendo about how there may (or may not) be important principles of national security at hand here (bombs! terrorism!) while, oxymoronically, continuing to emphasise the right of opposition MPs to “embarrass the government” (which speaks volumes about her real attitude towards scrutiny).

Ironically though, if the issue behind the raid is genuinely as serious as Smith implies, the way the police went about it was even less forgiveable. If this really is a matter of national security, then both Cameron and Green (Clegg too would be nice) should have been invited to a meeting in New Scotland Yard, had the nature of the threat spelled out to them, and asked for cooperation. Is anyone seriously suggesting that they wouldn’t have complied? In the event, the high profile of this arrest would have almost certainly damaged any corresponding intelligence work.

But the most startling thing about the Observer today is what’s missing: no article by Henry Porter. This is the journalist who has chronicled Labour’s raid on civil liberties for the past half decade and who has been warning of just this sort of behaviour. So what does the Observer do? Give him a day off. Notably, there isn’t a “Henry Porter is away” notice at the bottom of William Dalrymple‘s piece where Porter’s column can normally be found.

Notwithstanding the importance of the Mumbai massacre, it is an odd decision. It isn’t as if they dedicated pages elsewhere to the Damian Green affair – it only warranted a single page of news.

Thanks largely to Henry Porter, the Observer has acquired a strong reputation as a champion of civil liberties. I do hope that, as it comes to the crunch, it doesn’t start getting cold feet.

UPDATE: Henry Porter has an article today about the Damian Green incident on Comment is Free. Judging by the length, I’m guessing it was written for Sunday’s Observer.