| These three pieces defending
the British constitution were published in The Independent, January
1 - A surprisingly robust phantasm
2 - Reforming the system - why bother?
3 - Of course it's not democracy
4 - Handy quotations
1 - A surprisingly robust phantasm (Top)
Everyone knows the British constitution doesn't exist. And that
it's unique in not being written down in documents, and certainly
not in a single one. It is famously a set of arrangements and understandings.
So if we wanted to understand the constitution, the obvious thing
is go to London, the Old Bailey, or our local town hall and magistrate's
court and see it work. Children have always done that, and are usually
properly impressed by the odd mixture of showmanship and seriousness
Even so, the great 19th century constitutional essayist, Walter
Bagehot approved of someone who said: "The cure for admiring
the House of Lords was to go and look at it". He only half
meant it, but the alternating clamour and tedium of many of the
public workings of Government might indeed fuel the cynicism - it
is the easy dissidence of the well-governed - which opinion polls
report. So it is sensible to take an interest in the likes of Burke,
Macaulay and Bagehot (or Plato, Melbourne and a dozen others) who
have discussed the nature of government, often rather in the manner
of anthropologists describing how the odd behaviour of a particular
tribe actually makes quite a lot of sense. Not that any prescriptions,
or the system, are set in stone: as Edmund Burke noted, as though
to counter-act his seeming traditionalism: "A state without
the means of some change is without the means of its conservation".
True to the spirit of much writing about the constitution, we can
begin by saying what it is not. Though an understanding of the nuances
of the system is best to be found in something like the Oxford Dictionary
of Political Quotations, it is absolutely not about politics. It
is the machinery by which politics works. It has to be able to breathe
in a vacuum. Its being good at helping a rabble become a society
is never better displayed than when the politicians are at each
others' throats about which amongst them should be in charge.
Constitutions depend on the sort of people governed by them, and
who governs through them. You apply the same adjectives to a constitution
as to the people it fits (or ill-fits). Thus, and the British constitution
might not work for another people; but it is, like us, reasonable
without being rational. We pride ourselves that no other people
would tolerate or could have contrived so haphazard a way of preserving
justice and liberty.
Yet on all sides people want to reform the constitution. Some of
the urge flows from a sense that the system ought to reflect their
present style, not their inherited habits. Actually, the constitution
is sometimes almost too good at being modern: it allows, for instance,
the current taste for trivial abuse and grandstanding to the media
to pervade the House of Commons. The verbal truce promised after
John Smith's death lasted for weeks not months. Besides, much of
the British constitution's style (the Parliament building itself,
and many of its customs) are antique only in appearance: they were
put together by Victorians in an age when Mammon wanted to clothe
itself in medievalism.
But it is true that some habits attach to the thing being very
old, and proud of it: the roles of heredity, religion, and some
of the habits inherited from the Seventeenth century, are genuinely
important and might be hard to shift. They might become more fashionable
if we learn, as we need to for all sorts of reasons, that deference
can be very liberating, and need be only a very mild form of subservience.
Even the most peculiar bits of the constitution constantly refresh
themselves. The monarchy certainly does, if a little bizarrely.
The monarchy appeals to very many people: to the thoughtless, because
it provides a family soap opera; to the intellectual because it
enshrines very lofty mysteries. It appeals especially to women,
"Who care", as Walter Bagehot remarked, "fifty times
more for a marriage than a ministry". Nearly everyone senses
that it would be a pity if it ceased to work.
We have the House of Lords, in which people who share only the
characteristics of having had (often surprisingly recent) ancestors
who were rapacious or industrious or both, and who mostly had an
Eton education, are allowed to talk and vote on an equal footing
with the most distinguished elder statesmen, churchmen and lawyers
in the land (who are often the scions of long dynasties of the worldly
Some absurdities in the constitution are merely the accretion of
habits formed in simpler - and very much more corrupt - times. These
include the first-past-the-post voting system, which systematically
disenfranchises a substantial minority of the most thoughtful voters;
that is, those who vote for a third party outside its select and
politically eccentric heartlands. It also disenfranchises people
who live in areas where there aren't many others of their political
stamp; that is socialists in suburbs and conservatives in slums,
neither of whom can ever hope to dent the outcome of an election.
The constitution should appal any democrat who believes in rule
"by and for the people", and therefore most socialists.
The constitution is at its most antique when it enshrines a prejudice
against the mob. The system was designed to eliminate any serious
danger of direct democracy, and is instead a system for selecting
and controlling a governing elite (the parliamentarians). A plebiscite
democracy, perhaps ushered in by the silicon chip, would be in one
sense be merely the last step toward democracy, but in another,
really the first toward popular rule. The trouble is, direct democracy
risks the perpetual excitement of surfing moral panics, or the endless
tedium of living in a Swiss canton.
The constitution's arrangement should shock any who believe that
it is important to have checks and balances between the executive
parts of government (the civil service or Whitehall), the legislature
(the law makers or Parliament) and the justice system. We operate,
as Bagehot remarked, "by choosing a single sovereign authority
and making it good". That is, [by choosing a parliament] Parliament,
control of which is centralised in the hands of a ruling party.
Within that rule, the rule of the few is enshrined in rule by Cabinet,
creating, as Lord Hailsham noted, an "elective dictatorship"
which is modern only in degree.
Yet, with all these absurdities, it is not a major structural issue
which has caused us most disquiet. The problem which has created
most anxiety recently serves as a good example of why getting in
a lather about the constitution is almost always a waste of time.
The sleaze factor worries us.
We elect parliamentarians to do various contradictory jobs: to represent
whatever interest they like or will pay them; to represent the personal
interests of their constituents; to represent their aggregated local
interest. Only having done all those must they become lobby-fodder
for a party platform which orders many of these and other interests
into something like a vision for the nation. All along, we want
them to share Burke's sense that as an MP he should lead as well
as represent his constituents: "I had much rather run the risk
of displeasing than of injuring them".
We know that government has always been about the jostling of great
interests - the interests of this or that class, or sort of money
- but we fear that politicians have lost a proper sense of their
own dignity, and with it the operational part of their consciences.
In any case, the point is that we ought to cure the evil in stages,
beginning with the least and lightest actions. This is what is happening.
Worried by sleaze, or the patronage system which appoints the boards
of Quangoes, we appointed the Nolan committee to inquire into and
propose ways to root out bad practice. Only if that fails - and
there is no evidence yet that it will fail - will we need to move
on and worry that we are perhaps enticing the wrong sort of people
into politics. We must hope that we are, because we can't be at
all sure that we can quickly and certainly replace them with anything
If we decided the practices and people in Parliament were rotten,
and we couldn't see how to make them other, we might then consider
reforming the constitution in some way to make sure that they could
have no power for wrong-doing. The obvious thing to do would be
the most wrong. We might be tempted to set something over parliament:
to celebrate (and some misguided people now do) the way that the
EU's institutions might be set over ours; or judges might oversee
parliament; or some "people's jury". We have no evidence
from anywhere in the world that the constitutions which were spawned
by, but tried to improve on, our own are actually superior to their
scruffy parent. They are more formal, more orderly, more explicit.
In most of them, parliament is subject to superior authority and
the result is the appearance of order and a deal more muddle in
2 - Reforming the system - why bother? (Top)
The Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, intermittently the Economist,
and a spate of mostly rather good outpourings from the pens of Andrew
Marr (this paper's editor), Simon Jenkins (of the Times), Will Hutton
(of the Guardian and now the Observer), have all suggested how we
could improve the way Britons are governed. The curious thing is
that the attempts are serious, but mostly go to show how little
need there is for much change.
The fundamental problem the few serious reformers face is that
they can only talk amongst themselves about it. It is not the subject
of discussion in pubs; people do not march in the streets about
it; promising radical improvement to the system would bring on yawns,
and possibly hostility. Of course, all this isn't a guide to whether
reform is needed.
All those who are disenfrachised by the present first past the
post system are voiceless in the matter by definition. Only if a
third party holds the balance of power in a hung parliament could
they press the case for one of the many systems of Proportional
Representation which would be more rational and fair than the existing
first past the post system.
PR could ensure that the seats held by a party in the House of
Commons rather better correlated with its voting figures. However,
there is a risk with most really fair PR systems: that they tend
to weaken two important and competing parts of an MP's job and his
relations with power. He or she currently represents a party and
a place, and plays each against the other. When his constituents
press for goodies from the national exchequer, he can claim that
it's not in the party manifesto; when his party presses him to abuse
his conscience in some matter, he can sometimes claim his constituents
insist on it. Under the systems of PR which most ensure that the
seats in the nation's legislature match the nation's voting habits,
he may become dangerously beholden to party whilst losing the chance
to play the constituency card. Along the way, more MPs would risk
becoming policy-wonks obsessing on platforms, instead of local personalities
being educated in Saturday surgeries.
Still, it is perfectly true that the House of Commons is arguably
at a critical juncture when, after a few decades of a convenient
if entrenched and occasionally stultifying class warfare, it will
present the more traditional scene in which parties become a shifting
array of temporary alliances between whichever members could be
marshalled into a ministry and an opposition. The result wasn't
necessarily particularly efficient, because ministries sometimes
changed so often. Anyway, the organising principle of socialism's
battle with capitalism, and its concomitant broad-church parties,
may splinter. It may seem no more than a staging post between the
previous system of corrupt boroughs bought by intensely partisan
interests, which served until the 19th century, and the more democratic
PR (or even electric plebiscites) which will do for the 21st.
There is however a further difficulty with establishing PR. It
may be galling to committed third-party members and politicians,
but their purpose may best be served by threatening but never quite
abolishing the existing two-party system. In an age of public pressure
groups, they may be little more than glorified campaigns amongst
We have seen the existing main two political parties absorb and
abandon creeds at will. If class pressure no longer informs their
thinking, they have become mightily aware of the need to respond
to rioters, protestors and the other elements of an increasingly
Provided some organising principle - and it might be the degree
of enthusiasm for Europe, or free trade (which is not quite the
same thing), or more likely commitment to high or low taxes - was
at hand, it might remain possible to run a fairly simple system
in which two main ministries alternated, with third, fourth and
fifth parties being useful, but never treated quite fairly.
The PR issue is of course necessarily about number-crunching and
is very boring. There are much less important issues than this,
which attract far more interest. There is no reason at all why we
should have a monarchy except that we like it and it's good for
tourism. If opinion switched against it, it could disappear and
be replaced by the Privy Council, which arguably does most of the
Monarchy's hardest job anyway. The nation is quite capable of sensing
its identity by looking at the Radio Times or the Daily Mail. There
is no particular need for a President, with all the problems involved
in finding someone interesting but disinterested, dignified but
decorous, to do the job. We haven't entirely managed to combine
these in the monarchy, which uses panoply and tradition to disguise
the fact. In any case, as Bernard Shaw pointed out in the Apple
Cart, the previous monarch would almost certainly win any poll for
the job anyway.
The case of the House of Lords is a little different in that it
is more obviously effective and therefore far more offensive in
its anachronism. At the moment it is a body of men and women who
are very much wiser than most of us (even more so than the House
of Commons) and whose proceedings are rendered the more eccentric
by the presence of some mostly quite amusing aristocrats of varying
vintage. Taken together (and the aristocrats are not often a big
presence), the Lords is mostly rural and traditionalist: it resists
anything which damages conventional social mores, and anything which
looks like hurting very poor people. So that's more or less all
right, then. The Lords is only likely to be consistently and seriously
undemocratic if the country swung very far leftward, which isn't
The Lords are out of step on country pursuits like hunting, but
generally speak out for trees and hedges and suchlike which don't
have votes, and do so in a way which many people regard as quite
The main possible reform of the House of Lords would be to weaken
the role of hereditary peers and perhaps usher in the election of
new members. This would make the Lords more democratic, but at the
risk of making it too like the House of Commons to be a useful corrective
to the plebian house. It also risks conferring a dangerous legitimacy
on the upper House, which would tempt them to mess about with the
work of lower House. In other words, it would risk dreary paralysis
because it would introduce a new check, a difficult balance, against
the power of the Commons.
An impotent and impressive House of Lords which occasionally produced
moments of solid insight and high comedy, and thus maintained the
ability to shame (rather than bully) everyone else in the system
with a flash of compassion or of heartfelt reaction, is far preferable
to any new system for a second chamber which would be duller and
possibly less effective.
3 - Of course it's not democracy (Top)
Of course it's not government by the people. The genius of a democracy
is to let everyone in a society feel that they have control or at
least influence whilst at the same time sparing them the effort
of exercising much of either most of the time. It is the second
part of this proposition which makes one doubt the modern enthusiasm
for quoting Tocqueville quite so much. The French political writer
admired American small town administration, especially the right
and need for everyone to take part. "Without local institutions
a nation may give itself a free government, but it has not got the
spirit of liberty".
Actually, the people as a whole are neither especially wise nor
very nice and these deficiencies make an even better case for undemocratic
processes. Democratic institutions are seldom actually very democratic,
but they produce outcomes which are cleverer and kinder than pure
democracy would achieve, and most of us know it. It is also true
that the "state" may be kinder than the community; the
cosmopolitan centre more amiable than the repressive neighbourhood.
For proof of these propositions, consider only that most people
most of the time think that murderers should swing and that we should
keep our hands in our pockets when we pass the poor in the street.
It is our parliamentarians who dictate that capital punishment is
immoral and ineffective, and who endlessly parade their intention
to take less tax from us but find their corporate compassion never
quite allows them to reduce taxes.
All the same, it is right that people should constantly check that
the people who have power are in some sense accountable. On the
whole, we believe that this is best achieved by what the Roman Catholic
church and the EU call "subsidiarity": the principle that
decisions should be taken as near to those they affect as possible.
Periodically, enthusiasts argue that Scotland, Wales and - rather
differently, Northern Ireland - ought to be allowed more independence.
Many English people would feel that they would be welcome to it,
especially if their influence, and charge, upon Westminster were
proportionally reduced. Why not? We have already had the best of
their mineral resources, and will continue to attract their best
brains, however they govern themselves. But many Britons are happy
enough with the arrangement as it stands: as Ralf Dahrendorf says:
we rather like "the beautiful absurdity of 'home international'
It is axiomatic that Mrs Thatcher destroyed local government and
centralised power. It is also wrong. Even if it were true, it might
not matter. Local government is mostly about very boring things
like drains and bins: firms are doing much of it pretty well. Where
local authorities run interesting things like police forces or schools,
there would be a massive outcry if standards varied around the country.
Mrs Thatcher's attempted revolution in local government was one
of her many failures, not in the sense that it was a disaster but
that it was aborted. The Poll Tax, for instance, could have ushered
in a system whereby local people raised local taxes for local services
with a potential for a high degree of autonomy. One of her reforms
looks like being a small success: the little-noticed but emerging
system whereby a tier of local government is stripped out of the
system may revitalise local democracy by allowing people to vote
less, but for clear purpose.
The reform overcomes voter fatigue, rather than creates a dangerous
But the main thrust of the argument that Mrs Thatcher was a centraliser
is wrong. There is very little power in the UK for anyone to centralise.
You can look where you like, and you find civil servants and politicians
trying very hard to discern and then deliver what the voter wants,
and to do it cheaply. It is right that the only passion we should
allow civil servants is for disinterestedness, which is not half
so much under threat as is the anonymity they need in order to preserve
You find people scrutinised and disciplined by (and here is a partial
list): the Today Programme, the rest of the energetic media, (the
quite new) Commons select committees, the National Audit Office,
The Audit Commission, judicial review, increasingly nosy and bossy
judges (whom we should watch), occasional judicial inquiries, assiduous
single issue campaigners, vainglorious academics. And on top of
all this we now face the biggest and loosest cannon ever to be unleashed
of the deck of the ship of state: the threat of litigation.
People fear that parliament cannot scrutinise the apparatus of
the state it has sanctioned. Why should it, with this army of snipers?
Given the modern excess of scrutiny, the ease of exacting retribution
and the hunger for very visible redress, it is a miracle that anything
good, but no miracle that little that is very bad, is achieved by
the body politic.
It is true that by putting out much of government to tender, and
setting up agencies of one sort or another, we have made the lines
of accountability hard to follow, as we have seen this year in the
case of the Prison Service. But if there are many more slip-ups
of that sort, Ministers will be forced to delineate the chain of
command better, and the result should be a pretty effective improvement
of a worthwhile reform.
It is a persistent myth that Britain is ruled not merely centrally
but by something called the Establishment. How this squares with
the idea, also current, that Britain's ruling class (whatever that
is) is as ignorant as it is distrustful of the commercial class
is anyone's guess. As is the problem of how it comes that academia
has little to do with either. There clearly is no ruling class,
and the Quangocracy especially should appeal to anyone who wants
Britain to be classless: its chiefs are overwhelmingly provincial,
grammar school and redbrick university types.
There were of course fears that the agencies lack a real sense
of public service. But who can listen to the chiefs of the schools
or the prisons inspection services without noting they are freer
of institutionalised humbug than conventional civil service institutions
would have been: isn't that exactly what we wanted to see? The reviled
Citizen's Charters and league tables reveal to us regularly what
we know as people who use them: schools and hospitals are doing
very well, considering how reluctant we are to fund them.
In any case, what is so often missed is that accountability lies
like flotsam and jetsam all around the shores of the new Archipelago
State, and most of us can't be bothered to pick it up. Schools and
hospitals now really do make themselves open to customer influence,
and like most ministries conduct long and serious exercises in public
consultation: most of us feel so little is wrong that we let everyone
else play our part for us.
Much the same case applies to information as it does to accountability.
The Americans are better informed by their government on a huge
range of irrelevancies than are the British, but no-one seriously
believes that America is a better run or more open government. Most
other European societies are run by closed elites. But then their
peoples are schooled in being citizens of a state, whilst we luxuriate
as subjects of the crown.
Where in the world does the cabinet parade before the discerning
classes at length every morning? Where in the world do senior civil
servants delight to inform sensible journalists of every problem
their political masters face? Or consider, too briefly, rights:
do the British feel they have fewer rights because they have not
been crammed on to a page of A4; do they not sense that it is a
bad justice system which destroys rights, rather a piece of paper
that might defend them?
The truth about the British constitutional system is that there
are things we perhaps don't like about it which might be put right,
but with probably largely disappointing results.
Constitutions do not create the vigour in society, though they
may play their part in repressing it. They certainly don't make
a people energetic or entrepreneurial. The most one can hope is
that a people's government reflects their temper. This is where
one might make a case for reform: not that it will make our economy
or government more efficient, but that we may be failing culturally
because we are in thrall to our past and thus need to throw over
its trappings. Actually, it is more likely that as modernity sweeps
through our culture like a gale, we would be wise to cling to such
bits of the wreckage which provide us with comfort.
The failings of modern British government lie much more with the
alternating indolence and graspingness of voters and the vulgarity
of its media, than they do with the constitutional system or even
the people manning it. To slightly pervert Disney: the Constitution
is Baroque, but there's no need to fix it.
Handy Quotations (Top)
Some core quotations, or "comfort for reactionaries"
- all culled from the Oxford Dictionary of Political Quotations,
edited by Antony Jay, OUP, 1996 or the Faber Book of Aphorisms,
ed W H Auden and Louis Kronenberger (1964)
"Authority doesn't work without prestige, or prestige without
distance." Charles de Gaulle 1890-1970
"The state is or can be master of money, but in a free society
it is master of very little else." William Beveridge 1879-1963
"Alteration though it be from worse to better hath in it inconveniences,
and those weighty." Richard Hooker, c1554-1600
"It is the folly of too many, to mistake the echo of a London
coffeee-house for the voice of the kingdom." Jonathan Swift.
"Thus our democracy was, from an early period, the most aristocratic,
and our aristocracy the most democratic, in the world." Lord
"Damn your principles! Stick to your party." Benjamin
"Politicians neither love nor hate. Interest, not sentiment,
directs them." Lord Chesterfield 1694-1773
"I feel an insuperable reluctance in giving my hand to destroy
any established institution of government on a theory, however plausible
it may be." Edmund Burke 1729-97
"Liberty is liberty, not equality or fairness or justice or
human happiness or a quiet conscience." Isaiah Berlin 1909-1999
"Democracy, which means despair of finding any heroes to govern
you." Thomas Carlyle, 1795-1881
"A fanatical belief in democracy makes democratic institutions
impossible." Bertrand Russell 1872-1970
"Democracy becomes a government of bullies tempered by editors."
Ralph Waldo Emerson 1803-1882
"The worst sort of tyranny the world has ever known: the tyranny
of the weak over the strong. It is the only tyranny that lasts."
Oscar Wilde 1854-1900