In Britain politicians mostly talk the talk

Most great states change their constitutions after a revolution, an assassination or at least an election. Britain is girding its loins to change its constitution on the strength of a moat, a duck island and a bag of manure. It is hard to believe. This is retro-politics, Dada surrealism.

Every MP worth his salt is trying to divert attention from his expenses claim by proclaiming a change to the franchise, abolition of the Lords, or an end to the constituency system. The putative next leader of the Labour party, Alan Johnson, is proposing to emasculate himself with proportional representation. The leader of the Conservative party, David Cameron, is giving ‘serious consideration’ to reducing the power of Downing Street. This is panic, politics gone soft in the head.

Cameron, who has played a shrewd game throughout the expenses turmoil, put forward his reforms in a speech in Milton Keynes and an essay in the Guardian. He declared a “massive, sweeping, radical redistribution of power, from the state to the citizen, from the government to parliament, from Whitehall to communities, from the EU to Britain, from judges to people, and from bureaucracy to democracy.” He will “take power away from the political elite and hand it to the man and woman in the street.”

This is stirring stuff. Cameron talks the talk. His opposition to proportional representation and an elected Lords is admirable. Both are covert ways beloved of Westminster anoraks to promote coalitions and boost the patronage and thus power of party machines, the last thing Britain wants at present. Cameron’s local primaries could become a real opening up of politics – as would elected mayors if he really believed in them.

But when new politics turns to new government, Cameron’s decentralist litany is the same in substance as that of Blair’s ‘third way’ in 1997, Thatcher’s Next Steps and poll tax, and Wilson’s anti-treasury reorganisation of Whitehall. Opposition proposals to de-bureaucratise and devolve public administration are like G8 pledges on world poverty. They are noise, customary rituals, state openings of parliament. In Cameron’s case, textual critics might welcome the addition of the EU to the canon and consider ‘men and women in the street’ a bit hoary. But it is hard to quarrel with the old verities, vigorously restated. They might be those of an archbishop’s Christmas sermon. Britain is over-ruled, over-inspected and over-centralised. The question is not what these people promise but why, when in power, they fail to honour it. It is what Paddy Ashdown called a ‘Don Giovanni pledge’: probably meant at the time. The truth is that the British constitution is rooted in monarchical power, ranking in Kipling’s pantheon with horses, women and war.

When a prime minister enters office he or she is confronted by overwhelming demands for good to be done and an apparent lack of means to do it. Cameron is a thoughtful man, but inexperienced in moulding power to his will. He has yet to indicate how he might prove more determined a reformer than his predecessors. His bon-bons included a curb on the prime minister’s power to call elections (unbelievable), free Commons votes on committee stages of bills (unbelievable), and an end to prime ministers taking ‘major decisions’ without recourse to parliament (meaningless).

The Tory leader also wants to give local councils powers to do things they can already do, such as save post offices, but will not allow them the necessary means, an uncapped rate. The Tories will strip local government of what, across Europe, is a core civic function, running schools. Cameron wants to end control over school building and admissions, ostensibly ‘to give every parent choice of school.’ He might ask why two decades of attempts to do just that have failed.

Cut waste

Scepticism in all this is justified by evidence. Every modern government promises to cut waste and bureaucracy, and duly increases them. Unless politicians have the guts to say how, they deserve a hollow laugh.

This, not some trivia about expenses and tinkering with parliament, is the rot in the system. In most states, constitutions enshrine the separation and devolution of power. In Britain, students are taught that tradition and the probity of the ruling class are sufficient guard against elective dictatorship. It is no longer enough. That is why I believe that only a written constitution will free us from reliance on the wishy-washy, easy-to-discard pledges of leaders such as Blair, Brown and Cameron. The game is up. Their word is not to be trusted. Liberty from overpowering government must become compulsory.

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