Cameron's Grand Design

In a speech today in Milton Keynes, David Cameron promised to turn Britain into something closely resembling a democracy. Just a tad over-ambitious, I fear. Still, it was a fine piece of oratory. First of all, the Tory leader grasps the fact that public anger against the MPs expenses wouldn't have taken off in so explosive a way were it not for a seething discontent with the political process in the wider sense. And that this discontent arises, most of all, from a sense of powerlessness. This is not so much a disconnection between people and politicians as a disconnection between human beings and the system that governs them. He mentions frustration with central targets in the health service and education and - remarkable for a Conservative politician - increasing distrust of the police. There is "a sense of power and control draining away", he says. People "see a world that is built to benefit powerful elites, and they feel a terrible but impotent anger".

He echoes complaints about officious rule-following, box-ticking procedures and an officialdom "which treats us like children with rules and regulations and directives and laws that no-one voted for, no-one supports, but no-one ever seems to be able to do the slightest thing about". He condemns a legislative process in which bills are "dreamt up on sofas" and nodded through by MPs who "most of the time don't even know what they're voting for". He is willing to use the O-word - Orwellian - to describe New Labour's surveillance society. He notes that people "increasingly feel that the state is their enemy not their ally". He even blames political shortcomings for the alleged fact that "we lose our temper more than any other people in Europe".

Now obviously, telling people what they think they want to hear is part of the standard repertoire of the modern politician. It is meaningless without action to back it up - and it might just be empty words. Even so, that the "rage against the machine" - for so long confined to columns in the Daily Mail, online forums and beer-fuelled moan-sessions in the few remaining traditional pubs - has now entered mainstream political discourse in this way is a development which potentially has far-reaching repurcussions. Leaders in all parties will now be competing with each other to provide answers to this sense of dislocation. The terms of debate have shifted, for the time being at least, against Brown's vision of centralised statism.

Then there are Cameron's proposals themselves, which while they wouldn't by themselves resolve all the public grumbles are fairly radical. Cameron's answer is a "massive devolution of power:

From the state to citizens; from the government to parliament; from Whitehall to communities. From Brussels to Britain; from judges to the people; from bureaucracy to democracy. Through decentralisation, transparency and accountability we must take power away from the political elite and hand it to the man and woman in the street.

In practice, this would mean a decimated Parliament, local and national referendums, more powers for local authorities, elected mayors, direct public control over the police, and something resembling education vouchers (though not called that). He intends to abolish regional government (hooray). It's a heady agenda. And as for Westminster itself, Cameron seems to be proposing to dismantle much of the party system. Open primaries would enable independent candidates, selected by local voters, to stand under party banners. Without owing their position to central party machines, it's unlikely they would owe the party hierarchy much loyalty, either. Cameron wants fewer whipped votes, more power and independence to Select Committees, more scope for backbenchers to introduce legislation, more detailed scrutiny of bills. The result, in terms of the government's ability to pass legislation, could be extraordinarily disruptive. He declares himself in favour of fixed Parliamentary terms and a major reduction in the Royal prerogative. If all Cameron's proposals are introduced, the House of Commons would begin to resemble the House of Representatives. With the major difference that the government would continue to draw its majority, legitimacy - and membership - from Parliament. It could be a recipe for chaos.

No Proportional Representation, though. The present system, with its unbalanced distribution of seats, is overwhelmingly biased in favour of Labour. But that doesn't mean that the government is not facing meltdown at the next election, so unpopular has it become. PR, in the minds of its left-leaning supporters (now joined by Roy Hattersley) has always been seen principally as a device for ensuring quasi-permanent Lib-Lab government, so it's scarcely surprising that leading Labour figures faced with the disappearance of what they must have long considered their God-given majority (achieved last time on not much more than 20% of the available vote) should be rushing to embrace it. Hattersley is honest enough to admit that the principal attraction of PR, for him, is that it "offers the prospect of a progressive alliance". But might it serve the Conservative interest? Cameron doesn't think so:

Proportional representation takes power away from the man and woman in the street and hands it to the political elites. Instead of voters choosing their government on the basis of the manifestos and leadership put before them in an election campaign, party managers would choose a government on the basis of secret backroom deals.

How is that going to deliver the transparency and trust we need? And hybrid systems like AV plus are even worse: they're not proportional, and represent something of a political fix.

Instead, he wants to redistribute a smaller number of seats to produce equally-sized constituencies which would eliminate most of the present Labour advantage.

The best argument for first-past-the-post is that it produces (most of the time) a strong government that can get things done without having to engage in horse-trading. It also prevents a defeated government clinging on to power by doing a deal with one of the smaller parties in the face of the clearly-expressed desire of the voters for change. So it is not always the most democratic solution. Tony Blair was dissuaded from adopting the Jenkins plan for AV-plus when he learned that, had it been in operation in 1979, Margaret Thatcher would never have come to power. Sometimes, it is necessary for a government to do unpopular things, and FPTP both makes this possible and ensures the proper punishment of a government that abuses its power, is incompetent or has simply been there for too long.

That said, a decentralised, open politics of the kind described in David Cameron's speech today would be one in which the professional political class has had many of its teeth pulled. So the argument that a PR-elected Parliament represents a conspiracy of the politicians against the people would have less force. And if a government so elected was hamstrung by inter-party niceties, then most of the time that would be no bad thing. Cameron's other proposals, after all, aim to strip power from the political machines who have benefited most from FPTP. He expresses a desire for MPs who "deliver more for less"; but what is really wanted is a Parliament that does less - or at the least passes fewer laws. So the question really is whether PR would weaken the impact of the suggested reforms. Candidates selected in open primaries and less at the mercy of the whips would come much closer to the ideal of the MP as a local representative than is presently the case. PR, by contrast, would increase party patronage.

Other sections of Cameron's speech are a little vague. He talks of bringing back power from Brussels - but, short of offering a referendum on the Lisbon treaty (a promise that will probably be meaningless by the time he gets into power) and referendums on any further treaties holds out little prospect of delivering. He's iffy about the Human Rights Act (especially the power it gives to judges) but the promised British Bill of Rights is still poorly sketched out. He scarcely mentions the House of Lords (though, to be fair, he has previously promised an elected chamber). He talks of the "post bureaucratic age" without promising the one thing that would actually achieve it, which is a drastic reduction in the number of bureaucrats. There's something a bit gimmicky - Blairish, even - in his extolling of the latest technology. And technology tends to date even more quickly than political programmes - even this one, which for all its internet connectivity has more than a whiff of Maggie's Victorian Values about it.

Still, the ambition of the speech is awe-inspiring. Putting Cameron's blueprint into effect would require possibly the biggest act of political self-renunciation since Diocletian gave up ruling the Roman Empire to grow cabbages. It will require remarkable levels of fortitude. Every time there's a major disaster or scandal, or the crime figures rise, or the health scare of the day hits the headlines, or people complain that their local school isn't up to much or a hospital is threatened with closure, every time John Humphrys gets a cabinet minister on the radio and asks "what are you going to do about it?", said minister will have to sit there and say "Sorry, that's not my responsibility". And when Humphrys retorts, "Why did we elect you?", when opinion polls show discontent, when the Opposition - the reinvigorated Labour Opposition - promises that they would take control of errant public services and put new procedures in place to make them work - ministers will have to have the strength of will to do nothing.

And it could all get rather unpopular.

There's also the accumulated inertia of the system, which he does at least acknowledge:

Politicians, and the senior civil servants and advisors who work for them, instinctively hoard power because they think that's the way to get things done. Well we're going to have to kill that instinct, and believe me: I know how hard that's going to be. It will require a serious culture change amongst ministers, amongst Whitehall officials - and beyond.

I suspect it will be much harder than he could ever possibly imagine. In one episode of Yes, Prime Minister, Sir Humphrey Appleby described a similarly ambitious plan for local accountability as "the most courageous I have ever heard". "Courageous", in Humphrey-speak, meant "mad".

Cameron's speech is inspirational, not simply because of what it promises in terms of giving us a real democracy, but because of the confidence it expresses that the British people will rise to the challenge of accepting the "responsibility" which he is offering. Giving "power to the people" is wonderful in principle; achieving it would require, not just self-restraint from politicians, but also a citizenry willing to put in considerable extra effort in managing their own lives, taking more interest in politics, being more active in their local communities, in addition to everything else that occupies the time during a full working life. It's a big ask. It threatens to rob the British of one of our greatest national pleasures, therapeautic grumbling. Can people learn to stop expecting (or not expecting) "the government" to step in and sort out every problem? Can we really bear the psychological burden of actual responsibility?

I'd like to think so. But I'm not entirely convinced.


valdemar said…
I wonder if the supposed unwillingness of citizens to participate in local politics is, at least in part, down to mobility - the physical kind. We have shallower roots, nowadays. In the 19th century most people lived the same place for most of their lives. Yes, some people left home to seek their fortunes etc, but the working class (when they got the vote) and the middle class shopkeepers and clerks were rooted in their town or city. Are things like that now? The conventional lifestyle today - or at least, before the credit crunch - was based around the assumption that you commute to work from a considerable distance - at least half an hour by road - and change your address every two or three years because a house isn't just a place to live, it's an investment scheme. So if Mr Cameron wants to really revive local democracy, he should somehow scupper this pernicious modern trend for the masses to move about. Bearing in mind the Duke of Wellington spotted the problem but failed to nip it in the bud, I suspect the Duke's successor will find it tricky.
WeepingCross said…
Valdemar, I've come to the same conclusion about the reluctance of people apparently to join in any voluntary effort, from politics to the church to local football teams to the Brownies. People feel that they have to live their lives in an entirely ad hoc manner because at any moment they might have to drive halfway across the country to be at Auntie Doris's deathbed. In fact they've probably got no such intention, but they feel they might, and that's enough to outweigh any urge to commit themselves in advance to much.
"Tony Blair was dissuaded from adopting the Jenkins plan for AV-plus when he learned that, had it been in operation in 1979, Margaret Thatcher would never have come to power. "

Priceless! That is truly hilarious. Quite the funniest thing I have read in many weeks, A real comedy gem. Wonderful satire. Well done.
Ayrdale said…
From here in NZ, Cameron's speech seems to be on target.

How is it though when referendums are mentioned the Swiss example doesn't get considered ?

Doesn't multi-lingual, armed to the teeth Switzerland have over 400 unpaid (real expenses only) MP's and less than 20 ministers who run the country ? And doesn't their country run rather well ? And isn't the basis for this prosperity and harmony a citizens initiated referendum law ?

Cantons for the UK maybe ?
valdemar said…
Father W, I was playing Devil's Advocate, but I played him like William Shatner. I would like local democracy to work, but I do think that Victorian concept of having a home town and being proud of it just doesn't fit with the zeitgeist. Regional government is deeply unpopular - esp. up here - so what remains? I'm sure devolving power to councils would improve things simply by having somebody involved who knows the terrain. But Cameron's views do seem wildly optimistic.
WeepingCross said…
I did detect a certain presence of the tongue in the cheek, but there's many a true word ...
Heresiarch said…
No indeed, Woolly, I can assure you that vignette comes on good authority. Though I forget exactly where I read it. Blair's precise words were "The country needed a change".
Richard T said…
I think what we're seeing is a very worrying combination of an incompetent state with venal politicians. The deterioration in the competence of the British government has been noticeable for some time. Partly this may relate to the paradox of the expansion of its reach - into matters which were traditionally left to local government for example, with the transfer of accountability to executive agencies and quangos. There is in the former case an expansion of very detailed centralised management into say schools which central government had eschewed and now relishes but where the ability of Parliament to give effective oversight is completely absent. In the latter example - well we all recall Paxo and Michael Howard on his accountability for prisons. Linked with this is the very disturbing extension of Statutory Instruments whjich by pass scrutiny; the decision to force through retention of DNA for 12 years is a case in point.

All these create a sense of powerlessness amongst the electorate. Add in the witch's brew where there has been what I'd call government dishonesty, about the Iraq war for example, the MPs' feathering nests bought at public expense, the failure to reform the Lords, the election of the government on a 36% vote with a 60%turnout and finally the mismatch of words and deeds and the spin. You get where we are today and the catalyst for the current public mood has been the expenses scandal.

But Government and MPs have done this themselves. They've sown the seeds of the climate of cynicism and now the whirlwind is being reaped.

Cameron's speech is interesting in that he gives no acknowledgement to practice in our Parliament in Edinburgh where much of what he preaches is in operation.
The Heresiarch said... No indeed, Woolly, I can assure you that vignette comes on good authority. Though I forget exactly where I read it. Blair's precise words were "The country needed a change".

He may well have said exactly that at some point long afterwards as a retrospective justification.

But back in 1997 when he did the dirty on us he admitted quite openly that he had not really expected to win such a large majority. He lost interest in PR once it became clear that Labour would be in for more than one term. Another big factor was that he didn't think he could persuade his MPs to support a system that would not return them. If he'd had a small majority or there had been N.O.C. then he'd have gone with the Jenkins Plan for sure.
Richard T said... In the latter example - well we all recall Paxo and Michael Howard on his accountability for prisons.

Michael Howard was the victim of a great injustice in that interview. He was misrepresented as shifty, evasive and trying to cover up something when in reality he had nothing to hide but wasn't sure enough off-the-cuff to give a definitive answer in case it was wrong.

If he'd known the question was coming he could have checked beforehand and said "No" or whatever it was that meant he had acted perfectly properly and correctly.

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