Constitutional reform: time for new wineskins

“Nobody puts new wine in old wineskins; otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins and run to waste, and the skins will be ruined. No; new wine must be put in fresh skins. And nobody who has been drinking old wine wants new. ‘The old is good’, he says”. The Gospel According To St. Luke, 5: 37-39.

They just don’t get it, do they, the establishment types? They talk the language of reform, but they basically think the old system works and knows best. It certainly works for them.

So, in the interests of ‘reform’, they elect a ‘maverick’ speaker in what turns out to be essentially a put-up job, with Labour and the Lib Dems ganging up to choose a Tory that the Conservatives despise, in the hope that he will provide a useful counterweight to a Tory-dominated Commons when the Conservatives ‘inevitably’ achieve a landslide victory at the next election (why? because they won’t in fact have reformed the First Past the Post voting system by then, despite their fine words?) – up to their old party-politicking tricks again in filling a position that is supposed to be above all that. This reformist speaker then makes an acceptance speech affirming that the vast majority of MPs are in fact honest and motivated by zeal for public service. So the expenses scandal doesn’t in fact bespeak a systemic problem of corruption and venality on the part of a parliament that is largely unaccountable (comprising mainly ‘safe seats’) – despite the fact that you, Mr Speaker, are one of the biggest flippers of them all.

One of the proposed reforms the new speaker will have to oversee, announced on Tuesday, will involve the creation of a new government-appointed body, provisionally entitled the Parliamentary Standards Authority, that will not only supervise and advise on MPs’ pay and expenses but will administer them, including via a statutory power to take possession of Parliament’s assets and property rights. So instead of greater accountability of MPs to the people, what we are in danger of getting is MPs becoming effectively employees of the government whose new body has draconian powers to expel or even imprison them if it deems they have violated the rules to a serious extent. No less than the principle of parliamentary sovereignty is at stake.

We may feel that Parliament has demonstrated its unworthiness to exercise sovereignty over its own affairs in this particular area; but shouldn’t the reforms involve proposals that put the power to hold MPs to account in the hands of their own constituents (for instance, through the power for the people to call by-elections if, say, 10% of constituents demand it), not in those of an unelected, unaccountable quango? And of course, it’s Parliament itself, not the people, that will get to vote through this legislation with potentially devastating consequences for the UK’s constitution and parliamentary democracy.

The same goes for House of Lords ‘reform’, with MPs keen to rush through legislation for a new mainly or wholly elected House, an issue of principle on which they already voted last year. In addition to party-politicising a House that has acted as one of the few scrupulous sources of revision and scrutiny of an authoritarian and unaccountable government, these changes could result in expelling the Church of England bishops from the Lords, adding momentum to the drive to disestablish the Church altogether. All very well, on one level, if you don’t think the Church should have a privileged position at the heart of the establishment and the right to be involved in revising legislation proposed by democratically elected politicians. But this involves changes to centuries-old constitutional arrangements that pre-date the creation of the British state and which, as I’ve argued elsewhere, represent possibly the only way in which England continues to have any official, constitutional status as a nation. But are the people of Britain, let alone the people of England, going to be consulted in a referendum on these fundamental constitutional changes? If they are, I haven’t heard anything about it.

And then there are all the shabby, venal goings-on around the parliamentary enquiry into the Iraq War, with Gordon Brown showing last week that he’d learned absolutely nothing from the furore over expenses, insisting that the enquiry should be conducted in private despite all his mealy-mouthed advocacy of greater transparency in the way parliament conducts its business. Of course, he’s had to back-track; but even last night, the Labour party whips managed to corral enough of their troops into the voting lobby to defeat a Tory amendment demanding that the scope of the enquiry should be broader than that proposed and should be down to parliament to determine: the old parliamentary systems clicking into gear to prevent rather than insist on adequate scrutiny of the executive.

It’s all very depressing: it really is as if the whole thing is in a terminal state of decline, disrepair and disrepute. The politicians seem to believe they can carry on in the same discredited way, playing their self-serving, party-political games, with little reference to the people’s wishes and rights. Even the reforms suggested are top-down (proposed, driven and voted for by Parliament) rather than resulting from a genuine process of consultation with the people through measures such as citizens’ conventions and deliberative referendums. And the reforms themselves, far from putting greater power in the hands of ordinary people to whom Parliament should be accountable, seem designed to increase the power of the executive and the party apparatuses over MPs and the legislative process.

Originally, I was thinking of writing a post suggesting that the best, most straightforward and most radical way to reform the House of Commons would be simply to replace it with a new English Parliament, with new structures and procedures, and elected using PR. You’d then also need a new federal UK parliament, which similarly would be drawn up on completely new lines. Not so much reform from within the existing Parliament itself but starting from a blank canvass. A slightly less radical alternative would be to turn the existing House of Commons, including some of its arcane, historic traditions and its present home in the Palace of Westminster, into an English Parliament; while the House of Lords could be transformed into the new federal UK parliament with powers to scrutinise and suggest amendments to legislation arising from all four devolved national parliaments. Both of these options would still preserve a United Kingdom that did not break from the past in its fundamentals: same monarchy; same symbolism and ‘identity’ of the historic UK state; and probably the same emphasis on the ultimate sovereignty of the British parliament, or shared British-parliamentary sovereignty distributed across the national and federal parliaments in their respective areas of competence.

But somehow, I just can’t see this happening. I think the events of the past couple of weeks, described above, demonstrate that the old Parliament is incapable of driving through radical democratic reform from within. It is too profoundly wedded to the idea that its sovereignty and power – intimately allied with that of the executive – is somehow timeless and unchallengeable, and gives it the right to dictate the shape of reforms that consolidate the unaccountable dominance of the main parties and the executive, rather than restoring and renewing Parliament’s authority and sovereignty from its true source: the will of the people.

In reality, maybe the situation needs to be framed the other way round: instead of thinking of the dynamic towards the creation of an English parliament and a federal UK as resulting from a process whereby the present system reforms itself from within, maybe the present crisis is the symptom of a much deeper rift and sense of division between the people and the government (parliament and executive), and between the different nations whose union in the United Kingdom Parliament is supposed to symbolise and embody. On this view, the authority of Parliament has ebbed away because it is no longer a ‘national parliament’ worthy of the name: a parliament for, and of, the people as a united national community. Parliament cannot exercise sovereignty on behalf of, and in the name of, the people until there is agreement on who the people are: England or Britain; a single British nation-kingdom, or a federation of multiple nations.

But the politicians want to carry on much as before. In the words of the evangelist, they think the old parliament and the old Britain is good, and that they can pour the new wine of reform into the old wineskin of the present system. But maybe, in doing so, they risk destroying both the wineskin of the old establishment and the possibility for genuine democratic renewal.

Instead, isn’t what is needed a whole new start, with the citizens of the respective UK nations deciding for themselves on a new politics and constitutional settlement that match their aspirations, priorities and identities as national communities in their own right? Reform should start from new foundations; from the bottom up. Yes, new wine must be put in fresh skins.

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One Response

  1. […] New wine is for new wineskins, as the biblical saying goes, not for old. Leave a Comment […]

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