This article originally appeared in The Guardian
Do we have any influence over those who govern us? After two million marched against the war, the issue that has brought this to a head is of course Iraq. But it is far more pervasive than that. When Britain’s sovereignty vis-à-vis Europe may be affected by the new EU constitution, should we be denied a vote on whether we assent to a potentially fundamental change? When there is overwhelming hostility among the public (and probably, on a free vote, in Parliament too) to top-up fees and foundation hospitals, how can the Government be made to re-think major policies so widely opposed?
How can the Government be prevented from going ahead with commercialisation of GM crops even though the Government’s own consultation has shown public opinion decisively opposed and scientific tests have shown it would be environmentally harmful? If the Hutton Inquiry report leaves several unanswered questions about how Britain was led into the Iraq War in defiance of the available evidence, should the Prime Minister be entitled to block a wider judicial inquiry when it is his own actions that are under scrutiny? And there are many more such questions.
All these have become issues of contention because of one central fact. The centralisation of power, which has been gradually gathering pace for decades, is now more concentrated at the top than at any time for a century or more. Richard Crossman famously said 40 years ago that “the power of the prime minister has been increasing, is still increasing, and should be cut back”. It wasn’t, and the process has now steadily been taken further, to the point where the big issue in Britain now is a widely held and deeply resented sense of powerlessness.
The patronage available to the prime minister – and this is a reflection on the post, not on its present incumbent – is massive, and not subject to ratification by any external body. That enables selections to be focussed on personal loyalty rather than merit, and exerts pressure on existing holders of public office, and future aspirants to it, to stress loyalty above all else. This has now been taken further in two significant ways. In selections not directly controlled by the prime minister – such as the Scottish Parliamentary and Welsh Assembly elections, the London mayor selection, the list system for the EU Parliamentary elections, and selections for Westminster Parliamentary seats – his network of aides can, and do, indirectly intervene to promote a preferred candidate and to exclude or vote down any candidates not approved of.
Another significant departure from past practice is the choice of a tiny group of non-elected advisers, appointed by the prime minister and working closely to him alone, and the vesting in them of widespread powers over both ministers and civil servants. As a result of this presidential style, the Cabinet is downgraded and party organs of accountability – the National Executive Committee, the Parliamentary Labour Party, and party conference itself – are marginalised. When party conference voted by large majorities to reject certain Government policies – on PFI last year, and on foundation hospitals this year – the votes were simply ignored.
Parliament itself has similarly been weakened. Labour won 23% of the voting population at the election, but has a two-thirds inbuilt majority in the Commons. A mixture of patronage and a tight whipping system has secured disciplined control within this large majority and a minimum of dissent. The prime minister’s writ over policy, for which there has usually been little or no consultation, therefore flows through Parliament largely unchecked. Parliament’s capacity to hold the Government, and particularly the prime minister, to account has been largely neutered.
What then should be done? The prime minister’s appointments to Cabinet should be subject to ratification by the appropriate Select Committee, as is already the case in the US with the President’s nominees requiring to be ratified at Congressional hearings. If such appointees were also liable to potential future recall by the same Select Committee, there would at least be a dual line of accountability, not one confined to the prime minister. Appointments to all key bodies outside Parliament should be vested wherever practicable in an external independent commission, as is now proposed for the senior judiciary.
Select Committees should be substantially strengthened as a counter-balance to Executive power. The Foreign Affairs Committee has said they cannot get to the bottom of the row over the Iraqi evidence without full access to all the relevant papers and witnesses. They should be empowered to subpoena ministers and to require the presentation of papers (including sensitive intelligence, subject to safeguards to prevent wider disclosure), both of which are currently at the discretion of ministers. Members should also be properly resourced – US Senators have ten times more staff.
The main public expenditure Estimates, totalling over £300 bn, should be referred to Select Committees so that the Commons has the option to debate and vote for transfers within departmental budget totals. It might for example be far more cost-effective to double or even treble expenditure on preventive health measures and improving life-styles rather than concentrating on new hospitals and expensive technology, but Parliament has no means at present to enforce this. Establishing real parliamentary input into financial authorisations, as already happens in New Zealand, Sweden and the USA, is essential for holding the Executive to account. Similarly, Audit Commission reports should be formally presented to Parliament for debate (there is no formal link at present), and a new parliamentary committee should be established to analyse and comment on them. Further, all Bills should be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny (except genuinely emergency Bills) to take up parliamentary and public concerns.
Decisions about scrutiny of Government accountability should be vested in a new high-level independent body, not Government itself. Most topically, the question of whether, following Hutton, there should be a wider judicial inquiry into the factors that led Britain into the Iraq war cannot properly be taken by the prime minister, when it is his actions that are under scrutiny. For a very limited (but very important) number of cases of overriding national interest of this kind, the decision about what action should be taken should lie with a high-level group consisting perhaps of senior back-bench members of the Commons and Lords and maybe senior members of the judiciary.
Finally, though there are many other reforms needed, we should make some limited use of referenda. One single national vote at general elections is nowhere near sufficient to exercise real democratic control in the face of today’s excessive centralisation of power. Again, a High-Level Committee as outlined might be appropriate to decide when, on matters of overriding national interest, a referendum might be justified, taking their decision in the light of agreed and published criteria.
These measures would be at least a first step in reversing the malaise of powerlessness which is currently so widespread and damaging.