Monday, May 08, 2006

Power Inquiry and the Constitution

It's all gone quiet over at Liberty Central. The flow of postings has dried up, and visitors to the forums and wiki are few and far between. Unity has indicated that the site will move to a new home shortly which may mean that a relaunch will bring about a revival. We'll have to wait and see.

There's still plenty going on on the constitutional reform front though. This review of the Power Inquiry conference by Davide Simonetti is very interesting. It's encouraging that there seems to be a level of agreement among the opposition parties that something needs to be done, even if they don't seem to know precisely what.

Voter apathy is a constant complaint of politicians and commenters, but nobody seems to put their finger on exactly why this is happening. "People don't feel their votes count" we are told, without anyone getting to the bottom of why this should be so. For what it's worth, my theory is that there is so little to choose between the three main parties that voters are not presented with a meaningful choice. The underlying reason for this is that the parties all have policies developed in focus groups which target a very small number of swing voters. Since they all develop policy in this way they all quite reasonably reach the identical conclusion that a small measure of marketisation in the public services will make this special group happy.

The methods used by the political machines is not going to change in the near future, at least not while they continue to deliver power. Fortunately the Power Inquiry seems to have hit the nail on the head in terms of a solution.

They make the following proposals;
  • We have to redistribute power from the executive, from Downing Street to Parliament.
  • We have to restore Cabinet Government.
  • We have to have a redistribution of power from the central to the local.
The last of these points is the important one, because this is the way to reengage the public in the political process. If decisions about your life, or your public services are taken locally then you are much more likely to feel that you can influence them. But, more importantly, if radically different decisions are made in different parts of the country then people can vote with their feet and live in a part of the country with a political system that is to their taste. This sort of decentralisation is both an enabler of an active civil society and a bulwark against the kind of creeping authoritarianism that we have endured under the Labour government. Unfortunately I doubt if anyone has the courage to devolve healthcare, welfareand education to local government, and the political courage to allow local government to raise its own taxes is surely no longer a feature of our political class.

Even were politicians to pluck up their courage and put in place a constitution that devolved power as radically as this, it would still remain to be seen how these powers could be kept devolved. The lesson of the American constitution is that even quite narrowly defined powers can, in the hands of unscrupulous politicians and quiescent judges, be extended far beyond the meaning of the text. With hindsight, we can draw two lessons from the US.

Firstly, the Seventeenth amendment, allowing for the direct election of senators, was a mistake. Before this amendment the Senators were chosen by the state legislators. This effectively gave local government a voice in central government, and allowed the senate to block the centralising tendencies of the Washington machine. The campaign to Elect the Lords may therefore be misguided: fine, do away with the power of the Prime Minister to choose peers, but let the elections not be direct. We place far too much faith in directly elected politicians - a surprising failing on our part when we have such bitter experiences of them. Indirect elections, while superficially "less democratic" will be a better defence against centralisation and the authoritarianism that will follow it.

Secondly, a UK constitution needs to proscribe even further than the US Constitution, the powers of central government. The Commerce clause allowing Congress to "regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes" has over the years been extended to cover not only inter-state trade, but intra-state trade, manufacturing (which is not commerce), and has now reached the risible stage where Congress has claimed a right to prevent someone growing marijuana in their back garden for their own use (apparently because it might effect the market for drugs). If we are going to frame a Constitution that is going to be effective and which is going to last, we have to be alert to this threat. There is no form of words which Central government cannot wriggle their way out of. The only solution is to devolve pretty much everything.

Reform of the constitution will only work if it is radical. The question we must ask is: "Who are the remaining radicals in British political life who will take on the task of reform?"