Saturday, 6 February 2010

The Queen, Proportional Representation or a written Constitution...?

Today Saturday 6th February marks the anniversary of the Queen's accession in 1952. Having once sworn an oath to defend, “her, her heirs and successors” I hate to say it, but as a constitutional monarch, she has been well……pathetic.

Over her reign, she has allowed politicians to accumulate frightening power of almost dictatorial dimensions. She has merely stood by as these self serving careerists have cast aside all restraint both political and moral, including the basic rights, liberties and institutions that were fought for precisely to protect us her subjects from arbitrary authority.

At first, of course, theses safeguards were intended to protect us from the power of absolute monarchs. In time, though, Parliament has replaced the monarch as sovereign; but these same rules worked equally well at restraining politicians too, well whilst they had morals that is. Ministers knew that they were only the temporary custodians of the public trust; and that their power was checked and balanced by MP’s select committees, the civil service, and the courts.

Indeed, the monarchy itself became one of these balancing institutions. The best example being; Queen Victoria, who exercised considerable influence over her Prime Ministers, ergo; her Government and their policies. It may seem bizarre in a democracy that the monarch is notionally the head of the government, the church, the peerage and the army; but the reason we kept it that way is not so that monarchs can wield unlimited power, but so as to keep unlimited power out of the hands of politicians. For most of our latter history, our monarchs have had a better grasp of the mood of the people, and of the importance of their rights and freedoms, than have ministers: so this has proved a useful arrangement.

Until now…..

The key constitutional role of monarchs today, then, is to stop politicians from usurping power and turning themselves into an elected dictatorship. But the Queen – perhaps confusing the exercise of this role with political interference – has allowed precisely that to happen. With Magna Carta, the Queen’s distant ancestor agreed to fundamental principles such as our right not to be held without trial, and to be tried by a jury. Yet in her own reign (starting perhaps in 1971 with internment in Northern Ireland, but escalating fast in the last dozen years) these rights, and liberties, have simply been signed away with Government attempts to hold suspects for up to 42 days without trial, increasing and intrusive surveillance and recently the first ever trial without jury in over four hundred years!

The constitutional role of an unelected, hereditary monarchy must be limited of course. But it does have a constitutional role, and must exercise that role as a necessary counterweight to the otherwise unbridled power of an executive that – through its majority and its patronage – is in complete control of Parliament.

And now we see Gordon Brown’s desperate attempt to entrench this and woo Liberal Democrat votes at the general election, by dangling the carrot of electoral reform in the shape of the Alternative Transferable Vote (ATV) in front of them if Labour returns to government after the election. But one of the better articles on the subject can be found over at The Economic Voice written by Andrew Withers. Withers includes an excellent summary of the constitutional mess the UK finds itself in, attributed to the vandalism of the spiteful Labour administration, that should be burned into the mind of every voter.

But the real reason why Withers’ piece stands out for me is the way he gets beyond the narrow vested interests of the main political parties that will debate Brown’s proposal. For as he rightly identifies, any reform needs to have at its heart a truly democratic focus that empowers the individual, or as Withers puts it:

We need a new Constitutional Settlement, not a Soviet style one imposed from above, but a written Constitution that guarantees the rights of the individual over that of the State. Not Jack Straw’s perversion of what duties we all owe to the State.

He is absolutely right. The UK needs a written constitution. I never (being a student of history and having a passion for such) thought I’d ever say this but the existing dog’s breakfast that passes for a constitutional settlement leaves it to a couple of dozen influential members from the three main political parties, whose elected voting fodder inhabit the House of Commons, to dictate on an ad hoc basis the extent of the permissions that will be granted to the population on any number of issues. The most clear recent example of this was the stitch up known as the Lisbon Treaty.

The Irish Government was forced to put the decision on ratification to the voters because it was a constitutional requirement to vote on such a substantial shift of power. With the benefit of a written constitution the political class would have been unable to put their own interests first and bypass British voters to impose more EU control on this country.

The existing settlement is not only completely unacceptable, it is fundamentally anti-democratic. It is reminiscent of the self serving Parliamentary era witnessed in the days between the execution of Charles I and the start of Oliver Cromwell’s reign as Lord Protector. It is a corruption that needs to be dismantled. And let’s not forget the absence of a written constitution also allows judges to interpret the law in very different ways, as their own personal biases see fit. The recent “suspended sentence” meted out by Cherie Blair to a violent but “devout” man being a very good example. Cranmer explains it far better than I ever could though.

This makes the legal system little better than a lottery. The cumulative effect is that the establishment – or the State if you will - is an effective dictatorship that rules the public, whereas its purpose and role should always be to serve the public. Not for no reason did our colonial cousins, having rejected British control, ensured the enduring rights of citizens by enshrining them in a written constitution. Indeed their very own declaration of independence enshrines the right nay the duty of citizens to throw off dictatorship as so eloquently enunciated in these words

“That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness” ………………...................................................................................................”But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security”

Oh if only we had such………

Britain has long had the need for a constitution of its own and that must be the focus of people who believe in real democracy.

While there is much where I agree with Withers, I am not convinced however that the way to a written constitution is through proportional representation. He certainly makes a powerful case for a written constitution, but the introduction of proportional representation (be it ATV or the German and Swiss models of PR that he lauds) does not guarantee such a constitution would be delivered. As an electoral system; First Past the Post is far from perfect. But it still feels preferable to a system that would entrench the current political parties, the increasing consensus on policy between them no thicker than a fag paper, which is negating any opposition to the prevailing groupthink and is at the root of the democratic deficit suffered by Britain.

No instead it is time for both Palace and Parliament to initiate a genuine public debate on the role of a constitutional monarch, and on when and how the monarchy should legitimately intervene to ensure that the rights and civil liberties of the people are preserved, OR we enshrine these rights and liberties in a written constitution.

And soon…….


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