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Government and politics: debate and change

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The Political System part a background Information
Government and politics: debate and change
The system of government

Government and politics: debate and change

The monarchy The apparent solidity and permanence of British custom and tradition are highly deceptive, for the institutions which appear to embody the permanence of these traditions are not static. The monarchy is a good example. Although already limited by the Constitutional Revolution of 1688, its function changed radically from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. In the 1860s and 1870s there was open talk of republicanism. However, Queen Victoria, ably advised by her Prime Minister, remodelled the monarchy to make it appear as the public symbol of national unity and as the paragon of family life in Britain. The rapidly growing middle and working classes of Britain's cities loved it. Most of the formalised ritual, for example the State Opening of Parliament and Trooping the Colour, were invented at this time to generate a feeling of timeless tradition as a counterweight to the social shock waves of the Industrial Revolution. The monarchy offered the public a romantic link with a largely imaginary past. Because Britain was victorious in both world wars, the monarchy survived to become the focal point of the nation. George V attended the first football Cup Final at Wembley and made use of the radio to become a popular monarch. George VI and his consort, Elizabeth (now known as the Queen Mother), made the monarchy yet more popular in the Second World War. By their refusal to leave Buckingham Palace after it had been bombed, and by their tours of badly bombed parts of London and other cities, they became the two most loved people in Britain.

When she came to the throne in 1952, Queen Elizabeth II sought to continue in the same tradition, and to give the various elements of society a sense of belonging, unity and purpose beyond material well-being. So immensely popular was she that, if anything, people were even more deferential to her than to her father. She personified something precious and vulnerable. No newspaper dared question the reputation of the Royal Family. Self-censorship was exercised for fear the public would shun a 'disloyal' newspaper.

It was not until the late 1960s that the Palace felt a change of style was required to 'sell' the Royal Family to the public. Television was the chosen medium. The result, a programme entitled Royal Family, revealed the Queen as a conventional middle-class woman in her private family life. It inevitably changed the public perception of a family which had previously maintained its privacy, and stimulated public interest to know more of its secret life. In particular the press sought to discover and reveal what was intended to remain secret, above all the love lives of the Queen's children, particularly that of the future king.

Charles's problem was to find a suitable bride, who by law had to be a Protestant and by the hypocritical demands of public propriety had to be 'pure'. At the age of 32, Prince Charles became engaged to a shy girl of 19, Lady Diana Spencer who was, in the words of one commentator, a 'virginal, Protestant aristocrat'. It seemed like a fairytale outcome, and their wedding in July 1981 was watched by a larger television audience than virtually any previous event.

Thus the monarchy seemed to go from strength to strength. Never before had the Royal Family been the subject of such national and international fascination. Despite the obvious contradiction between democracy and monarchy, the public was able to hold two opposing views at the same time: that the monarchy embodied national identity and was therefore important but that it was also a harmless but colourful part of our heritage. In reality the monarchy had, since Queen Victoria's time, acquired quasi-religious importance for many people in Britain.

Most nations require some intangible element of mystery in their sense of identity. For the British the monarchy effectively separates this element from executive power. The credibility of this 'mystery' demands that the monarchy retains its dignity. Walter Bagehot wrote of the Crown: 'Its mystery is its life. We must not let in daylight upon magic. We must not bring the Queen into the combat of politics, or she will cease to be reverenced by all combatants; she will become one combatant among many.'

Since 1987 or so, partly as a result of press intrusion, but to a large degree because of the activities of members of the Royal Family, the daylight was let in and that mystery and magic have been lost. In 1987 some of the Queen's children took part in an inane slapstick television show, It's a Royal Knockout. The intention had been to present a more modern light-hearted image, but it involved a complete loss of dignity. Diana, too, soon proved a liability as well as an asset to the monarchy. She quickly became the most glamorous woman on the world stage. She stole attention from Prince Charles, and in her charitable work began to outshine the other Royals. She also found herself in an ambivalent relationship with the press, both detesting their intrusive pursuit of her and yet needing their attention. She did not behave in the restrained way expected of the House of Windsor, but allowed her feelings free expression. The public loved her for it, but the Windsors were not pleased.

In the meantime the monarchy began to face other problems. From the time of the Falklands War in 1982, Margaret Thatcher seemed consciously to model herself on the sixteenth-century Queen Elizabeth I, one of England's most charismatic monarchs. It was no secret that the Queen disliked Thatcher's regal pretensions, which seemed to challenge the status of the Queen herself. Prince Charles began to express views in areas of public life that proved controversial, and was also suspected of disliking the Prime Minister. There was also growing criticism of the cost of maintaining the Royal Family. Quite apart from its substantial private wealth, the taxpayer funded the activities of the Royal Family through a system known as 'the Civil List', which had operated since 1689. It was tax free, and allowed the sovereign on the one hand to retain unused money but on the other, to be free to ask for more should it be needed. Demands for greater accountability grew, as did questions about the Royal Family's expensive lifestyle. Its most conspicuously lavish spending was on two little used forms of transport, the Royal Train and the Royal Yacht Britannia (now decommissioned). In November 1992 a major fire at Windsor Castle occurred. Initial sympathy gave way to anger when the government announced it would pay for the repairs, especially once it became known that the Castle had not been insured. Within the month the Queen decided that she and Prince Charles must pay tax in future on their private assets and income and that the Civil List payments to all members of the Royal Family except herself, her husband and her mother would be ended. Less well known was the fact that she now paid for other members of her family out of 'the Duchy of Lancaster', a large land and investment holding administered by the government, and therefore hardly her private property, but enjoyed by the sovereign. She managed to reduce the cost of the monarchy to the taxpayer from £53 million in 1991 to £42 million in 1998, a reduction of 38 per cent.

However, the fire at Windsor Castle was hardly the worst of the Queen's troubles in 1992. Almost every month brought some calamitous development in the lives of her children. In January the Duchess of York, Prince Andrew's wife popularly known as 'Fergie', was reliably reported to be having an affair. In February Princess Diana, on tour with her husband in India, posed alone in front of the Taj Mahal, conveying the unmistakable message that her marriage was also in trouble. In March the Duke and Duchess of York announced their separation. In April Princess Anne and her husband were divorced. In June a young journalist, Andrew Morton, published a book entitled Diana: Her True Story. It contained information which Diana herself clearly wanted made known about her unhappy marriage. Among other things, it made public Charles's long­standing relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles. Further revelations came in quick succession as the newspapers competed to buy the most lurid stories, photographs and tapes of eavesdropped telephone calls involving various members of the Royal Family. When it was clear that they could no longer remain together, it was announced at the end of the year that Charles and Diana were to separate. It was little wonder that the Queen publicly referred to 1992 as her 'annus horribilis'.

At first it seemed politically desirable that Charles and Diana should not divorce, but just live separate lives. But in November 1995 Diana gave a long television interview for the BBC in which she frankly admitted to her own adultery as well as revealing the destructive effect of Charles's affair with Camilla Parker Bowles. She also talked about her own problems of depression and her charitable work. What she said also made public the dysfunctional nature of the Royal Family. The Palace had been neither consulted nor informed concerning the broadcast. Dramatically, Diana's appearance was faultless, as someone said at the time: 'restrained, unfaltering and unforgettable.' Within days the Queen wrote to both Charles and Diana strongly advising them to divorce at the earliest moment. Apart from her fury at the interview, she was anxious to remove Diana from the Royal Family before she did further damage to the monarchy. They were divorced in 1996. One year later Diana was killed in a car crash and Britain was overwhelmed with emotion. Diana had qualities which the Royal Family seemed to lack: warmth, elegance and spontaneous compassion born of the tragedies in her own life. Amid mounting public criticism, the Royal Family seemed to have little idea how to respond, and it apparently required Tony Blair, who referred to Diana as 'the people's princess', to advise the Royal Family to abandon protocol and show greater public feeling. Where can the monarchy go from here? Its popularity has suffered enormously, apparently as the result of one calamitous marriage. In fact, the loss of respect reveals a much more complex process, to do with the hypocritical expectations of the public. In 1996 an opinion poll revealed that while one-quarter of 18-24 year-olds thought Britain would be better off without a monarchy, only one-fifth thought it would be worse off. Furthermore, while 73 per cent were satisfied with the Queen, people were satisfied or dissatisfied with Prince Charles in equal numbers. In 1991 over 80 per cent had thought he would make a good king. An opinion poll among the mourners at Princess Diana's funeral showed that 72 per cent thought Prince William rather than Prince Charles should inherit the throne. However worrying this may be for the Royal Family, it also suggests that the British people do not yet want a republic, even though approximately half the population no longer expect the monarchy to survive another 50 years, a fourfold increase since 1988. The majority seem to want a change from the present formality and protocol to something more accessible. Yet because the hereditary principle is in such contradiction with democratic values it is difficult to see how this can logically lead anywhere but eventually to a republic.

Doubtless the Royal Family will continue with possibly its most important function, the support of charitable work. Each year its members carry out approximately 2,000 charitable engagements. In the words of the historian, David Cannadine, 'Charitable activity [has] become the place where the royal culture of hierarchical condescension and the popular culture of social aspiration, have successfully merged.' Yet the number of people who welcome 'hierarchical condescension' is diminishing.

After Diana's death the Royal Family began to modify its image in order to survive. But can it reverse the growing feeling that the monarchy is irrelevant, especially to the younger generation, or answer the fundamental question of whether Britain at the beginning of the twenty-first century really needs a monarchy? No political party for the foreseeable future will open a debate, regardless of its private views, since to do so can only lose votes.

The constitution In the eighteenth century, as a result of the 1689 political settlement, Britain was more democratic than any other European state and maintained its reputation as a democratic model well into the twentieth century. But is it a leader of European democracy today?

Increasing doubts have been voiced concerning the state of Britain's democracy. The Conservative governments of the 1980s were all voted to power by a minority of the electorate, yet reshaped the country. They centralised power in Whitehall to an unprecedented degree, seriously weakening the strength of local democracy. Underlying such concerns was a more fundamental one, that the haphazard development of Britain's unwritten constitution was no longer a sufficient safeguard of democratic rights. To critics, the idea of the Crown in Parliament no longer works since neither the Queen nor the Lords can effectively oppose a government which commands a majority in the Commons. In fact there is no constitutional protection at all either for the nation as a whole or for individuals against a political party commanding a majority in the Commons. By law even the courts cannot challenge the legislation of Parliament. In the words of one of Britain's most able lawyers, 'An elected government untrammelled by constitutional limits or constraints, is a menace to our liberties whether it be a dictatorship of Right or Left, of a majority or a minority.'

In 1988 a group of distinguished politicians, lawyers, academics, writers and journalists began to campaign under the title Charter 88 (harking back to the charter of 1688) for wide-ranging reforms. They called for a Bill of Rights, to protect individual liberties, and for a written constitution to define and limit the powers of Parliament. Undoubtedly this call was partly explained by a belief that government during the 1980s had curtailed personal liberties more than any previous post-war government. During the 1980s Britain had been found guilty of infringing the European Convention on Human Rights more often than any other member of the European Community. In 1990 the European Court of justice made an historic decision: that British courts must suspend any Act of Parliament which imperils the rights of citizens guaranteed by European Community law. Parliamentary sovereignty is, therefore, already limited by European Union membership. Shortly after coming to power, the Labour government also took steps to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law. Britain had been one of the first to sign the Convention in 1950. It was one of the last to incorporate it into domestic law.

Reform of the House of Lords Charter 88 also called for the reform of the House of Lords, to make it a democratic and non-hereditary chamber. There had been various demands to abolish the House of Lords since the nineteenth century. The Conservatives liked the Lords with its built-in Conservative majority of hereditary peers. Labour had backed away from reform because of perceived difficulties in creating an effective upper chamber that would not weaken the authority of the Commons. If both chambers were elected but were also in disagreement, how could the Commons insist its will must prevail?

However, when Labour came to power in 1997 it promised to reform the Lords. 'As an initial, self-contained reform, not dependent on further reform in the future,' its election manifesto proclaimed, 'the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords will be ended by statute.' It also promised to review the appointment of life peers to ensure a sufficient number of cross-bench peers to prevent any one party enjoying an overall majority, but also to reflect more clearly the proportion of votes cast at the previous election. Yet will this be enough? Life peers have never fulfilled their purpose of representing experience outside politics. Besides, if people are only made Lords as a reward for a successful career, or to remove a troublesome politician from government, it will remain 'an old folks' home'. Labour says it wishes to turn the Lords into an organ of democracy. Can this be done, and can it be truly representative? It will only reflect the pluralism of British society if it is elected, in which case it will cease to be the Lords in any meaningful sense, except it might continue to meet in the same gilded chamber.

The honours system If Labour goes this far, should it also reform the honours system? Twice a year the Queen approves a long list of people for a wide variety of different kinds and grades of honour. The present honours system is so arcane that few understand it. The honours themselves largely belong to two obsolete institutions: feudal chivalry which is 500 years out of date, and the British Empire, which is 50 years out of date. They are awarded partly for achievement, but the grade of award is determined by social status. A senior diplomat might be appointed KCMG (Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George), known irreverently as 'Kindly Call Me God'. There is only one higher rank for a diplomat, GCMG (Grand Commander), so senior indeed that 'God Calls Me God'. A middle-ranking civil servant's efforts may be recognised with an OBE (Order of the British Empire). A primary school principal can only hope for an MBE (Member of the British Empire). Prime Minister Blair indicated he may change this hierarchical structure. 'Why should a school principal not receive a knighthood?' he asked shortly after becoming Prime Minister. But the system will still encourage a sense of hierarchy and the deference that goes with it. Currently, many honours go to people already well rewarded both financially and in career terms. Traditionalists wish to keep the present system, but modernists would like it reformed to be open, explicable and appropriate to a modern society.

Government: the difficulties of reform From 1945 up to the 1960s, the two-party system seemed to ensure good government. The combination of Cabinet government and party discipline in the Commons seemed to provide a balance between efficient government and public accountability. This was partly the result of broad inter-party consensus on a welfare state, a mixed economy (with certain industries nationalised) and full employment. By the mid-1960s growing economic difficulty raised questions about the effectiveness of this kind of government. Many felt that greater long-term economic planning was required to ensure growth and stable prices. One attempt to achieve this was through tripartite consultation and coordination between government and two traditional adversaries, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and the Confederation of British Industry (CBI). It was not a success, since neither adversary was able to guarantee the cooperation of its membership. Furthermore, governments seemed either unable or unwilling to implement realistic long-term planning and investment, and the experiment failed to modernise industry in the way the rest of Europe was doing.

In 1979 the consensus on broad objectives was broken by Margaret Thatcher. She promised to 'roll back the frontiers of the state', reduce public expenditure and encourage a free-market economy. Her premiership marked the beginning of a far sharper ideological conflict between the two major parties at a time when the demands of government needed more cooperation and less conflict. The privatisation of nationally-owned industries certainly liberated much of the economy from the deadening hand of government control. But she only partially 'rolled back the frontiers' of the state, as she had promised to do. Essentially she changed their configuration. Although the Civil Service shrank, political power became more centralised and more concentrated in Whitehall, and those constituencies of interest beyond the small circle of power became weaker. The Labour government of 1997 promised to reverse this centralising process and possibly to break the mould of the two-party system, the long-cherished desire of the Liberal Democrat Party, by inviting other parties to participate in constitutional reform, and restructuring the way Britain is governed.

The problems, however, are formidable. The system of decision-making at the top has grown more complex, diffuse and extensive. That leads to a loss of government unity as, in the words of one senior civil servant, 'Ministers in Cabinet rarely look at the totality of their responsibilities, at the balance of policy, at the progress of government towards its objectives as a whole.' Improved policy-making coordination and more long-term strategic planning will be vital.

Are government ministers capable of this? One frequently repeated criticism is that Westminster provides too small a pool from which to draw sufficiently talented ministers. There is an increasing need for a wider range of thinkers who can view the distant future more readily than ministers who are harassed by short-term political demands. It is likely therefore that policy research groups will increasingly be brought into the governing process.

Another fear, certainly for senior civil servants, is that a new minister may either fail to grasp the complexities of forging coherent policies, or be so headstrong that he or she will press ahead with ideas which the permanent departmental staff are convinced are fundamentally wrong. The duty of civil servants, having argued their case is to support their minister, unless they believe he or she is contravening an agreed policy, in which case it is their duty to record their protest. This also raises a difficult question regarding ministerial responsibility. It used to be the case that a minister would resign as a point of honour following a serious failure within his or her department. In recent years ministers have been much less willing 'to act honourably'. They have some justification. With the growing complexity of each government department, they must remain accountable for policy failure, but can hardly still be held responsible for serious mistakes by the 'machinery' of the department, unless these stem from faulty policy. Labour promised to establish a special select committee to redefine ministerial responsibility.

There has also been a serious problem of overload, with ministers and civil servants trying to cope with an increasing workload. This problem is not new, and the first attempt to remedy it was made in the mid-1 950s. Today, the problem is worse than ever. One recommendation made then, but ignored, was to create regional bodies which could relieve central government of some of its burden. Although this has not yet happened, regional devolution in England is possible, following the creation of Scottish and Welsh assemblies.

Another problem is the traditional British obsession with secrecy. Much of the governing of Britain has always gone on in secret. The Cabinet's tradition of secrecy conceals a much wider network hidden from public view. In theory power should reside in the Commons, yet there are probably about 200 formal committees working on different aspects of government policy under Cabinet direction. Yet with the exception of four - defence and overseas, economic strategy, home and social affairs, and legislation - which in 1979 the Prime Minister admitted existed, the remainder are secret. Officially they do not exist, and those who participate in them may not even admit to their existence. Yet these committees are the 'engine room' of government. According to constitutional theory, power should rest where the public can see it, but in practice Britain is governed by a largely hidden system. Prime Minister Blair has promised more open government and a Freedom of Information Act, to make government more transparent.

In the past governments deliberately gave information to journalists without allowing them to name the source, sometimes to test public reactions and sometimes to undermine the Opposition or even the position of an uncooperative minister, as happened on several occasions during the 1980s. Such action invited similar behaviour from upset government servants, as also happened during the 1980s. In 1997 Labour announced it would abandon these 'off the record' briefings to journalists, and would appoint an official spokesman.

The Civil Service Britain prides itself on a politically impartial Civil Service. This, in theory, is because the Civil Service Commissioners responsible for selecting civil servants are answerable to the Queen, and not to the Prime Minister. The system was established as a result of the Northcote-Trevelyan report of 1854. It has produced a service of great excellence, in the words of one elder statesman, 'surely one of the most talented bodies of men ever to be engaged in the art and science of civil government'.

Indeed, the ethical quality of the Civil Service has been generally outstanding, higher than that expected in business or industry. For Peter Hennessy, the leading commentator on Britain's bureaucracy, its qualities are: (1) probity - there is no 'hand in the till'; (2) care with evidence and respect for reason; (3) a willingness to speak the truth to those in power (i.e. ministers) but a readiness to carry out ministerial instructions to the contrary, if overruled; (4) an appreciation of the wider public interest when there is danger that the policy of central government is made without due care; (5) equity and fairness in treatment of the public; (6) a careful concern for the law; (7) a constant concern for Parliament, its needs and procedures -i.e. no lying and no misleading; (8) a constant concern for democracy.

As another commentator has written, 'It is difficult for politicians to conceive that civil servants can be driven by a desire to do public good in a way that is detached from party preference.' These are high standards - achieved mainly through the maintenance of a tradition of exacting standards over the past century. It cannot be said that the Civil Service does not from time to time fall short of these standards. The highly popular television series, Yes, Minister, demonstrated how such high standards need not necessarily prevent devious cunning. One Cabinet Secretary in the 1980s became notorious for his admission that he had been 'economical with the truth', a phrase which entered the English language. Nevertheless, the standards remain, and are the qualities of which any civil service would rightly be proud.

However valuable such qualities might be, they do not guarantee an effective civil service. Thatcher saw the Civil Service she inherited as an obstruction to her will, and an inefficient corporate body that badly needed to be driven by the kind of values that drove the free market. She was determined to compel the Civil Service to be a dutiful servant of government more than an aloof source of disinterested policy advice, to reduce its size and to be more efficient at delivering services to the public. From 1979 to 1996 Conservative governments reduced the size of the Civil Service by one-third, from 732,000 to 500,000 staff, the smallest bureaucracy since 1939. From the early 1980s there was also a drive to increase efficiency and eliminate wastage, achieving a saving of about £325 million yearly. For example, no fewer than 27,000 different printed forms were scrapped as unnecessary. Three guiding principles were more clearly established for civil servants: that they should have (1) a clear view of objectives; (2) well-defined responsibilities and (3) the information, training and access to expert advice in order to exercise responsibility effectively.

Still, the government, including some civil servants, were dissatisfied. The Civil Service, they felt, was too monolithic, with too many people involved both with the execution of policy or services and also with the formulation of policy. It was decided to separate the two functions, and from 1988 a major reorganisation entitled 'The Next Steps' was commenced. It was the most radical shake-up of the Civil Service for a century, separating policy-making from operational matters. Government ministries were reduced to a small core of advisers and policy analysts to support ministers in the formulation of policy. The bulk of the Civil Service, however, was hived off into many different 'executive agencies', each designated to carry out specific tasks and headed by a chief executive. While answerable to the departmental minister, each executive agency is entirely responsible for its own operation, thus leaving more senior civil servants free to plan policy By the end of 1995 109 such agencies had been created, with over 70 per cent of all civil servants now employed by one of these agencies. A further 57 candidates were earmarked for executive agency status. In all, something in the order of 85 per cent of all civil servants were destined to belong to an executive agency.

Some senior civil servants were unhappy with the process, partly through their own loss of power and authority, but also because the reorganisation led to blurred accountability and the removal of direct accountability to Parliament. They also felt the Civil Service was in danger of losing its public service ethos.

There is a continuing debate concerning the ability of the Civil Service to respond to the demands of contemporary government. Peter Hennessy has suggested that the demands on central government in the twenty-first century might well be: short-term crisis management; medium-term planning for programmes proposed by a political party and adopted in Parliament; strategic thinking on central issues of the state (defence, energy, foreign policy, the welfare state and so forth); the management of tax-gathering and social security; and managing major services such as national health and education.

He is also concerned, however, by the question of who enters the Civil Service. The Northcote-Trevelyan report found that 'the superior docility of young men renders it much easier to make valuable public servants of them, than of those more advanced in life'. As a result, the present system largely excludes entry into Whitehall's higher ranks from outside the Civil Service. In addition, recruitment to the junior ranks is from a relatively small section of society. This is most strongly seen in the diplomatic service. Over two-thirds of the top cadre of diplomats studied either at Oxford or Cambridge University. Few are female, and virtually none are from an ethnic minority. Even in the rest of the Civil Service one need only look at the background of its top people to recognise there is strong uniformity of background. Barely any permanent secretaries have entered the Civil Service in mid-life from outside the system, the overwhelming proportion having entered direct from university. It had been widely assumed that the pattern was becoming more varied.

Hennessy and others argue strongly in favour of bringing in experience and maturity at a senior level from outside the Civil Service, people who can advance fresh ideas and who are unencumbered with 'the departmental view'. This 'departmental view' is the collective but unwritten state of mind on a wide range of subjects which slowly becomes the accepted wisdom within a ministry. One of those eager to employ more outsiders was Sir Peter Kemp, the senior civil servant who implemented 'The Next Steps' until his retirement in 1992. He still thinks there is much to be done, particularly at the interface between ministries and the executive agencies:


One of Thatcher's targets for removal were the so-called 'quangos' which she had inherited from previous administration. The term 'quango' referred to a variety of institutions and organisations lying on the fringes of government. There were just over 2,000 such bodies in 1 980, of which three-quarters were advisory. One-quarter, however, were a good deal more substantial, for example the Arts Council, the British Council, the Countryside Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality, all areas in which the government of the day felt that a 'quasi-autonomous non­governmental organisation' would be able to act more effectively than one within the direct constraints of government. Thatcher halved the number of those she inherited. But she also created a great many more as part of her programme of 'rolling back the frontiers of the state'. The new ones, however, were more integral to government services to large segments of the population, for example the National Health Service trusts (see p.195-196) or 'opted-out schools' (see p.150), urban development corporations, housing action trusts, and regulatory 'watchdogs' created to monitor recently privatised but hitherto public services, like gas, water, electricity and the railways. All these new quangos were arguably discharging rather more fundamental duties of government. Those who favoured such quangos pointed to the increased efficiency or standards which they had achieved or promised to achieve in the future. The critics had two main objections. First, the government freely appointed whom it pleased in order to run these various bodies. By 1996 there were 7,700 such bodies disbursing £54,000 million of public money. Forty per cent of such appointees were directly identified as either members of, or strong supporters of the Conservative Party. The Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee warned of a regression into 'a system of patronage and privatised carelessness'. The other closely related objection was the loss of democratic control. In the words of one administrator in 1997: 'The growth of fringe bodies is a retreat from the simple democratic principle evolved in the nineteenth century that those who perform a public duty should be fully responsible to an electorate ... . '

As with the Civil Service itself, the debate concerning the balance between efficiency and accountability is set to continue.

Parliament: in need of reform?

Is Parliament really sovereign, or is it merely a 'rubber stamp' for government, as many critics say? Because any government, by definition, enjoys a majority in the Commons, in practice Parliament's main function is hardly to pass legislation. That is done by the government and its supporters. As one parliamentary report in 1978 noted, The balance of advantage between Parliament and Government in the day-to-day working of the Constitution is now weighted in favour of the Government to a degree which arouses widespread anxiety ... . '

It was for this reason that over 50 Commons select committees were established soon after. Although these were not given the power to compel evidence from ministers, both ministers and officials have increasingly, and voluntarily, testified to them. Since 1980 these committees have had the power to act not only as policy investigators but as legislative committees as well. Commons select committees have undoubtedly strengthened Parliament's power against deaf government.

The real function of the Commons is as a forum in which to examine and criticise government administration. Government must defend its conduct convincingly. Its other important function is to prepare young politicians for holding office in government. Yet there is wide unease concerning the functioning of Parliament as a check on government. Margaret Thatcher, for example, participated in parliamentary debate very much less often than her predecessors, and was harder for the Opposition to attack, since she was less frequently exposed to the dangers of debate. Labour has promised to restructure Prime Minister's Question Time to make it more effective. This is not only a matter of reducing the amount of sterile 'tit-for-tat' debate. It also means that the governing party must stop using the occasion for its backbenchers (those MPs not holding ministerial office) from 'planting' questions at the direction of the party whip, or asking questions simply to flatter the Prime Minister. Both main parties are guilty of this practice. One newspaper started naming the MP it thought most sycophantic as 'Creep of the Day'. There has been a general decline of independence among MPs as a result of the increase in party discipline and the knowledge among many backbench MPs that if they hope for government office one day, they must avoid any public challenge of party policy.

The quality of Parliament also depends upon the importance given it. British MPs have been among the worst-paid and worst-equipped legislators. As a result of this low level of pay, some MPs have had some kind of outside employment. In the early 1990s a series of scandals, almost exclusively affecting Conservative MPs, compelled Prime Minister Major to establish two judicial inquiries. One was into the secret approval by ministers and civil servants of the sale of arms to Iraq (the Scott Inquiry, see p.49, 139), and the other, the Nolan Inquiry, was into venality among MPs, in particular undertaking to ask particular questions in Parliament in return for payment by outsiders. The findings of both reports seriously damaged the reputation of the Conservative Party, and led partly to its 1997 defeat. Labour promised to implement the Nolan recommendations to ensure probity in public life, and also widen their application.

Not only are MPs among the worst paid in the European Union, but the Commons also sits for twice as many hours as most Western legislatures. An average backbencher spends 67 hours per week on parliamentary business while Parliament is sitting, and 48 hours while it is in recess. How should the burden be lightened? Labour indicated it would look at the anti-social hours of parliamentary sessions, which frequently go on late into the evening.

Electoral reform It is, perhaps, inevitable that with a growing debate about the kind of government Britain should have, and about its unwritten constitution, there has also been increasing discussion of the need for electoral reform.

This was accelerated by the acute distortions of the present first-past-the-post (FPTP) system during the 1980s, whereby the Conservatives, although a majority of the electorate voted against them, enjoyed an overwhelming majority in the Commons. The virtue of FPTP, its champions claimed, was that it usually ensured strong government. Those who spoke of reform invariably advocated proportional representation (PR). In 1997 Labour established an independent commission to consider what system to put to a national referendum, and invited the Liberal Democrats to participate. The Conservatives were not invited since they formally opposed any change to the electoral system. The Liberal Democrats were the strongest and oldest advocates of PR, having suffered disproportionately under FPTP.

The arguments in favour of PR seemed clear until its different forms were theoretically applied to the 1997 general election. Each system was then shown to have considerable disadvantages. At some stage, however, the electoral commission will have to invite the electorate to decide what it wants: to keep the present FPTP system or to choose one out of several imperfect PR options. A fundamental problem with PR is that it never serves the interests of the governing party, since it will always reduce its margin of majority. For the Liberal Democrats, on the other hand, PR is the only realistic road whereby they can achieve sufficient 'critical mass' in elections to have real impact in national politics.

Labour promised that regardless of whether PR was eventually adopted for Westminster, it would be the basis for the election for the European Parliament in 1999. The perceived success, or failure, of PR in this election, and in the Scottish Parliament (see p.1 36) is likely to influence public attitudes to PR for the UK.

Yet if the electorate opts to retain the present system, calls for constitutional reform will continue. No government once elected will wish to restrict its own powers. The idea of introducing constitutional restrictions on Parliament's sovereignty is strongly opposed by several leading politicians. As one veteran politician remarked, 'British democracy is - for better or worse - based on absolute sovereignty of Parliament ... What Parliament has given away, Parliament can take back.' This is precisely the point that reformers fear. A Bill of Rights without a written constitution which limited Parliament's sovereignty might prove worthless. It may be that only a constitutional crisis will persuade the electorate whether or not a written constitution is necessary.

One danger with greater proportionality is of a 'hung' parliament, in which no party is able to form a government on its own nor conclude a coalition agreement with another party. In this situation the Queen would be in the difficult position of deciding how to resolve a constitutional deadlock. It would force her to exercise powers which have long lain dormant. Even without a hung Parliament, the monarch, through the phrase 'the Crown in Parliament' masks the effective sovereignty of the Prime Minister of the time. Without a written constitution what would happen if either the monarch or the Prime Minister decided the other was acting unconstitutionally? Such possibilities raise the whole question of the function and standing of the monarchy in Britain at the end of the twentieth century.

Changes in the electorate and political parties Electoral results in the period 1979-87 showed a growing north-south divide, with the preponderance of Conservative control of the 'core', and intensified Labour dominance in the 'periphery'. Despite traditional Conservative dominance in the south, until 1979 Labour had won many seats in the south and east of Britain, particularly in London. Yet by 1987 it could win only 23 seats in Greater London and two in the rest of the south. Conservative constituencies became more Conservative, Labour ones became more strongly Labour, with fewer 'marginal' parliamentary seats and more predictably 'safe' ones, hardly helping a lively democratic system. Along with the growing disparity between the richest and poorest fifths of the population, this growing electoral divide threatened the sense of national unity.

By the late 1980s electoral commentators were seriously questioning whether Labour would be able to win another election since its constituency of support was dwindling. Labour's declining constituency had been foreseen. A leading party member had forecast in 1959: 'The Labour Party will probably decline ... by about 2 per cent at each successive general election.' It was a prophecy that proved reasonably accurate. Labour could expect to go on winning on the periphery of political power: in Wales, Scotland and the north of England. Moreover, the continuing drift of population to the south loaded the electoral scene further in the Conservatives' favour. So also did the rapid decline of the working class. This had been estimated at 47 per cent of the electorate in 1964, but was only 34 per cent by 1983, while the middle class - managers, professionals, supervisors and white-collar workers - increased from 36 to 51 per cent in the same period. Furthermore, in 1970 class identity had been a main determinant in the way people voted. Twenty years later this could no longer be assumed. The Conservatives experienced a slight but progressive loss of middle-class votes. But this did not compare with the large loss of blue-collar and clerical votes lost by Labour. A more important determinant had become tenure, home ownership or company share ownership, but the pattern was uneven across the country. In 1987, for example, barely half London's electorate voted according to class identity, while more than three-quarters of Glasgow's did. There was also anxiety, particularly for Labour, since it kept on losing, at the decline in the overall voter loyalty to the two main parties. In 1951 97 per cent of the vote had gone to one or other main party, but by 1987 this had fallen to 73 per cent. Moreover, much voting had become negative: voting to keep a disliked party out of power, rather than enthusiasm for the party that was supported.

Thus Labour faced severe problems at the beginning of the 1990s. In the 1960s and 1970s it had needed no more than a 3 or 4 per cent swing to get into power. By 1990 Labour could expect only 35 per cent of the national vote, and it needed more than a 10 per cent swing in its favour overall to win. Since the 'blue-collar' manual worker class was rapidly shrinking, Labour also needed to build support in those areas in which it was not represented, the inner and outer 'core' areas, by reinventing itself and by throwing off its less electorally attractive characteristics. It began to distance itself from the trade union movement, openly accepting that the unions had wielded too much power in the past and had been too undemocratic. Each union had been able to cast a 'block vote' at the annual Labour Party conference, in other words the entire vote of the union's membership. At one time virtually all trade union members supported Labour, though they might not agree with their own union's use of their vote. In the 1964 election 73 per cent of trade unionists voted Labour. By 1987 this had fallen to 43 per cent, and yet the unions were still able to cast 5.7 million votes at the conference. Many party decisions at the conference were merely the outcome of a trial of strength between the unions. From 1993 Labour no longer allowed trade unions to cast the 'block vote' on behalf of its membership at the annual party conferences. This was a controversial decision since Labour largely depended on union funding, particularly for election campaigns. Labour was able to persuade the unions to continue to support Labour financially, but it also made a major effort to build up the party membership among those who did not belong to a union.

Although it had never been truly socialist, Labour also formally abandoned its philosophy of nationalisation for major industries in 1995, and also quietly abandoned central economic planning. It accepted, in a way it had not up to the mid-1980s, more use of market forces and less central control. But, in the words of one senior Labour politician, it continued to believe that 'a socialist willingness to intervene in the national interest in order to make good the deficiencies of the market is a necessary ticket to our industrial future'. In practice this means encouraging diversity, individual enterprise, decentralised economic organisation and more consumer choice. In addition, although traditionally suspicious of Britain's membership of the European Community, from 1987 Labour openly supported full participation as essential to the country's political and economic future.

It also began a strategic campaign in favour of a less class-based ideological stance, and working 'for the many, not the few', as its slogan stated. It began to call itself 'New Labour', to make a crucial distinction from traditional Labour. It projected a classless image, wooing the class of junior white-collar workers whose abandonment of Labour had proved crucial to the Conservative victory in 1979. It also sought to attract women voters, who had traditionally tended to favour the Conservatives, by putting great emphasis on qualities it believed would appeal to them. It also concentrated its efforts on young people, particularly those voting for the first time. After the disappointment of the 1992 election it also identified 91 'critical' parliamentary constituencies which were realistically winnable at the next election, and put specific effort into them.

All these efforts were amply rewarded in 1997 with a landslide victory. Labour's biggest gains were in the south east of Britain, with precisely those groups it had aimed at. Overall 45 per cent of women and 56 per cent of the under 30-year-olds voted for Labour. Although the Conservatives had undoubtedly lost credibility and so were almost certain to lose the 1997 election, the size of Labour's victory indicated how a party could pick itself up after a period of great weakness by good strategic planning and a careful change of image.

One further point should be noted. Although it probably did not change the way people voted significantly, Labour was determined to increase the number of women MPs. Until it was declared illegal by a law court, Labour enforced 'women only' lists of candidates for local constituency parties to choose from. Partly as a result of this 'positive' discrimination, a total of 120 women were elected to Parliament in 1997, almost twice the number elected in 1992. Yet this was still only one-third of the total needed to achieve parity between men and women representatives in the Commons. Even if Labour did not attract many voters by this policy, it made the almost all-male Conservative Party look old-fashioned. For women, of course, the issue is critically important.

Now it is the Conservatives' turn to try to reinvent themselves. After their slightly surprising victory in 1992, the Conservatives found themselves severely weakened in the Commons, and more severely weakened ideologically. The central issue of ideological dissent was the question of participation in the European Union. A few Conservatives favoured Britain's withdrawal. The largest group, however, wished to remain in an economic community but feared both monetary union and closer political integration. Another group favoured monetary union but recognised that Britain was not yet ready for this. This group was fundamentally favourable to progressively closer ties with the rest of Europe. However, the 'Euro-sceptics' were able to appeal to the xenophobic part of the Conservative Party's character. The inability to resolve the schism on this vital issue, even within the Cabinet, made an electoral defeat in 1997 virtually inevitable.

Suddenly the Conservative Party seemed not only bitterly divided, but also deeply disorganised, old-fashioned, anti-democratic and highly resistant to change. Straight after the 1997 election it was said mistakenly that the Conservatives had lost because so many of their supporters had stayed at home. The truth was more worrying. The party's local associations, their views, and the recruitment of new party members were all ignored throughout the 1980s. In 1979 party membership had been 1.5 million, but had dwindled to 300,000 by 1997.

The youth branch, the Young Conservatives, once had half a million members, but by 1997 numbered only 7,000. Most devastating of all, by 1997 half the Conservative Party's membership was 65 years of age or older. By the election in 2002 one-third of these might well be dead. Only 16 per cent of the membership was under 45, and only 5 per cent under 35 years of age, almost the exact reverse of Labour membership. Following the 1997 defeat the Conservative MPs elected William Hague as |ohn Major's successor. Hague was only 36, and many felt sceptical about his competence to carry out the reforms necessary to make the party electable.

The changing character of the electorate obviously has long-term implications for Britain's political parties. It was the political centre which first recognised the basic changes that had been taking place. By the end of the 1980s, an analysis of surveys carried out over more than ten years showed class loyalties slowly giving way to a new system of values. According to this analysis, there are three broad categories of voter. First, there are those concerned with survival and security, who value the virtues of loyalty and solidarity. They are generally people on lower incomes who vote Labour. They are about 30 per cent of the population and are in decline. Second, there are those ambitious for success, wealth or power, for whom outward appearances are important. They are 'self-made', natural Conservative voters. By 1990 these were reckoned to be 34 per cent of the population, but also in decline. Third, there are those concerned with personal development and individual freedom, with a tendency towards strong moral motivation, for example concern about world ecology, nuclear power or weapons, or civil liberties. Such people constitute 36 per cent of the population and are increasing.

The Liberal Democrats were the first to make political use of this survey, to demonstrate that their own political views most closely reflected the growing third category. Although this close identity is undeniable, it is less clear whether the party will be able to attract them because, until PR is introduced, it can hope for electoral progress based upon little more than negative voting - the hostility of some voters to the dominant party - in the south, the Conservatives and in the north, Labour. From their viewpoint it is a frustrating position. The 1997 general election was good for the Liberal Democrats. They obtained 46 seats with only 1 7 per cent of the overall vote, the result of shrewd targeting of winnable seats. However, they face serious problems. Much of their 1997 support came in constituencies in the form of negative voting, in other words, where a voter's preferred party was considered too weak to have a chance. It is highly unpredictable whether the Liberal Democrats will continue to benefit from the 'protest' vote. They are also endangered by Labour's move to the centre of British politics, leaving them as arguably the real representative of the 'radical left'. Everything for the Liberal Democrats hangs on the introduction of PR, when they could hope to attract about 100 seats and thus possibly transform the political scene from a two-party to a three-party contest.

It is difficult to tell whether the decline in support for the two main parties will continue. What, however, has become clearer is that there are a growing number of 'single-issue' activists. These belong to that third category of people concerned with personal development and individual freedom, and who have a strong moral motivation. They come from a broad range of social class, from the unemployed and the so-called underclass at one end of the spectrum to highly educated professional people at the other. In the 1980s women from these different classes combined to protest against nuclear weapons. In the 1990s other powerful coalitions have formed around issues such as the inhumane transport of live animals, the use of animals in medical or cosmetic research, to environmental issues. From 1993 new major roads plans that cut through open countryside, ancient woodlands or other ecologically valued areas were opposed not merely by formal protest but also by direct action. Protesters climbed into those trees scheduled for felling. Others dug complex and almost impenetrable tunnels in the path of the new road, in which they hid. These acts of protest attracted enormous publicity and affected government policy. By 1996 government had become a good deal more apprehensive of 'single-issue' coalitions than it had been a decade earlier. It remains to be seen whether single-issue politics will have a lasting effect on British politics.

Section analysis

1 (The monarchy) Do you think the Royal Family has a future? Give reasons for your answer. 2 (The constitution) If Britain has managed perfectly well since 1688 without a written constitution, does it need one now? Give your own opinion. 3 (The honours system) Is there any defence to be made of the present honours system? 4 (Government: the difficulties of reform) Questions are being raised about the effectiveness of the British system of government. What are they? What changes would you propose? 5 (The Civil Service) What do you think are the chief strength and main weakness of Britain's Civil Service? How should the weakness be tackled? 6 (Quangos) What are the two principal objections to the quangos created by the Conservatives, 1979-97? In your view, do these offset the virtue of greater efficiency? 7 (Parliament: in need of reform?) In what ways can Parliament act as a check on the power of the government? Do you think Parliament's powers should be greater, and if so, how? 8 (Electoral reform) Argue the case for and against a change in Britain's electoral system. 9 (Changes in the electorate and political parties) How are former political loyalties among the electorate changing? How do you think this will affect the three main parties?

Chapter analysis and discussion

1 How did Labour reinvent itself? And what factors led to the Conservatives' collapse in 1997? 2 Having considered this chapter, what kind of reformed system of parliamentary democracy (i.e. kind of state; type of legislature and executive bodies; electoral system) do you think would prove most acceptable to the British electorate? Give reasons for your thinking.


Government and politics: debate and change iconPolitics and scandals

Government and politics: debate and change iconPolytica Weekly Brief politics and scandals

Government and politics: debate and change iconPolytica Weekly Brief politics and scandals

Government and politics: debate and change iconТема: Politics and politicians Цель
«Democratic Dialogues». It was a great success. Today’s lesson is some kind of a continuing of that project and you are also welcome...
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