Thursday, 13 May 2010

Warner on fixed term parliaments

Gerald Warner has nicely expressed some of my concerns about fixed-term parliaments:
Politicians are invariably at their most self-interested and devious when promoting schemes allegedly in “the national interest”. This scam is a classic example. First of all, what does the public gain by having the parliamentary term set at five years? That was already defined as its maximum length 99 years ago in the Parliament Act, so this measure does nothing to limit the time a parliament may sit. On the contrary, by preventing an administration from going to the country after four years, as has been the custom recently, it will in fact extend the length of parliaments.

Then there is the proposal to raise the bar for voting down a failing government on a vote of no-confidence to 55 per cent of MPs. At present, 50 per cent plus one is sufficient. This measure would preserve in power governments that had lost the confidence of a majority in the House of Commons as large as 54 per cent. Since the first vote of no confidence brought down Lord North, on account of certain little local difficulties in the American colonies in 1782, a total of 11 Prime Ministers have been ejected from office in this way.

The most recent was James Callaghan, defeated by one vote in 1979. If the new rules being proposed by Cameron and Clegg had applied, his rotten government could have staggered on for nearly six months more, delaying the advent of Margaret Thatcher and inflicting further damage on the economy. What is democratic about a government commanding the confidence of only a minority, say a fraction over 45 per cent, of MPs remaining in office? This is an outrageous proposal, designed to featherbed failing governments and protect them from the electorate. As such, it is the very reverse of the kind of reform that, post-expenses scandal, the public is demanding.
I've never been much of a believer in the authority of the majority, but the move from 50% to 55% does seem like a step in the wrong direction. Majorities in excess of 50% should be required only to overturn fundamental principles (such as you might find in a written constitution). They are not justified as means to keep an ailing government like Callaghan's in power.

Fixed-term parliaments will avoid some of the tedious and distracting speculation about when elections will be called, but they will usher in the even greater and more costly distraction of protracted election campaigns. To see where it might lead, we need only look across the pond.

Of course, if a politician ever sought to radically transform this country on libertarian lines, they would doubtless go through a period of unpopularity (before the rewards of freedom became clear). It is possible that a 55% rule might keep such a government in power at a crucial juncture. On this reasoning, we might wonder whether 67% or 75% would be preferable.

The trouble is that the same rule could keep an authoritarian government power, despite infringements of civil liberties to rival or surpass New Labour. Since this eventuality seems more likely, we must consider the move to 55% to be a Bad Thing.

Warner sees this as a specific example of a dangerous tendency inherent in coalitions:
coalition governments take greater liberties than single-party ones. Because, at least initially, they command a larger segment of electoral support, are presumed to be less partisan and more devoted to the public interest, and have the confidence that the blame for their actions will be shared by their erstwhile opponents, they reckon they can get away with measures that would otherwise be too provocative.

It is not necessarily the case that coalitions are less powerful. Only on issues where their policies are diametrically opposed does deadlock restrain them. On matters involving the power and privileges of the political tribe versus the mug punters of the electorate, however, coalition politicians will move shamelessly to protect their interests.

I have written previously that the blame-sharing feature of the coalition should make it much easier for unpopular but vital cuts to public spending to be pursued, but Warner is right to suggest that such insulation from criticism can allow unfettered progress in a more malevolent direction.

Much will rest on the true character of Cameron and Clegg, which has yet to be revealed.

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