The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997


Mr Major’s Speech on the Erosion of Parliamentary Democracy – 26 February 2004

The text of Mr Major’s speech on the Erosion of Parliamentary Democracy, held at Huntingdon Constituency Conservative Association on Thursday 26th February 2004.

Tonight has the air of times past and it’s good to be back.

I miss the Constituency – I rarely miss politics. It’s changed. It’s too media driven and – often – too trivial.

Everything is presented as all black or all white. Every event has to have a hero or a villain.

We live in the era of soundbite and spin or – as I prefer to term it – deception and deceit.

[Indistinct section].

That is the essence of spin. It’s all reminiscent of the 18th century politician who died and caused his opponents to ask “I wonder what he meant by that?”

Such distrust of politics is back.

One of the advantages of leaving politics is that one can stand back from the daily controversies and see the bigger picture.

There is much I don’t like about the present Government.

It is more concerned with perception than reality.

It prevaricates as a first instinct, not as a last resort.

It is intolerant of opposition and illiberal of policy.

All too often it is high-handed and arrogant.

And – my theme this evening – it has made, is making, and proposes to make – changes to our Constitution that I believe are damaging to Parliamentary Government.

This may seem abstruse. It is not. It may seem irrelevant to the average citizen. It is not.

Our Constitution sets out the relationship between citizen and the State – and as such affects us all. Change our Constitution – and you change the rights and obligations of the citizen.

We take democracy so much for granted in our country that we scarcely notice any longer whether it exists; how it is exercised; or the ways in which it is being undermined.

The visible structures appear intact – mature political Parties; a universal adult franchise; free elections with a specified maximum term of Office; a two-tier Parliament supreme in authority; an independent Head of State; the rule of law; an impartial Civil Service; a free Press; traditions of behaviour that amount to hidden institutional safeguards and restraints. It is familiar and comforting.

Unfortunately, it’s so familiar and comforting that we have scarcely noticed that the structure which supports it is creaking and diseased and in danger of collapse. The structures are still there but they’re being hollowed out. The erosion is evident from the top to the bottom.

At grassroots level – the Party machines are moribund, poorly financed and often unrepresentative of the electorate as a whole.

At the top, erosion arises if any major Party has no care for Parliamentary traditions and propriety; if its use of power becomes an abuse of it; if it resorts to character assassination as a political weapon. Our present Government has all these traits.

When senior members of the Labour Party were investigated by the Parliamentary Commissioner, there appeared to be an organised attempt to obstruct the inquiries or to withhold proper cooperation. When the Prime Minister established a Committee to examine issues relating to Standards in Public Life he then refused to let his own key officials appear before it. When the Committee reported, he largely ignored the report. These are very murky depths that have added to the public disillusion with politics.

The broad mass of our nation is detached from politics. Many feel a distaste for it.

Turnouts at General Elections used to be around 80%. At the last General Election it was under 60% – with the “don’t knows” and the “won’t votes” scoring as highly as the winning party. This was no “blip”.

The rot in our political system is evident in Parliament. For New Labour has been careless of Parliamentary traditions and propriety; and the Prime Minister’s famous promise – to be “purer than pure” – has not been kept. Consider for example the Ecclestone, Hinduja and Mittal affairs which have all been so close to the centre of power that there is a perception that New Labour’s failings may have influenced government policy. This charge is vigorously denied.

But in the age of spin the perceptions are damaging. Spin is the pornography of politics. It perverts. It is deceit licensed by the Government. Statistics massaged. Expenditure announced and reannounced. The record reassessed. Blame attributed. Innocence proclaimed. Black declared white: all in a day’s work.

This behaviour is a factor in the reduced reputation of the House of Commons. There are wider elements as well. Nowadays, vital decisions are often decided in wider fora: in the G7, the UN or – most likely – the EU. As part of this Government’s policy, Parliament has also surrendered decision-making within the UK to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the Mayor of London and the Northern Ireland Assembly. It looks set to do so to Regional Assemblies as well. Monetary policy has also been subcontracted to the Bank of England. Some of these changes have merit – arguably some have significant merit. But all of them are consistent in only one regard: they all reduce the power of Parliament. One by one its prerogatives are going.

This has been exacerbated by the Government’s disregard, sometimes contempt, for the Commons. Labour uses its majority as a rubber stamp. Select Committees are ignored or suborned. Complex Bills are poorly scrutinised as the Government is bound to get its way.

Since 1997, Parliament has been downgraded in more subtle ways, too. Major policy statements have been made outside it, or leaked, before any Parliamentary announcement. This may be a good way to control media coverage but it is bad for democracy.

Parliament has been weakened, too, by the Government’s policy towards the House of Lords. If the House of Lords attempts to block or amend legislation, which is its legitimate role, it is discredited and attacked. Already it has been mutilated. The abolition of the hereditary peers was a populist – and to many, popular – policy but, for those who wish to see an effective Upper House, it was a mistake: it robbed Parliament of a revising chamber of talent and experience and independent thought. Hereditary legislators were a soft target to attack but, if they had to go, they should have been replaced by others with similar virtues. They were not.

The House of Lords should have more power: there is much it could do. It could improve the quality of our law by pre-legislative scrutiny of Green Papers, thereby foreshadowing changes in the law. It could monitor the resulting Act of Parliament to see how it worked in practice. It could examine and take evidence publicly on draft Treaties. It could establish a Standing Committee on Ethics as moral and personal questions become more difficult to adjudicate upon. It could maintain a Standing Constitutional Committee … all this and more would be useful.

I do not agree with the current vogue for a largely elected Second Chamber. Yes – it is democratic. But No – it will not be an improvement. It will replace nominated leading figures of substance from Industry, Trade Unions, Education, the Military, the Civil Service, the Media with elected career politicians who failed to make it to the House of Commons. We are in danger of replacing first rate independent minds who have made it to the top of their professions, with second rank politicians whose Party Whips will do their thinking for them. A pale imitation of the Commons is pointless and will further diminish Parliament.

I understand the urge for the legitimacy of election but it is a poor bargain for electors: a less talented House of Lords stuffed with more professional politicians is the wrong prescription for our democratic deficit.

If not election, then what? Prime Ministerial appointment alone is no longer acceptable (although any mechanism must provide for nomination by political leaders so that a proper political balance can be maintained in the Upper House.) We continue to need a system to nominate leading public figures to maintain and reflect the wide experience now available to the Lords.

And, in my view, it should remain “the House of Lords”. Its members should continue to be Peers: to change the name would be pointless if it is to serve its traditional role as a revising Chamber and to withhold the courtesy of the title would be petty. Labour, given free rein, might do both.

Further diminution of Parliamentary authority will be accomplished within this Parliament if the Government enacts the proposed European Constitution as a superior overarching legal framework. The legacy of centuries of common law would be subordinate to ambiguous language interpreted and enforced by European institutions.

If the Government enacted this, any legislation should properly be subject to a specific referendum of the whole Nation – although Labour will seek to avoid it since they know they would lost the Referendum. Steadily, they are moving away from the instincts of the Nation.

At the same time as respect for Parliament is in decline, so too is the neutrality of the Civil Service – now in danger of being compromised. The pattern of by-passing the independence of the Civil Service was set in May 1997, with the appointment of special advisers with authority over career civil servants; with the huge increase in the number of political special advisers ; and with the dismissal or forcing out of the Government Information Officers – the Civil Service interface between the Government and the media, and the guarantee of impartial and straightforward answers. The cult of spin was let loose.

From the moment New Labour saw the value of spin, the truth became partisan. The outgoing Conservative Government was to be abused: no piece of character assassination, no calumny, no half-truth, no insult was to be missed. Nor were they the only target. Others who embarrassed the Government – even non-politicians such as the 94 year old hospital patient, Mrs Rose Addis or train campaigner Mrs Pam Warren – were all part of the shooting gallery. So too, at one time was the “psychologically flawed” Gordon Brown; and Mo Mowlam, who had committed the sin of being too popular. All suffered from behind the scenes briefing to serve the contemporary interests of the Government at the expense of the reputation of the conduct of politics generally. Nothing on this scale has been seen in modern British politics. Nor, to the best of my knowledge, have individual citizens – wholly unconnected with politics – ever been targeted before.

Some months ago, after a piece of underhand dealing was exposed, the Prime Minister’s spokesman said “what was appropriate in Opposition was not appropriate in Government.” If one decodes this sentence, it means it was acceptable to spread any falsehood about the Conservatives in the 1990s because they were unpopular. Now, however, as everyone becomes familiar with the tactics used by New Labour, we are told it is necessary to move on.

The art of misrepresentation for political advantage is not new.

But what sets this Government apart is the scale and pre-meditation of its spin operation. The result is a cynicism now so deep-rooted among the electorate that when the Government’s spin merchant-in-chief said spinning had gone too far, the public suspected it was only spin that made him say so.

It is fatal to the conduct of policy if the word of any Government is disbelieved until proven beyond doubt to be true. The erosion of trust has now reached the point where it is undermining the ability of the Government to call on the trust of the people – as recently, for example, on Iraq. New Labour cannot complain if their word is not taken at face value: it is their own behaviour that has brought this about.

A few years ago, it would have been inconceivable that any Prime Minister’s Office could have been accused of distorting and misusing intelligence information to popularise the case for war and yet, whatever the reality, that has now become a widespread belief. For the sake of the future conduct of policy this impression needs to be dispelled.

It is clear the Prime Minister has failed to understand the importance and power of the traditions, customs and conventions that have shaped the values of our system of government. The way our nation’s government works is not simply defined by the bare words and legal structures of legislation – it works because generations of Britons, in safeguarding their liberties, have established boundaries of acceptable behaviour and created rituals and rules that keep them alive.

New Labour, apparently contemptuous of our history, has swept away centuries of institutional values. Rushed, ill thought-through constitutional changes have been introduced in the name of modernisation – changes that imperil the soul of the Constitution and leave democracy and freedom weaker and poorer. Even where there is a case for change – as in the role and stature of the Lord Chancellor, and the abolition of Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales – the Government has bungled it. It neglected to consult, announced the changes as an off-hand consequence of a Cabinet reshuffle and then had to climb down as the new Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs had to don the Lord Chancellor’s wig and tights; and other Cabinet Ministers became, after all, territorial Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales.

The Government now proposes to introduce without consultation a Supreme Court to replace the Law Lords in the Lords and an independent Judicial Appointments Committee to appoint Judges. These policies will be railroaded through Parliament. They are fundamental changes that have not been subjected to proper consideration.

All this is a mess. Gladstone once said that “The Constitution presumes the good faith of those who operate it”.

That has been so until now. It is one reason we have had for so long an unwritten Constitution that could evolve rather than become irrelevant in a decade of change. But the present Government have undermined that good faith. They propose fundamental change without consultation.

They are sweeping away centuries of tradition in the careless cause of political correctness.

They have produced legislation on devolution that is deeply flawed and offered Scotland and Wales what they seek but ignore the consequent knock-on effect on the UK as a whole.

I have never been in favour of devolved Assemblies except in Northern Ireland where, for decades, Ulster politicians had no responsibility whatever for policy. Yet even there I favoured only very restrictive powers. My fear was that devolution would lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom as a single entity and that this would diminish our influence in the EU and around the world. That has not happened yet: but it still might. That is why I resisted Scottish and Welsh demands for their own Parliaments. Time alone will prove whether I was right or wrong to do so but it is certain that the Conservative Party paid a heavy political price for putting long-term concerns for our Country before short-term party political self interest. We were pro a United Kingdom not anti Scotland or Wales. Alas, spin and soundbite distorted that truth and ensured it was not seen that way.

New Labour took a more populist and electorally self-interested view and implemented changes that were poorly thought through: even Scots, proud of the principle of Home Rule, admit the reality of it has been a shambles. An overwhelming majority of Scots demanded devolved powers and, as I well know, denying them was painful. But – if devolution had to be ceded – it should have been done in a fashion that was not politically motivated to benefit the Labour Party; that was not a one-way advantage for Scotland at the expense of England; that ignored the knock-on effect across the UK; and that distorted the electoral make-up of the Commons.

It was tactless beyond belief to appoint Dr John Reid, a Scottish MP as Secretary of State for Health in England. Even worse, it is wholly wrong that Scottish MPs are entitled to vote on legislation at Westminster affecting England – university top up fees is a recent example – yet not vote on similar legislation affecting their own constituencies: it is also a scandal that English MPs cannot vote on comparable legislation affecting Scotland. New Labour’s devolution was tantamount to gerrymandering an electoral system already biased in their favour by grotesque Boundary changes to constituencies. These have resulted in a situation in which the Conservative Party needs an 8% lead in votes over Labour to win the same number of seats: in a system in which vigorous politics offers the best safeguard of individual freedoms this cannot be acceptable. Parliament loses because Labour has chosen to ignore this anomaly so that it might benefit from it.

The most dangerous erosion is in the trust and confidence with which our political system is regarded.

Recent episodes have worsened this perception.

The Hutton Inquiry was given inadequate Terms of Reference. As a result, it did not convince.

The Butler Inquiry, too, would have benefited from a wider scope.

The fact that this was denied adds to public cynicism because many who supported the war in Iraq are concerned that no WMD were discovered and fear the war was conducted on a false premise.

Even those, like me, who continue to support the aims of that war, believe it essential to clear up the concerns that have arisen.

The reason for this is not to seek a scapegoat: it is because if there is any doubt about the circumstances in which our troops were ordered into war, such doubt needs to be addressed, explained and cleared up for good. Thus, should our troops need to be committed to action by any future Government, there need be no hesitance in Parliament in supporting the Prime Minister of the day.

As things stand at the moment, if the Prime Minister were to ask Parliament and the public to support him in committing troops for a new conflict, he might well be met at best with a hoarse laugh, and at worst with a flat rejection, rather than the traditional support previous Prime Ministers would have been offered.

The particular problem that has been causing so much disquiet is the question of weapons of mass destruction and the ability to deliver them in 45 minutes. At the time this claim was first made, it was widely understood – perhaps erroneously – to relate to all weapons of mass destruction. It has subsequently turned out that it is accurate only insofar as battlefield weapons are concerned. When challenged about this, the Prime Minister told Parliament that he did not know about this important discrepancy – and we must accept that. It would be unprecedented for a Prime Minister to mislead on such a crucial matter.

But his ignorance of the true facts begs other questions.

Mr Cook and Mr Straw knew – so the FCO must have known.

Mr Hoon knew – and so the MOD must have known.

Mr Alastair Campbell knew – and so the No 10 Press Office must have known.

If the Prime Minister’s Press Office knew – his Private Office must have known.

The Cabinet Secretary must have known.

So must the Joint Intelligence Committee.

And yet – in all the discussions and briefings – no-one thought of sharing such information with the Prime Minister. Although this is possible – it is extraordinary.

There is a second point.

The Prime Minister must have had many private meetings with advisers from the MOD, the Foreign Office, and the Joint Intelligence Committee. Since he believed the weapons of mass destruction to be a danger to our troops in Cyprus, and to Israel, he must surely have consulted his advisers upon how to protect them. If he did not, he should have done.

If he did, why did not his Private Office, the Defence Secretary, the Foreign Secretary, the Cabinet Secretary, the JIC, the Foreign Office, the MOD tell him that he alone did not understand what weapons Iraq truly had – and clarify the position for him? I recall, when I myself was Prime Minister, if there had been any possibility of my misleading either Parliament or the media on any issue – however inadvertently – my Private Office would have alerted me to this immediately so that the line could be corrected without delay.

This complete failure in communication with the Prime Minister ought to be the subject of an Inquiry but it fell outside the Terms of Reference of Lord Hutton and there is no certainty that it falls within the Terms of Reference of Lord Butler. It is no wonder there is disillusion among the electorate.

New Labour’s style of governing – and its adoption of spin and soundbite as its weapons of choice – has done immense damage to politics. Such black arts are political tricks, not statesmanship: they are not what we need in our complex world. It is hardly surprising that the electorate shrugs its shoulders in despair and moves on, blotting political involvement from its collective mind.

The fate of politicians and governments does not matter: they are mortal and, in due time, are replaced by fresh administrations more tuned to the needs of the age.

But if the institution of Parliament declines; if respect for it is lost; if politics is seen as a game not as the protection of our constitution and our liberties; if Ministers bow the head to advisers; and if the public loses its trust in the integrity of government, then we are in serious trouble.

Is it too late for Parliamentary democracy? Has the watchman tolled the hour for our unwritten Constitution and Parliamentary system? I think not. I hope not. But the danger is clear and present.