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 –
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 –
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-
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 –
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 –
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 –
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% –
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 –
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 –
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 –
The House of Lords should have more power: there is much it could do. It could improve the quality of our law by pre-
I do not agree with the current vogue for a largely elected Second Chamber. Yes –
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 –
At the same time as respect for Parliament is in decline, so too is the neutrality of the Civil Service –
The pattern of by-
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-
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-
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 –
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 –
New Labour, apparently contemptuous of our history, has swept away centuries of institutional values. Rushed, ill thought-
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-
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-
New Labour took a more populist and electorally self-
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 –
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 –
But his ignorance of the true facts begs other questions.
Mr Cook and Mr Straw knew –
Mr Hoon knew –
Mr Alastair Campbell knew –
If the Prime Minister’s Press Office knew –
The Cabinet Secretary must have known.
So must the Joint Intelligence Committee.
And yet –
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 –
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 –
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.