From forcing through ID cards to the erosion of parliamentary scrutiny, a determined clique is hijacking our democracy
by: Jenni Russell on: 7th Apr, 06
In January the commissioner of the Metropolitan police got into enormous trouble for saying that he couldn’t see why the Soham murders had become such a big story. Like every other journalist, I marvelled at his inability to see what makes a story run. But now, as I follow the news, I have developed a blind spot of my own. Piece by piece, month by month, Tony Blair’s administration is removing the safeguards that protect all of us from the whims of a government and the intrusions of a powerful state. It is engaged in a ferocious power-grab. Yet this story has not seized the imagination of the media or the public. In our failure to respond, the government must be reading a tacit acceptance that it can do what it chooses, because we either don’t notice or don’t care.
The government is briskly and fundamentally reshaping the relationship of the individual to the state, of the Lords to the Commons, and of MPs to ministers. The ID cards bill will allow the authorities unprecedented surveillance of our lives, and the power to curtail our ordinary activities by withdrawing that card. The legislative and regulatory reform bill, now entering its final stages, will let ministers alter laws by order, rather than having to argue their case in parliament. Then this weekend brought another shocking government proposal to increase its own power and weaken the restraints upon it. Lord Falconer made clear that the government intends to drastically curtail the powers of the Lords. The current convention is that peers cannot block any legislation contained in a party’s manifesto. In future peers will have to pass any legislation that the government deems important, whether it was in the manifesto or not. They will effectively be neutered.
It appears that these changes cannot be stopped. Last week the Lords gave up their battle to stop the imposition of an identity-card register. They had pointed out that they were under no obligation to pass the bill, as the Labour manifesto promised the scheme would be voluntary, but what was proposed was essentially compulsory. The government’s retaliation for their principled stand was swift, and should alarm all of us. These events reveal that our parliamentary system is already too feeble to stop a determined executive imposing its will.
How improbable this scenario seemed when Blair won the election 10 months ago. His majority was slashed. He won only 36% of the vote. Both he and Brown stressed the need to listen more carefully to an electorate that clearly wanted a smaller government majority. Many of us took that to mean this would be a more careful, consensual government, aware that its mandate was limited. But the opposite has happened.
Our political system is based on the assumption that there are always checks and balances to prevent unbalanced legislation becoming law. This has to be so, because as electors our participation in the whole process is so very limited. We cannot distinguish between the elements we like and dislike in a party’s manifesto. We have to trust that any proposals that make us uneasy will be open to change as civil servants, public and parliament consider them.
Every element of that process is now being enfeebled. Civil servants, ministers and MPs are all increasingly dependent on pleasing the executive if they wish to progress in their careers. In the Commons, only those who don’t care about their political futures dare to rebel. The committees that scrutinise legislation cannot act independently as they all have in-built government majorities, with their members hand-picked. For instance, the new committee scrutinising the contentious education bill has been stuffed by the government so that not one of the 52 Labour MPs who voted against the bill is represented on it. And now the Lords is threatened too.
This administration is taking the art of dismissing objections – from MPs, peers or public – to new heights. At the committee stage of the legislative and regulatory reform bill, MPs were assured that the act would not be used for highly controversial measures. They asked for such reassurance to be written into the bill, and for a long list of crucial acts to be excluded from its remit. The minister refused, saying he would recognise a controversial measure when he saw one.
In the ID cards debates in the Lords, Baroness Scotland attempted to bully the peers into submission by maintaining that when the manifesto promised that ID cards would be “a voluntary scheme to be rolled out alongside the renewal of passports” that quite clearly meant ID cards would be compulsory for anyone wanting to travel abroad. As for the public, the London School of Economics was viciously attacked by the home secretary when it published a lengthy and deeply researched report on the implications of ID cards. The LSE’s most recent report notes that, despite three years of notional consultation, the Home Office has not been willing to listen to any critical views. The legislation is going through practically unchanged.
This behaviour is alarmingly arrogant. The prime minister’s circle believe they have a right to push through any measures without hindrance, because they have a monopoly on wisdom. Their contempt for everyone else’s motives and opinions is evident. Eighteen months ago a cabinet minister sneered at me when I asked whether he was worried that the public-service ethos was evaporating. It doesn’t exist, he said; all these people care about is dosh.
This demonising and misreading of others fuels the self-belief of the inner circle, who see themselves as valiantly trying to do the right thing in a hostile universe. A leading Blairite was recently at dinner with a friend, and found himself being challenged over the government’s activities. Eventually, frustrated by the criticism, he leant forward and said: “What you don’t seem to understand is that we are good people!”
That injured comment is revealing. Even if it were undeniably true, it could not justify the hijacking of our democracy by a small, determined group. Good people can do bad things. What’s more, bad people can follow them. Assurances of virtue are irrelevant. What matters is where power lies and how it is controlled. That stale phrase, an elective dictatorship, is now a real danger.
The perverse fact is that we are being asked to place great trust in a government that makes a point of distrusting everyone outside its inner circle. If we don’t share their assumption that they alone know what is best for the rest of us, we had better start protesting now. Last year Blair promised to listen to us. As he dismantles our defences, what he is hearing is something close to silence.
Source: The Guardian