Saturday, March 26, 2005

Flight from freedom

There is not much hope that a Conservative government in Britain would be any more freedom-minded than Labour. Michael Howard, the man who abolished the right to silence, has a poor record on civil liberties issues. As Home Secretary in gentler times, he proposed a compulsory ID card. He could not muster support and the idea was dropped. He recently made a fool of himself over the same issue when it was proposed by Labour.

He is an authoritarian by instinct. This is confirmed by today's story of the hapless Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party, Howard Flight. No-one outside Westminster, his constituency and his family had heard of this gentleman until today. Then a Labour spy in a Conservative meeting heard him say that his party's public spending proposals were "electioneering" and that there would have to be serious cuts in public spending. Given the "mission creep" of the state in Britain, many of us think that's true. But that's not the point today.

Flight spoke against the Conservative Party's official programme and exposed his leader to criticism. Labour is doing -as one would expect- a fine job of exploiting his error. Michael Howard might have been expected to fire him from his party job. But he did much more. He "withdrew the Whip" - expelling Flight from the Party and banning him from ever being a Conservative candidate again. Flight's constituency association, evident believers in the Fuhrerprinzip, will choose another candidate for his safe Conservative seat. Flight's political career is over.

We can clearly see that Howard would be - in the unlikely event of his Party winning the election - an authoritarian leader. I reserve my full contempt however for the local Conservative Party in Arundel & South Downs. Flight was elected by the local people to serve them all as their Member of Parliament. The local people did not send him away as a conscript to Michael Howard's political army. The local party has no moral right to deselect him and has betrayed the nation by accepting orders to do so.

In this small story, we can see how the party system has destroyed democracy in Britain. It made sense for Parliament to be sovereign when Parliament was the voice of the people. It used to consist of sturdily independent - even eccentric - types. These were people who had to be won over to new ideas and who were likely to speak out if the government was going off the rails. The government had to negotiate with them if it wanted new laws.

Today Parliament consists of rival armies marshalled by the leaders of the political parties. Individual MP's can think what they like but they speak as they are told. The Labour MP for my home town in England has spoken six times in this Parliament; three times to ask clearly "planted" grovelling questions of ministers. And three times to invite those Ministers to praise something in her constituency for which she wished to take credit (the political pay-off for her other contributions, no doubt). For this gallant contribution to democracy, we pay her many thousands of pounds in salary and expenses. One day her disgraceful toadying will win her a ministerial post, so we can pay her even more and have her driven round London as if she were important. She is a waste of the space she occupies, and not just the space in the House of Commons that she occupies so rarely and to such little effect.

The parties have hijacked our democracy. The MPs of the party in power take orders from their leader - the head of the government - thus destroying the "separation of powers" between legislature, executive and judiciary. That separation is the key element of a democratic system of government. The government does not speak for the people. Parliament does - or should. The government is not there to rule us, but to adminster the institutions and implement the laws our representatives create.

It makes no sense for such a weak and feeble creature as today's Parliament to be constitutionally supreme. We need a new democratic constitution in Britain, with key civil liberties and minority protections entrenched. We need the party Whip withdrawn - not just from Howard Flight - but from all our MP's.

Whether Howard Flight was right or wrong is not the point. Michael Howard's arrogant exercise of party power to override the choice of the Arundel & South Downs electorate is. It demonstrates that the vote in the next election is an irrelevance. We are choosing between dictators who will do as they please, regardless of what they promised - and regardless most of all of our civil rights.

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