Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Something positive?

The worst thing about the issues described here, is that they make me feel like a grumpy old man. Constantly bitching and moaning about my country "going to the dogs" is not the way I want to be. Reading Peter Hitchen's relentless negativity made me think that - as well as trying to understand what is going wrong - I should also try to think about solutions.

Clearly we will not - as Hitchens seems to hope - go back to the Britain of the 1950's. Yes, we had less crime then. Yes, we had more common values then. Yes, we were less mobile and more likely to behave ourselves for fear of what the neighbours would think. But that's not how we are today.

We need somehow to achieve a free and open society based on the core values of liberty, tolerance and justice. But we need to achieve it in a way consistent with the people we are today not the people our grandparents were.

The Labour Government is perhaps on the right track in attacking the House of Lords and even the monarchy (although it does not dare to attack the latter openly). These institutions are not bad because they are old; they are bad because they don't work. The very existence of the monarchy creates an attitude which is the opposite of "the American Dream". Perhaps the first political understanding that a British child will have is that our Head of State is selected by birth - i.e. if your father or mother is not King or Queen, forget about aspiring to the top job! That's bad psychology. In America or France, anyone can hope to be President. Bill Clinton may not have been a great leader, but he gave hope to the trailer parks from which he came.

Irritatingly for Labour, the people persist in loving the monarchy. Labour's current solution seems to be to slight and demean the monarch and her family at every opportunity. Presumably they hope to undermine the institution so that it can be reformed. It's a nasty and negative solution that tends to undermine the national spirit. Unfortunately, it is highly unlikely that a government so driven by the popular press will ever find the courage openly to propose an alternative. Whatever its faults, we are stuck with the monarchy for a while yet.

The House of Lords is a different matter. It has been severely damaged by Labour but not rebuilt. If we are to improve the quality of our lawmaking, we need a second chamber to review proposed legislation calmly and professionally.

Because is has no credibility in its current form, we have a real opportunity to reform the upper house of Parliament. We need a Senate which has democratic credibility and real prestige. Perhaps we missed an opportunity in creating the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. We could have accomodated the national aspirations of Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland by having a second chamber elected directly from those components of the United Kingdom.

Given a defined role of monitoring the activities of the House of Commons, reviewing and polishing legislation AND preserving the individual cultures of the home nations, such a Senate could contribute a lot. It could also be used for the first time to entrench key provisions of the British Constitution. For example we could require not just a special majority of the Senate - but a majority in each of the home nations - so that (for example) England could not be said to impose ideas on Scotland (or vice versa).

There is currently a lot of resentment in England that a largely Scots government of the United Kingdom has an ideology fundamentally different to that of most English people. Tensions are likely to increase if (as seems likely) a largely Scottish cabinet imposes identity cards on the English and Welsh, while the Edinburgh Parliament refuses to have them in Scotland. The English are likely to see this as the Scots "having their cake and eating it".

Certainly Prime Minister Blair's approach to "reform" of the House of Lords has been a disaster. He has crippled the old indefensible House of Lords without creating a workable alternative. In packing the upper house with his cronies, he is creating an institution every bit as undemocratic - and demonstrably more corrupt - than the old one.

Britain needs constitutional reform. To hang together as a nation, we need to feel safe as individuals and as minority groups. We need to understand that, at some stages and in some aspects of our lives, we are all likely to be minorities needing tolerance from the majority. We therefore need a constitution more complex than "Parliament is sovereign". We need safeguards against the current whims of the majority. Reform of the House of Lords to create a genuinely democratic second chamber of Parliament with a different - and longer-term - perspective could well be a good starting point. If it achieved credibility it could one day be entrusted (as the highly-politicised House of Commons never could) with writing a new constitution for modern Britain.

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