31 May 2010

Lord Norton on Constitutional Change

A fine opening salvo on constitutional change has been launched by the Lord Norton of Louth; I look forward to further responses from his cannon as respective bills—his ‘detailed comments on specific measures’—come into the line of fire.

On his personal blog, Lord Norton has summarised his three considerations on constitutional reform as proportionality (‘don’t expect too much of it’), complementarity (‘make sure it relates to a clear view of what is expected of our constitutional arrangements’), and effectiveness (‘make sure it is evidence based’).

In addition—and as a way of preparing the ground—I suggest a thorough ‘metaphysics of reform’ should also be among constitutional first principles; namely: (i) an identified abuse; (ii) a realistic remedy; and (iii) consideration of long-term consequences.

In his House of Lords address, Lord Norton cautioned: ‘We need to ensure that this is a thoroughly well grounded proposal and not some back-of-the-envelope approach of the sort that we have seen in the past.’ He is referring implicitly to consequences both unintended (foreseen but considered unlikely) and unforeseen (quite unanticipated at all).

For one of conservative disposition, this is one of the strengths of tradition: not that an institution or practice is old, but that it is tested, and that its benefits (as well as its weaknesses) are known. In a nomenclature that has fallen out of favour in our day, Edmund Burke called this knowledge prejudice:
Many of our men of speculation, instead of exploding general prejudices, employ their sagacity to discern the latent wisdom which prevails in them. If they find what they seek, and they seldom fail, they think it more wise to continue the prejudice, with the reason involved, that to cast away the coat of prejudice, and to leave nothing but the naked reason; because prejudice, with its reason, has a motive to give action to that reason, and an affection which will give it permanence.
For Hamlet, knowledge of these prejudices—and an awareness of the veil of ignorance concerning consequences, pending their removal—‘makes us rather bear those ills we have / Than fly to others that we know not of’.

Burke’s aversion to this rationality of ‘naked reason’ is the same source for Lord Norton’s appeal that ‘constitutional change – indeed any public policy – should be grounded in clear empirical evidence.’

Unfortunately, the ease with which this Government (and its predecessor, under Labour) enters into legislating for reform—whether it be for an elected Upper House or the general voting mechanism—betrays a disconcerting cavalier attitude. When His Lordship says, ‘Our constitution is not the plaything of any government ... We need to ensure that change is justified both in principle and practice’, he echoes the wisdom of Disraeli:
Are we never to learn that a Constitution, a real Constitution, is the creation of ages, not of a day, and that when we destroy such a Constitution we in fact destroy a nation?

24 May 2010

Lord Norton on Maintaining Accountability in Parliament

As promised, Professor the Lord Norton of Louth has posted some thoughts on two constitutional reforms that have come to the fore, particularly as a result of the agreement that led to coalition government. The reforms in question are proportional representation and an elected House of Lords.

Of the former, writes Lord Norton:
The fundamental argument against the use of PR for parliamentary elections is that it would destroy the core accountability at the heart of our political system. Our existing electoral system facilitates, but does not guarantee, the return of a single party to government. There is thus one body – the party in government – elected through elections to the House of Commons that is responsible for public policy. It has stood for election on a particular platform, against which it can be judged, and – most importantly of all – it can swept from office at the next election. Knowing that, it tends to be responsive to public opinion.
Of the latter, the problem with an elected House of Lords is that
it would be in a position to demand more powers than the existing House. It may not be co-equal to the first chamber but it would likely demand more powers than the existing House and be willing to exercise those powers. Election would change the terms of trade between the two chambers. There would be no reason why elected members of the second chamber would see the role of the chamber as a complementary one. There would be the potential for conflict between the two. This could lead to stalemate or more often to deals being struck. Such deals would be more likely to be to the benefit of parties and special interests than to the benefit of electors. There would be no clear line of accountability for what emerged or, indeed, what failed to emerge.
What ties PR and an elected second chamber together, in Lord Norton’s view, is accountability, or the lack thereof. Were this reform to be instituted in the House of Commons, voters would be less able to hold their representatives to account because
  • First, in many forms of PR, electors vote for a party and not a person, with eventual MPs picked off party lists (with ‘loyal’ candidates often topping the charts), and

  • Second, since PR most often leads to pluralities and not majority governments, parties must bargain and trade amongst themselves in order to form a working government—cobbling together deals and compromises for which no one voted in advance.
As to the House of Lords, an elected chamber would compete with the Commons for legislative supremacy—emboldened by its new democratic mandate—and the series of compromises that would be necessary between parties in a PR-constituted lower chamber would now be replicated by similar actions between it and the upper chamber.

Lord Norton is adamant in his opposition to these reforms, and I agree with his emphatic message: ‘If you believe in having a political system where there is a clear line of accountability between government and electors, then one needs to defend both the existing electoral system and an appointed second chamber.’

19 May 2010

Debating a Threshold for Dissolution

One of the more immediately controversial results of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government is to be found in its negotiated agreement of a 55 per cent rule for dissolution.

Fearing the long-term viability and stability of the coalition pact, the parties agreed to a fixed-term parliament of five years and, to firm up the deal, declared that ‘legislation will also provide for dissolution if 55% or more of the House votes in favour.’ Presumably, the Lib Dems fear that the Tories will in time tire of the arrangement and seek a majority government at the polls. But without the necessary majority—in this case an ‘enhanced majority’—the coalition is relatively secure.

Details of this provision’s full impact remain murky and in much debate. Professor The Lord Norton of Louth has promised readers of his blog a full review to come, which we await eagerly.

In the meantime, one group has come out strongly against, No to 55, arguing that ‘introducing an “enhanced majority” for dissolution of the Commons may be politically expedient, but it’s not democratic.’

One of the more thoughtful attempts at a defence, however, has come from Telegraph writer Philip Johnston, who wrote:
If a government cannot command the support of parliament it falls and that remains the case under the new arrangement. If it loses a confidence motion by 50pc plus 1 it falls.

However, if a PM wants to cut and run for a general election at a time of his own chosing, he would need 55pc of MPs voting for it.
According to Johnston, ‘this idea is not a coup and is actually more democratic than the current system that places all the power for dissolving parliament in the PM’s hands.’

Two points are readily apparent:
  1. First, on the face of it, requiring an ‘enhanced majority’ for a prime ministerial sponsored dissolution is undemocratic—and contradictory—when the parliamentary convention itself is 50 per cent + 1, and

  2. Second, were government backbenchers to take their responsibility to hold the Executive—which includes their own leader—to account, no Prime Minister would request a dissolution of Parliament from the Crown were he to fear a backbench revolt. Ministers may be semi-cocooned from the people, but ordinary MPs never want for constituency feedback—and public reaction to an unwarranted dropping of the writs would surely be voiced and subsequently felt at the ballot box.
Equally important, if MPs adhered to the above model of an organic Parliament, there would be no need of fixed-term parliaments (which are promoted mainly as a way of frustrating First Ministers). Confidence would reside wholly with the House of Commons whose compliance would no longer be taken for credit.

None of the political actors involved deserve laurels for this constitutional innovation that occurred behind closed doors, among politicians on the cusp of power, bargaining amongst themselves. It is also likely the governing parties will insist upon a whipped vote.

More worrying still, are the people to be grateful that the threshold upon which the Conservative-Liberal Democrat negotiating teams agreed was 55 per cent? Based on this precedent, what is to impede subsequent thresholds of democracy-in-action to be 60 per cent, 65 per cent, or more?

So, ‘Welcome to the new politics’, Mr Johnston? What a foreboding invitation.

17 May 2010

Assigning a Progressive Role to Conservatism

In a thoughtful article for The Times, Dominic Lawson writes about the legitimate place of progressive thought within Conservatism, a history that is contrary to ‘the deep intellectual conceit of those on the left who imagine not just that they are the only people who can be described as “progressive”, but that anyone from a different political tradition has purely cynical motivations, even — or perhaps especially — as a reformer.’

Lawson cites the Victorian Tories William Wilberforce and the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, and includes Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith as modern examples.

Benjamin Disraeli, quoted approvingly, ‘had his own celebrated formulation of this political phenomenon [where principles of the left and right co-operated]: a sound Conservative government was “Tory men and Whig measures”.’

Yet Lawson concludes on a note of warning: ‘Like all elements of political jargon, the word “progressive” has, in any case, been steadily stripped of meaning.’

With no little satisfaction conservatives can support improvements in social and economic affairs, although constitutional innovation ought to be treated with scepticism, as outlined with great care by Edmund Burke.

He too, however, was not without an evolutionary instinct: ‘A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation,’ Burke wrote. ‘Without such means it might even risque the loss of that part of the constitution which it wished the most religiously to preserve.’

Indeed, these were the origins of the modern Conservative party—which lie in its Burkean accommodation with the Reform Act of 1832—exemplified by Sir Robert Peel’s Tamworth Manifesto assertion that
if the spirit of the Reform Bill implies merely a careful review of institutions, civil and ecclesiastical, undertaken in a friendly temper combining, with the firm maintenance of established rights, the correction of proved abuses and the redress of real grievances, - in that case, I can for myself and colleagues undertake to act in such a spirit and with such intentions.
A spirit and intentions much recommended to the present Government.

16 May 2010


Welcome to ‘Lord Salisbury and Parliamentary Traditions’, the blog for the Salisbury Initiative for Parliamentary Traditions.

In light of recent events in British politics, where ‘non-partisan’ conservative political practices are threatened with renewed calls for change, this new project—in keeping with the ideals and aspirations of the Disraeli-Macdonald Institute—has been formed to promote and defend the conventions of the United Kingdom Parliament.

In the lead-up to the 2010 General Election, the Conservative party sought to re-establish its rapport with the British people—as a political party for the twenty-first century—by emphasising its progressive programme for Britain’s future. Focussing on ‘progressive means for conservative ends’, Conservatives are intent on addressing the ‘broken society’ and ‘broken politics’.

While there are many laudable improvements that can be realised through progressive measures, the Salisbury Initiative was established to act as a safeguard for the conservative principles that must form the core of the Conservative party.

The necessity of buttressing conservative beliefs has risen in importance, in consideration of the coalition government that has been formed between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats to create what some analysts have called a ‘progressive alliance’. With no wish to undermine the strong, stable government this coalition brings forth, there is equally a desire to remain true to the tenets of Conservatism.

While there are many figures in the history of the Conservative party who embody these cherished principles, the figure of the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury was especially poignant: Lord Salisbury is renowned for his scepticism of the true long-term benefits of institutional ‘innovation’—serving, at times, as a reactionary caricature—and of his faith in history as a reliable counsellor when undertaking salutary political reform.

The Salisbury Initiative is an ally of the Conservative party and seeks neither to undermine its period in office nor its continuing success. ‘The complaints of a friend are things very different from the invectives of an enemy,’ wrote Edmund Burke. ‘It is our duty rather to palliate his errors and defects, or to cast them into the shade, and industriously to bring forward any good qualities that he may happen to possess.’ But, as Burke, explained:
When his safety is effectually provided for, it then becomes the office of a friend to urge his faults and vices with all the energy of enlightened affection, to paint them in their most vivid colours, and to bring the moral patient to a better habit. Thus I think with regards to individuals; thus I think with regard to antient and respected governments and order of men.
This is the intent of the Salisbury Initiative: ‘A spirit of reformation is never more consistent with itself, than when it refuses to be rendered the means of destruction.’

The objectives of the Initiative are simple:
  1. Support for constitutional monarchy;

  2. Support for the British constitution and Parliament—namely, the House of Lords and the House of Commons—and a defence of their arrangements, practices, and the political values they uphold; and

  3. Support for traditional conservative political principles: while necessary reform is a salubrious undertaking, and a fair appraisal of progress underpins evolutionary development, a foundation of enduring principles is at the core of Conservatism.
Plans are to highlight articles and news items relating to constitutional and parliamentary reform—which will be archived on the Initiative’s ‘News’ page—on this blog. Readers are encouraged to forward links which touch on SI’s mandate, and to follow SI on Facebook and Twitter.

Many thanks, tell your friends, and please visit the Salisbury Initiative—and this blog—often!