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Comments on a Policy Reform Group Paper

This is a commentary on the paper ‘Constitutional reform: Sustaining a viable United Kingdom through the 21st century’,

It is downloadeable at https://consoc.org.uk/publications/constitutional-reform-sustaining-a-viable-united-kingdom-through-the-21st-century-by-thomas-legg-stephen-green-and-martin-donnelly/

This paper sets out some thinking on reform that I believe is shared by many and is a very useful summary of that thinking. However I believe that more radical thinking is needed and recommend that anyone serious about reform should study the thinking of systems thinker and ex partner at pwc Ed Straw. go to his website at https://www.edstraw.com/.

In the meantime I would to comment on some points in the Reform Group paper. I focus on Part 2 – Solutions:

Para 44.1: It needs to be entrenched as well as codified.

Para 50.1 The purists presumably rely on the 1688 (or 1689) English Bill of Rights which is only ordinary legislation passed in very different circumstances.

Para 55: should not be wholly elected.There should be some members appointed by the House of Lords appointments commission using criteria set by the House as a whole. Straw suggests they should have a roles in objectively judging the effectveness of government. There is an argument that the rest should be indirectly elected by lower levels of government as members of the Bundesrat are elected.

Para 56: AMS was chosen by the Blair government because the Labour party wanted a system in which they, rather than voters had more control. Party dogma is part of the problem it should be STV.

Along with most suggestions as to what should be included in a constitution the paper fails to mention features that any modern constitution should include including ending the blame culture and ensuring that mainstream media tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

If a plane crashes there is a thorough investigation of the causes; it is not always put down to pilot error. But for example if someone dies as a result of failings in the dwp someone is blamed rather than the root causes established. Inadequacies in systems and procedures are not corrected.

Corporate media cannot be prevented from expressing opinions favourable to their owners but they should distinguish fact from opinion; they should not be allowed to base their opinions on false ‘facts’. The BBC should be neutral and tell the whole truth; government should have no hand in its governance.

Should We Surrender to Dictatorship?

The British government is slowly but surely throttling what is left of our democracy. We protest at each new encroachment, but our power to protest peacefully is rapidly being taken away. We are on the back foot we need a clear vision of how we should be governed. We need to believe that a better future is possible in which the world can live within planetary boundaries and that Britain, and England in particular can avoid becoming a failed state. We need a vision of what Britain could be and part of that vision is a proper constitution.

Ideally we need a representative citizens’ assembly, but there are two problems: such an assembly needs much preparation, and the current government obviously will not support such an exercise. I believe that a few of us can create a vision to feed into an assembly once it is formed.

We have to hope that as the cloak of Covid19 wears thin, people will realise just what a mess Johnson’s version of Brexit is, and that a ‘progressive alliance’ can beat the Tories. But simply being anti Tory is not enough to unite the alliance for long. We must set out the vision; we have to show that politics can be done in a different way. Voting reform will help but in my opinion while it attracts widespread support that support is headly passionate.

I have thought a lot about the vision. My latest draft can be downloaded here.

( https://moneyversusdemocracy.files.wordpress.com/2021/06/writtenconstitutionpproposal-d5.doc )

Although I am far from satisfied I feel I have done as much as I can without criticism. Also at age 80 and in poorish health I do not think I can coordinate efforts effectively. Could Unlock Democracy (team@unlockdemocracy.org.uk) or Compass (info@compassonline.org.uk) do that? Please contact them if you think so.

But by all means copy me in on dhs658@hotmail.co.uk.

David Smith

Can we Outlaw Political Lying?

Updated 10th April

You can see a draft Political Lying Bill at ( https://moneyversusdemocracy.files.wordpress.com/2021/04/political-lying-bill-doc-version.doc )

(Note that inter alia, it deals with lies by foreign owned media)

This Bill was inspired by Peter Oborne’s latest book ‘’The Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Emergence of a New Moral Barbarism’, published in February 2021.


At the Leveson enquiry in 2012, Oborne said that directors of publicly listed companies could go to jail if they make false or misleading statements on shares and assets. “Whereas politicians I have noticed, freely make entirely false statements about how they are conducting themselves and why one should vote for them,” Oborne added.

He said it would very healthy if such a criminal sanction could be applied to politicians and journalists.

Lord Justice Leveson put it to him that such a draconian penalty would have “a chilling effect upon journalism”. However, in view of the vast increase in political lying and propaganda since, Leveson’s view might have changed.

This is a strict liability bill, like manslaughter; intent to lie does not have to be proved. But unlike manslaughter those who make a false statement can retract and hence avoid penalty.

No majority government elected under First Past the Post, and our chaotic uncontrolled constitution, would give any Political Lying bill time. It would require radical constitutional change, possibly triggered by the collapse of society arising from government incompetence and corruption. However the Bill set out above just might embarrass the government sufficiently to improve their behaviour. Given the collapse of any morals in poictics democracy is now virtually impossible.

It is important to note that the Bill is not intended to censor opinion; it is only alleged facts that are addressed.

I am not commenting on the detailed wording. I am sure there are points that could be improved but it is the general principle I want to get across.

Why Do the Media Always Support Police Lies?

Time after time the mainstream media accept the police version of so called violent protest when video footage shows that it is the police themselves that show the violence.

On 26th March protesters gathered in Bristol to peacefully demonstrate against the Tory government’s draconian Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. The protest came after “violent and disgraceful policing” at previous ‘Kill the Bill’ protests

In fact video footage shows that it was the police use the tactic of ‘blading’ people lying peacefully on the ground, see

( https://www.thecanary.co/trending/2021/03/27/videos-from-the-latest-bristol-protest-should-dismiss-all-doubts-over-police-violence/ )

Experience suggests that this government will always support the police in an effort to create division, but it is regretable that papers like the Guardian have to fall into line.

NB because of unhelpful changes to wordpress software you may have to copy the above URL and paste it inro your browser.

Scottish Independence, Direct Rule, or a Federal UK?

It seems to me that the UK is increasingly unstable. Boris Johnson regrets devolution. Polls have indicated a majority of Scottish independence, but there is some indications of a reversal.

Reasons why Scots may want to leave the UK include:

Escape from the disastrous Brexit deal and possible readmission to the EU

Escape from ever more dictatorial, corrupt and incompetent government at Westminster

Benefit fully from the wealth of natural resources, especially renewable energy

What an independent Scotland would need:

An independent currency

A foreign ministry

A defence ministry, defence policy and defence force

Two reasons why Westminster government is determined to keep Scotland in the UK

To protect the reputation of the UK

To retain a naval base in Scotland – especially to keep Trident away from England

If support for independence in Scotland grows Boris may be tempted to rein in devolved powers or even declare direct rule. This would doubtless increase support for independence which might be countered by Westminster declaring a state of emergency and arresting key SNP leaders.

A wiser and humbler PM than Boris might go for a federal solution. This was proposed by Baroness Bryan of Partick (Labour), though I have no details. This would involve considering the UK as made  up of 12 parts: Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland (if it remains in the UK, London and the 8 other English regions. Each part would have its own parliament or assembly and executive. The House of Lords would be replaced by a Senate the majority of whose members would be directly or indirectly elected by the regional assemblies. The remaining senators would be appointed by a Senate appointments commission according to principles agreed by the Senate. The key point is that all devolved powers would be hardwired into a codified and entrenched constitution.

Why does not Starmer support this idea?

 

 

The Energy Charter Treaty Must be Killed

International opposition to this treaty which seriously threatens the Green New Deal and addressing climate change is growing. My purpose in this post is to try to encourage opposition in Britain.

Avaaz have launched a petition at:

https://secure.avaaz.org/campaign/en/energy_charter_treaty_fr_pa/

“As world citizens, we call on you to pull out of the Energy Charter Treaty and stop its expansion to other countries. The treaty is incompatible with the Paris Climate Agreement, and it allows coal, oil and gas corporations to obstruct our transition to a clean energy future. It’s time to disarm fossil fuel firms now, so they can no longer impede urgent climate action and put their interest above our public health and security.”

See also: https://www.politico.eu/article/energy-charter-treaty-threatens-eu-green-deal/  and

https://corporateeurope.org/en/2020/12/busting-myths-around-energy-charter-treaty which exposes the greenwash being put out by the industry lobbies.

The treaty includes the one sided and secretive ‘Investor State Dispute Settlement’ procedure. There is a sunset clause but that has not stopped Italy from withdrawing from the treaty.

 

Is Trident a White Elephant?

I think that most English people accept (perhaps reluctantly), that we need to keep Trident and upgrade the submarines from the Vanguard class to the Dreadnought class. Presumably because they believe that, in spite of the many objections to nuclear deterrents in principle, ai least Trident is a deterrent; it helps to keep us safe. However as far as I can see Trident is not an effective deterrent.

Back in 1968 when the first Polaris submarine was deployed it may have been undetectable, but in the more than 50 years since, technological advances have changed the situation. For some years Russin submarines have not had to relay on sonar (active or passive), but have been able to track others by sensing their wake [1] , and Trident subs on patrol are moving. Furthermore in future the use of swarms of drones is likely to replace manned vessels in tracking submarines [2].

Assuming an enemy (probably Russia) contemplated a nuclear 1st strike against Britain or its interests it would first destroy the Trident submarine on patrol and then launch the nuclear strike before Britain has time to deploy one of the other 3 Trident submarines. Mrs May indicated that she would launch Trident in response to a sufficiently serious non nuclear attack. If such an attack were contemplated the enemy, having knocked out the submarine on patrol, would still have time to find and destroy the remaining 3 submarines before they are ready to launch Trdent.

It is worth noting that the National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015 [3] does not examine the question of whether Trident is still an effective deterrent. Annex A classifies Terrorism, Cyber attacks and Major Natural Hazards as Tier 1 threats as against nuclear war , Tier2.

In view of this why does the government insist on upgrading Trident without examining whether it is still a credible deterrent? It gives the public a false sence of security and also allows us to remain in the nuclear club. but does this really enhance our reputation and influence in the world?

In 2015 it was possible to argue that this is the case, see https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/sep/28/trident-useless-debate-labour-vote. Now with a botched Brexit and the possible loss of Scotland, I argure we need to be humbler about our place in the world.

References:

[1] https://www.popularmechanics.com/military/navy-ships/a28724/submarine-sonar-soks/ <https://www.popularmechanics.com/military/navy-ships/a28724/submarine-sonar-soks/> and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SOKS. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SOKS.>

[2] https://cnduk.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/Security-not-Trident-report-2.pdf <https://cnduk.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/Security-not-Trident-report-2.pdf> page 7,

‘UK will deploy drone squadron after brexit says defence secretary the guardian 11 feb 2019’ https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/feb/11/uk-will-deploy-drone-squadrons-after-brexit-says-defence-secretary-gavin-williamson, ,> and

‘Unmanned Surface Vehicles Successfully Detect & Track Live Submarine’, Unmanned Systems Technology, 31 October 2016, https://www.unmannedsystemstechnology.com/2016/10/liquid-robotics-and-boeing-demonstrate-submarine-tracking-at-unmanned-warrior/

[3] National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-security-strategy-and-strategic-defence-and-security-review-2015, paras 4.63 et seq

[4] ibid Annex A

Scottish Independence – The Question of Defence

This post is not an argument for or against independence, but merely highlights one issue to be considered

In spite of Boris Johnson’s determination to deny Scotland’s call for another independence referendum, he may need to bow to international pressure, especially if the economy continues to go South as a result of Brexit. There is little doubt that Scotland could be economically self sufficient, and (unlike the UK at present) would be a genuine democracy. However there appear to be a couple of issues that have not been much debated.

Craig Murray observes,

“[following independence?]Scotland must be a fully functioning independent nation in two to three years. We need to start now to understand and plan for the physical infrastructure of governance a modern state needs. Just one of the vast gaps at present is the ability for an independent state to interact with other states; that is, after all, what defines the very being of a state. Scotland will need its own foreign ministry. In short time.”

He also argues the case for an independent defence capability,

“I have even seen it suggested that Independent Scotland will not need a foreign ministry, nor a defence ministry, because in these areas it can continue to cooperate with the British state. I should hope that I could forever destroy the argument for an Independent Scotland aligning with UK foreign policy in just nine words. I shall try:

Iraq. Libya. Afghanistan. Palestine. Yemen. Chagos. Catalonia. Trident. Rendition.

We simply cannot align ourselves with the butcher’s apron abroad. Quite simply, that would be to sacrifice a key attribute of a nation state. It would not be Independence. The immorality of UK foreign policy is a key motive for many Scots to want independence in the first place, myself included.”

That raises a number of questions:

Would Scotland be a member of NATO?

Would Scotland’s defence be confined to protecting its borders?

Would Scotland have a role in policing the Greenland, Iceland UK Gap?

What % of GDP should be contributed to supporting NATO objectives?

All the above involve some intense diplomacy.

Finally what about Britains’ ‘independent’ nuclear deterrent; is it just a vanity project? The navy is proud to recognise over 50 years of ‘Continuous at Seat Deterrence’. Just maybe the concept is outdated. Maybe the submarines are no longer so hard to find and follow.. For some years Russian submarines have been able to track their adversaries by following their wake underwater, see, https://www.popularmechanics.com/military/navy-ships/a28724/submarine-sonar-soks/ russian wake detection and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SOKS.

Who, apart from Russia, is the nuclear deterrent is meant to deter?

Is it just to deter nuclear 1st strikes? Surely before launching such a 1st strike, Russia would surely knock out the trident subs first.

If it is there to deter a non nuclear attack, what would justify using the deterrent? Would an invasion of the Orkneys justify it?

Plugging the Hole in the Centre of Government

I argue below that, although there are strong arguments for plugging the hole at the centre of government, if this is done without addressings the failings in our so called democracy, the result will be to turn populism into tyranny.

There have been obvious failings in the management of the Covid19 pandemic in the UK. Some would argue that this is due to pure corruption – helping out the government’s friends and funders whilst ignoring the needs of the vast majority of us. While there may be an element of truth in this, it is not the whole story; senior ministers have not had a central team of civil servants to help them resolve inter departmental disagreements. What’s more is that noone has had the confidence to decentralise track and tace to local authorities subject to general guidelines and some extra funding.

There is nothing new about the complaint that there is a hole in the centre of government. Traditionally the Treasury has been at the centre of things. That may have been appropriate in the days when the functions of government were much less. Inevitably in spite of what Tories wish, the reach of government has been vastly enlargened. The Treasury attitude, ‘look after the pennies and the pounds look after themselves’ is no longer adequate.

The Institute for Government has just published a report entitled, “The Heart of the Problem: A Weak Centre is Undermining the UK Government”, see, https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/weak-centre-government.pdf. The author Alex Thomas is a former civil servant. He writes:

“Summary
The United Kingdom is a highly centralised state and policy decisions made in
Westminster have consequences for citizens across the country. That is particularly
true during a pandemic when extreme restrictions on everyday life are imposed
with the stroke of a ministerial pen. But for such a centralised system the heart of
government that directly supports the prime minister is weak. The prime minister’s
team is underpowered, especially compared with the Treasury, lacking the tools to
set direction and to hold the rest of the government to account. This paper considers
the effectiveness of Number 10 and the Cabinet Office and sets out ways to improve
how they work….

The prime minister was right to ask Sir Michael Barber to review the effectiveness of the
arrangements for making things happen in government.
3 As a contribution to that effort
this paper sets out four recommendations that would make the centre of government
more effective. Most are not completely new, some are partially but not fully in place,
and all reflect the fact that governments would benefit from learning more from the
successes and failures of their predecessors:
• The prime minister should strengthen the Cabinet Office’s role in agreeing the
government’s policy programme. Early in his or her term the prime minister should
set out the government’s objectives clearly, seek explicit cabinet agreement for the
government’s programme, then invest personal time in holding ministers to account
for delivering it. The cabinet secretary in turn should hold permanent secretaries to
account for how well their departments implement that programme through regular
formalised stock takes.
• As part of its sign-off to the programme the cabinet should agree a small number of
top cross-cutting priorities, the delivery of which is then led by teams based in the
Cabinet Office working under the direct authority of the prime minister.
• The prime minister and the cabinet secretary should set up a new, strong central
delivery unit to support the above.
• The cabinet secretary and government chief operating officer should have more
responsibility for running the civil service, including authority over the functions
that provide cross-cutting services within government departments, such as finance,
digital and human resources…”

Howsver he warns,

“Structural changes, though, can never be a substitute for sustained prime ministerial
attention. The power of the Cabinet Office and No.10 ultimately depends on the
willingness of the prime minister to personally invest time in building and maintaining
its strength.”

I do not believe that Boris Johnson has the mental discipline, or steadyness of purpose to do so. Either the structure would have little effect or civil servants would land up making policy. A more disciplined prime minister might be good, or he or she might be contemptuous of democracy and may complete the Tory project to remove all accountability. We would truly become an Elective Dictatorship.

The paper makes reference to the strains imposed by Covid19 and Brexit. The two should be treated differently.

In tackling the pandemic the government chose not to seek emergency powers under Part 2 of the Civil Contingencies Act and this was probably wise. However that does not mean that the Civil Contingencies Secretariat (CCS) should not have been drawing up plans at a very early stage. They should have been open to requests from anyone with standing in the health field. They should not have had to wait for a request from ministers to start work but should carry on in the absence of an instruction to cease work. That way the government would by very early last year have had a coherent plan taking into account all health economic and financial facotors. Plans have to be adjusted for circumstances but that is no excuse for having no plan. It is not clear to me that the CCS have been made use of.

In regard to Brexit, if the auther’s recommendations had been implemented years ago people would at least have had a clearer idea of the implications of it for them at an earlier stage.

If we had a proper constitution including proportional representation, things would be better. On a narrow point, the skills required by a party leader are not the same as required by a prime minister. Following the practice in the Irish republic the Queen should appoint the prime minister on the nomination of the House of Commons. Furthermore the Queen should appoint other ministers on the advice of the prime ministers but with the concurrence of the House of Commons.

For whatever reasons the author of this report has chosen to ignore the wider democratic implications of his proposals.

A Sorry Excuse

I have written to the Dorset Echo as follows:

Readers may be aware of the Parliamentary petition to ‘Make it a Criminal Offence for MPs to Mislead the Public’ which has attracted about 63,000 signatures so far. The government has already responded, essentially saying that it is up to Parliament itself to apply any sanctions after investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. I suspect that few members of the public will be reassured. In order to justify keeping sanctions ‘in House’, Parliament relies on a clause in the English Bill of Right 1688 (or 1689 depending on the calendar used) which states,

“That the freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament.”

However in our crazy unentrenched constitution the Bill of Rights can be repealed as easily as any other statute. It is worth remembering how the BIll of Rights came to be. Basically it was a deal negotiated between a Parliament, fed up with Catholic monarchs claiming the ‘divine right’ to absolute rule on the one hand, and William of Orange and his wife Mary on the other hand who agreed to assume the monarchy but with limited powers.

At that tme Parliament had cause to fear the arbitary actions of the King. I very much doubt whether either party to the agreement would have contemplated how over time the situation would reverse to the point where the Queen reigns but does not rule. The danger now is of an Elective Dictatorship.

Confidence in Parliament is at rock bottom. I have asked Mr Drax to seek to get the above clause removed from the Bill of Rights, in order to restore the reputation of Parliament and to allow effective sanctions to be employed.