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A Constitution for the 21st Century

The Brexit shambles has shown us the weaknesses in our constitution. Unlock Democracy are organising a convention. I have set out my ideas at https://moneyversusdemocracy.files.wordpress.com/2019/01/notesonconstitutionalsettlement-1.doc

My main conclusions are:

If we set out to produce a new constitution in one document, I can see us getting bogged down and achieving nothing. I favour an evolutionary approach. I envisage a new type of statute – a ‘Super Law’. It would require a greater majority majority in Parliament than ordinary Acts to enact, amend or repeal.. Super Laws would be enacted in order to:

  • raise the status of existing Acts recognised to have constitutional significance to that of Super Law

  • (where necessary) make conventions such as those recorded in the Cabinet Manual and other similar texts into Super Laws.

  • Allow the courts to strike down ordinary legislation failing certain tests

The existence of Super Laws would modify, but not abolish, the principle of Parliamentary Sovereignty.

At present a minister can make a statement in Parliament which is manifestly and knowingly untrue, and the media can parrot it, all under the protection of Parliamentary Privilege. The commons should adopt more robust rules to deal with misleading Parliament.

A proportional voting system is essential to change the poisonous and unproductive culture of Parliament. This would be enacted as a Super Law.

If the monarchy is to be retained the next monarch should swear to defend the constitution.

Royal prerogative powers should be renamed ‘residual executive powers’. Their only justification is custom and practice. It is futile to try to catalogue all uses of residual executive power. Instead there should be an annual review by a parliamentary committee of those uses that have become controversial with a view to initiating appropriate legislation. In particular there should be a Super Law requiring that all treaties be approved by parliament before ratification.

The minister responsible for guiding a Bill through Parliament should retain responsibility for the implementation of any legislation passed. The courts should have power to strike down any Bill that provides otherwise. In order that the minister can discharge that responsibility the government must ensure that civil servants with the right training and experience are employed. In particular the negotiation and management of contracts with the private sector must be much improved. Contracts do not run themselves.

We need fewer and better new laws. Thorough mandatory pre-legislative scrutiny of all drafts Bills is essential. The courts should have power to stay the course of a Bill where this has not happened.

The executive cannot be trusted to report honestly on the success of its policies. This should be the task of the House of Lords which needs to be as non party political as possible. The main problem with the House at present is its size (currently nearly 800 and rising). It should be reduced to around 450. The power of the Prime Minister to appoint peers needs to be curtailed and there should be a temporary moratorium on all new appointments. The House of Lords Appointments Commission should have greater powers on the composition of the House. The possibility of introducing elected regional government in England should be re-examined ( bearing in mind that the efforts of the Blair government resulted in failure due to lack of public support). If there is democratic regional government throughout England, there is a case for members of the 2nd chamber being appointed by said regional governments.

The House of Lords – not the government should appoint members of the BBC governing body.

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Time for the Queen to Intervene

As things stand the most likely outcome of the Brexit issue is a No Deal Brexit, if only because that is what will happen if Parliament does nothing. If that happens two things will happen:

  • There will be serious shortages of food and medicines, probably for months. Cobra (technically the civil contingencies secretariat and the civil contingencies committee) will be in more or less permanent session from February onwards – effectively a state of emergency.
  • The government will be desperatley seeking trade deals, inevitably on very bad terms. Parliament will not be involved in ratifying such deals ( the Constitution Reform and Governance Act 2010 changes nothing).

The government will find it convenient to retain the state of emergency indefinately. Any semblance of democracy will disappear. Two things could stop it – ‘yellow vests’ on the streets of Britain, or the Queen’s intervention. By convention she only acts on the Prime Minister’s advice. Time for the Queen to ignore this and express the opinion, ” We are concerned that treaties are ratified in Our name without the consent of Our Parliament.” The other thing the Queen could do is to challenge Mrs May privately to put her Brexit plan plan to the House, and if May does not get on with it, refuse to speak to her again. I feel that the Queen is still far more popular than politicians, and would be respected.

 

First Past the Post, Piss Poor Government, and Political Lying all Go Together

The common arguments against First Past the Post can be summed up by saying that it is not very democratic. For example:

  • Most governments do not have the support of the majority

  • It’s a two horse race; other views are ignored

  • Unequal Votes: With First Past the Post votes are not equal. In the last election it took 28,000 votes for the SNP to win a seat compared with over 500,000 for the Green Party. Almost 600,000 votes for UKIP won absolutely nothing.

  • Only marginal seats matter; elsewhere your vote does not matter

  • Millions are misrepresented. The myth is that an MP represents all of his or her constituents. Some MPs try to live up to this; most don’t.

  • Tactical Voting: Increasingly, under First Past the Post, voters who don’t support the two main parties have to decide between two candidates they almost equally despise.

The majority of people would prefer a proportional system but do not feel that strongly about it. They don’t think democracy works and are not convinced that a change in the voting system will change anything much. (Judging by 38 degrees at least), people do get exercised about:

  • The NHS

  • The trains

  • Education

  • Immigrants (failing to recognise that government has the power to control it even whilst in the EU)

  • Environment – climate change, plastics…

  • Inequality – including unfair taxation

  • Pensions

  • etc.

It does not seem to occur to most people that the failings in all these matters are largely due to incompetent government, and by government in this context I mean ministers and senior civil servants acting together. Many people realise the failings of Whitehall and there have been a number of attempts at reform which have come to nothing. Fewer people have pointed out that it is the failings of elected politicians that have frustrated all attempts at effective reform. Voting reformers have paid far too little attention to this. It is true that on the website of Make Votes Matter, the last argument against First Past the Post is:

“First Past the Post encourages short-sighted, confrontational politics. Small changes to parties’ popular vote can have dramatic consequences: kicking out or ushering in “majority” governments on a minority of the vote, or sweeping away most or all of the seats held by a smaller party.

This encourages politicians to exaggerate their differences and focus on discrediting the other parties, rather than working together to seek the best solutions in the interests of the whole country. Decisions which need to be made, but which might prove unpopular, are routinely deferred until after the next election – often repeatedly. It also creates frequent swings between periods of polarised left-wing and right-wing government, with each side undoing rather than building on the work of its predecessor.”

Fair enough as far as it goes, but what is not said is that governments don’t really govern; they are too focussed on gaining and holding onto power. They force through ill thought out legislation and announce policies, but fail to develop a plan of how the policy is to be implemented. Instead they pass on the responsibility for implementation to an agency and then fail to check that that agency performs. They don’t welcome feedback that the policy is not working, instead relying on wilful ignorance and spin to dig themselves out of the mess.

Lord Acton is quoted as saying, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”. More precisely he is quoted as saying, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more when you superadd the tendency of the certainty of corruption by authority.” First Past the Post gives the Prime Minister far too much power, and leads to reckless decisions such as David Cameron’s ill thought out referendum question on European. It should have spelt out a clear plan of what Brexit would mean.

As Ed Straw has argued convincingly [1] government will never improve until we have a comprehensive revision of our constitutional arrangements. Though proportional representation (PR) is not enough in itself, it is a necessary part of such reforms, and will I believe, force parliamentarians to think in terms of serving their country rather their own interests and those of their country. As Conservative peer Lord Balfe [2] has observed, “Most arguments against PR are self serving.”

[1] Ed Straw ( http://www.edstraw.com/about/) was a consultant and partner with PWC (1982 – 2008), Global and UK Boards Director, European Head of Media, and Director of Quality.

As such, he became a leading consultant to governments under Mrs Thatcher and Tony Blair, advising on public sector reform.  As an expert on the design of organisations, he sat on the devolved Scottish Executive’s ‘Efficient Government’ Expert Panel.

For more about his ideas visit http://www.edstraw.com and www.treatyforgovernment.com/

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Balfe

 

Voting Reform is not a Priority for Most People

Whilst most people if asked whether the voting system should be reformed would say yes, but it is not a priority for most. One piece of evidence for this is that 38 degrees will not campaign for PR, although I and a few people I know have challenged them repeatedly. So far as I understand it they campaign on issues that most of their supporters prioritise.

The Make Votes Matter Team in Bristol are doing a magnificent job trying to persuade politicians – especially the Labour Party to make it their policy. However given that the Trudeau government in Canada have reneged on their promise to voters, can we be sure that Labour would not do the same. We need much more PUBLIC pressure, so I think we in Make Votes Matter need to come up with more telling argument6s for reform. The arguments against FTPT at https://www.makevotesmatter.org.uk/first-past-the-post/ are mostly about us not be adequately represented at the ballot box. Right at the end there is a paragraph on Short-sighted, confrontational politics, but this is not enough. It does not, for example, spell out the huge costs of FPTP. I have shared Ed Straw’s post on this at http://www.treatyforgovernment.com/price-pay-first-past-post/, but MVM in Bristol do not seem to have time to deal with this. There are arguments on the website about Conflict, Environment and Equality, but it seems to me these are not being communicated to the public adequately.

If MVM Bristol do not have the capacity to progress this then maybe the rest of us can. I welcome any comments either on Make Votes Matter More fb group or email to me at david.smith@aic.co.uk . If you want to conribute to the discussion, I think we could start by email. Please indicate whether you are prepared to reveal your email address to other participants.

The ideas of Ed Straw (younger brother of Jack) are especially relevant. Browse http://www.treatyforgovernment.com and http://www.edstraw.com. Ed gained his entry into government through his employment with pwc – see http://www.edstraw.com/complete-biography/ for full biog. You could buy his book ‘ Stand and Deliver: A Design for Successful Government’ self published in 2014. Other relevant books on the failure of government are [Major-General] Jonathan Shaw’s ‘Britain in a Perilous World: the Strategic Defence and Security Review we Need, 2014. Also Clive Ponting’s book, ‘Whitehall: Tragedy and Farce’, published in 1986.

Can the NHS Survive a UK-US Trade Deal?

The NHS was established to provide healthcare free at the point of use, so that people with high healthcare needs and low income are not denied adequate care. The cost is shared by everyone. I believe that most people support that principle, but some Conservative politicians do not, although they are reluctant to admit that publicly.

The question is, if the NHS is publicly funded, what should the balance of public versus private provision. This should surely be decided on the basis of overall value for money. There are three reasons why I believe that private provision should be very limited:

  1. Private providers expect to make very large profits. Why should the public purse pay these?

  2. Private provision involves complex contracts. Not only must these be fair to the public sector but they need to be managed by the public sector to ensure that the private sector pays when it fails to perform. Experience suggests that public servants lack the skills either to negotiate fair contracts or to manage them. In fact often the public sector does not seem to understand the necessity of actively managing them. If the public sector were to manage contracts properly that would be a substantial cost, though probably not as much as not managing them

  3. Private providers offer worse employment terms to their employees than does the NHS, but if these terms mean employees have to seek benefits, this goes back on the public purse.

So if value for money analysis were conducted properly, I believe it would show the the scope for private provision would be very limited. But does trade law allow this? My concern about this goes back to the Marakech agreement of 1994 and in particular the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). Under this treaty if a nation allows private provision of a public service, it may not change its mind. Whether the UK ever committed itself to signing onto that in relation to the NHS is something that subsequent governments have been very reluctant to clarify.

In the noughties multilateral trade negotiations conducted through the WTO ran into trouble because African and Asian nations realised they were being shafted and would not play any longer. The US then focussed on trying to get so called bilateral deals. In reality they are trilateral deals, corporations being the third party. The terms of such deals are biassed in favour of corporations and against sovereign nations, especially those that believe that extensive public services should be provided.

Not only that but Liam Fox seems desperate to get any deal with as little interference from Parliament as possible. This actually weakens the UKs negotiating position. The constitutional position appears to be a hang over from the 19th century when diplomats were happy to screw ‘lesser breeds without the law’. The boot is now on the other foot. The Constitutional and Governance Reform Act 2010 was billed as putting the Ponsonby Rule onto a statutory basis. It changes very little. Our constitution is now a major threat to the British people.

Are Western Media Colluding in the Extermination of the Houthis?

Western media have reported the failure of the Houthi delegation to turn up in Geneva for peace talks, but have not enquired why. The Iranian source Press TV say it is because neither the Saudis nor the US will let them fly, see,

https://www.presstv.com/Detail/2018/09/08/573490/Yemen-Saudi-Arabia-protest-Houthi-delegation-Geneva-UN-peace-talks

I believe the Saudis deny this, but whom do you believe? The Saudis’ declared war aim is simply to reinstall Yemen’s former President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, but I fear that if the Houthis were to surrender they would face extermination. Why would they not want to attend at Geneva so that at least their side of the story could be heard by the West? Assuming the Press TV report is correct why would the Saudis not facilitate the Houthis’ travel to Geneva? Presumably because the Saudis know that their case is weak?

The Price We Pay For First Past The Post

The case against First Past The Post is well-established. It provides the bare minimum of democracy, is unrepresentative for the majority, and distorts the allocation of power. But how many people are aware of its costs in wasted public expenditure and excess taxes, its maintenance of spent ideologies and their progeny of poor policies, its role in the decline in standards of political parties and politicians and thus of governments, and its value to preferential lobbies and their appropriation of wealth? This article seeks to raise this awareness through describing the unseen consequences of FPTP, and requests the Office for National Statistics, Institute For Fiscal Studies, Chartered Institute of Public Finance Accountancy and/or Institute of Economic Affairs to estimate these costs. Changing FPTP is an essential first step to changing the system of government. Facing up to its high costs will help build the national will for change.

for more read  http://www.treatyforgovernment.com/price-pay-first-past-post/