How we move ever closer to becoming a totalitarian state
The Prime Minister claims to be defending liberty but a barely
noticed Bill will rip the heart out of parliamentary democracy
Observer" -- -- The Legislative and Regulatory Reform
Bill is hardly an aerodynamic title; it doesn't fly from the lips.
People have difficulty remembering the order of the words and what
exactly will be the effect of this apparently dull piece of
But in the dusty cradle of Committee A, a monster has been stirring
and will, in due course, take flight to join the other measures in
the government's attack on parliamentary democracy and the rights of
the people. The 'reform' in the title allows ministers to make laws
without the scrutiny of parliament and, in some cases, to delegate
that power to unelected officials. In every word, dot and comma, it
bears the imprint of New Labour's authoritarian paternity.
Like all Labour's anti-libertarian bills, it appears in relatively
innocuous guise. The bill was presented last year as a way of
improving a previous Labour act and is purportedly designed to
remove some of the burden of regulation that weighs on British
business and costs billions of pounds every year. Labour says it
will enable ministers to cut regulation without needing to refer to
parliament and so simplify and speed things up.
The reality is that the beneficiaries of this bill will not be
industry and business, but ministers and the executive, who will
enjoy a huge increase in their unscrutinised power. As with the
Civil Contingencies Act 2004, which was presented as modernising
local and national emergency measures but which went much further to
give ministers arbitrary powers, this bill takes another chunk out
of our centuries- old democracy.
The really frightening thing about last week's proceedings is that
there were just two journalists watching as the minister piloting
the legislation, Jim Murphy, refused to debate constitutional
implications. Instead, he intoned replies drafted in advance by
himself and, presumably, his civil servants. Disgracefully, he
dismissed as 'debating points' considered objections from Tories
Christopher Chope and Oliver Heald and Liberal Democrats David Heath
and David Howarth. All raised the Kafkaesque possibility that this
bill was so demonically drafted that an unscrupulous government
could use it to modify the bill itself and so extend its powers even
Watching, I reflected that this was truly how democracy is
extinguished. Not with guns and bombs, but from the inside by
officials and politicians who deceive with guile and who no longer
pretend to countenance the higher interests of the constitution.
The 'debating points' were rather more than that. They concern the
powers that may be granted to ministers that could further damage
the concept of habeas corpus, alter the law on Britain's
relationship with the Commonwealth, on the relationship with the EU,
on extradition, the appropriation of property and the criminal law.
In theory, even the monarchy could be affected.
This is to say little about common law, the centuries of precedents
and rulings which contain so many of the historic rights of British
culture. 'Oh no,' said the minister, as if talking to a child,
'ministers will give assurances; they will confine themselves to the
regulations that concern business.'
If that is the case, why does the bill not say so? Why is it drafted
so loosely? Why is Jim Murphy doing so much to protect its
versatility? Why won't he put the safeguards in the bill from the
start? There can be only one answer: ministers want to bypass
parliament and transfer authority to themselves and their officials
under the cover of helping business.
Mr Murphy has let it be known that the government might concede
powers for select committees to veto use of the fast-track process
for issues they consider controversial. But it is worth remembering
that membership of select committees is controlled by the whips and
that the chairmen are generally biddable. We should also wonder why
Mr Murphy has not already drafted this veto, if he genuinely wants
to protect and reassure parliament.
The essential point, however, is that the individual decisions taken
by ministers as a result of this new law will not be scrutinised in
the chamber of the House of Commons.
Sometimes, I wonder if those of us worried about the attacks on
British democracy by Tony Blair's government are getting things out
of proportion or misunderstanding the Prime Minister's mission, as
he described it in last week's Observer
I certainly understand that the capillaries of a society run from
bottom to top, bearing all the bad news, intractable problems, mood
swings and crises; that it is all ceaselessly pumped upwards in the
direction of the Prime Minister; and that the view afforded in
Downing Street must sometimes be truly extraordinary, a seething,
organic, Hogarthian panorama of delinquency and unreason.
A Prime Minister must try to reach beyond the day-to-day business of
government, frantic though it is, and make sense of what he sees
below, seek the connecting threads, order up the policies and
implement them so that improvement becomes possible. Few will
disagree that this is the chief impulse of Tony Blair's premiership.
As he told us long ago, he is a moderniser. Modernising is still the
closest thing he has to a political ideology and it was significant
how many times the words modern and modernity appeared in last
week's article. At one point, he declared: 'For me, this is not an
issue of liberty but of modernity', as if liberty and modernity were
somehow at odds.
Because he is by his own account well-intentioned, he believes that
nothing should get in the way of this modernising purpose, the
exercise of his benevolent reason on the turbulent society below.
Like Mrs Thatcher, he has become almost mystically responsible for
the state of the nation. And like Mrs Thatcher, he finds that after
a long period in Number 10, he is still surrounded by sluggishness
and resistance. Public services are slow to reform; the judiciary
obstructs ministerial action with footling concerns about individual
rights; and parliament is agonisingly slow to produce the
fast-acting laws he craves.
You can see why, as time runs out, he has the need to cut through it
all to achieve the things that he so dearly believes are right for
our society. That is the way a moderniser works, because it is the
only measure of success.
Yet this addiction to the idea of modernity is also a kind of
arrogance about the times we live in, a sense that no Prime Minister
has ever faced the problems coming across his desk. It indicates a
common condition in modernisers and modernists of all hues and that
is an almost complete lack of a grounding in history. If Blair was
more interested in British history, he would understand that the
present, while certainly unique, is not uniquely awful.
But more important, he would see the great damage his laws are doing
to the institutions we have inherited - to the constitution, to the
tradition of parliamentary sovereignty, to the independence of the
judiciary, to individual rights and to the delicate relationship
between the individual and the state. All of them are products of
British history. They are not perfect, but they make up a fairly
large part of the body politic. This is who we are.
This rush of laws presented to parliament in disguise, with their
hidden sleeper clauses, are a disaster for our democracy. They are
changing our country rapidly and profoundly. What I saw in Committee
A was the triumph of Tony Blair's modernity over liberty.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006
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