Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


Memo on reform: if it ain´t broke, don´t fix it
The Times - May 9th 2011

When you are sitting through one of those interminable meetings in which the discussion rambles round and round every mulberry bush it can find, a pleasing way to pull the ramblers up short is to make the following demand: could you kindly define the problem to which you are proposing a solution?

 It’s a pretty good question to ask of  public policy too, and the failure to answer it convincingly is the single best explanation for the crushing defeat of the Yes campaign for AV on Thursday. It is also a good explanation for the government’s troubles over NHS reform: unlike with welfare (convincing answer: scroungers) or education (too many lousy state schools), the popular suspicion is that the real answer for the NHS is that the Tories regretted having ring-fenced the health service from cuts and so proposed yet another radical shake-up as a covert way to make up for that. Directly elected police chiefs may soon look like another over-radical solution for an undefined or unconvincing problem.

            In a way, the difficulty with electoral reform was that right now, just when the Liberal Democrats had got their dreamed-of referendum, the supposed problem seemed to have gone away: the need for governments to be properly representative. That is what most people think the current coalition, yielded by first-past-the-post voting, already is, since it gathers together two parties supported by more than half the voters in the 2010 general election. If in a fairer system the coalition would simply have contained more Lib Dems, that does not at present look like a virtue to most people—as the local poll results showed.

            It is, admittedly, a difficulty facing all advocates of constitutional reform. Unless there is some sort of crisis, it is hard to convince people that there is a problem that needs to be solved. That point will need to be kept firmly in mind by each of last Thursday’s two stars—Nick Clegg and Alex Salmond—both of whom have the constitution twinkling in their eyes.

            The dimming star, Mr Clegg, says he plans to push ahead with proposals for the direct election, by proportional representation, of the House of Lords. In principle, this is a good idea: the appointed lords, with all the associated medieval flummery of their absurd titles and their ermine, are the country’s biggest constitutional, and arguably cultural, anachronism. But he had better be careful: if being an anachronism were a sufficient argument for change, the Lords would have gone long ago. He needs to define a bigger problem than that.

            Once he starts doing so, he will be playing with fire. For if there is a problem to which an elected upper house is the solution, it will have to include the need for a stronger check on the House of Commons, for that is certainly what a legitimate, elected upper house will be. It will not be plausible, whether to members of both houses or to the public at large, to claim that the balance of power in Parliament will remain unchanged by electing peers. Old conventions that limit the powers and behaviour of the upper house will vanish. A new political dynamic will emerge. And on the Lib Dems’ own argument, election by PR will make the Lords more legitimate than the Commons.

            Personally, I think that new dynamic would be beneficial, for Britain’s political system does focus an extraordinary amount of power in the hands of the Commons, completely unchecked by any constitutional role for the Head of State, since the monarchy is solely (if now also successfully) symbolic, and only rarely checked by the Lords. But Mr Clegg will need to make the case for it, showing why the power of the Commons, and of the government formed from it, is excessive and needs to be checked by a stronger, reformed Lords.

If he cannot do that, the deputy prime minister will be setting himself up for another humiliation. Rather than face that, he would be better advised to kick the issue into a parliamentary, or perhaps royal, commission on the constitution as a whole. Cosmetic as it might prove to be, such a move would at least have the virtue of keeping electoral reform on some sort of table, as well as of forcing consideration of the constitution as a whole rather than picking at it piecemeal.

Picking at it is just what the brightening star, Mr Salmond, is going to want to do. After his triumph in the Scottish elections, he claimed that independence is “inevitable”, but, in an untypical attempt to feign humility, said sweetly that the question of timing would be up to the Scottish people to decide.

This was an extraordinary claim, given that recent opinion polls say that support among Scots for independence is running at a similar level (less than one-third) as national support for the alternative vote. So if he wants to persuade more Scots to come on to his side, he will have to define for them the problem to which independence is a solution.

It is not at all obvious, except to English nationalists happy to wave the Scots goodbye. Too few opportunities to fly the Saltire, or too weak a sense of national identity? Come off it. Too little autonomy over vital public-policy issues such as health, the law, or education? Hardly. Frustration at not sharing the delights of being a small, peripheral country in the eurozone, or of not having had responsibility for Fred the Shred and the Royal Bank of Scotland? Er, well, no.

In simpler times, it was presented as an argument over oil: who should spend the tax receipts from oil and gas produced from under Scottish waters. Most probably, it again will be, for declining production is being offset at present by high oil prices. But that argument quickly becomes one of balancing oil receipts gained against the lost block grant from Westminster. In which case the apparent fiscal benefits also quickly become a matter of alternative predictions about revenues and costs, about which it is hard to be convincing or to avoid sending the electorate to sleep.

So although independence for Scotland is far from inevitable, one thing that can be predicted is that during the next year or two Mr Salmond will choose to pick a fight with Westminster in order to make his case for it. He will have to create the problem to which independence is the solution. Fortunately, at least for unionists, the normal trend of government implies a different outcome: that from today’s high point the SNP’s popularity will later decline, eventually making Mr Salmond the problem, to which an election is the solution.


Biography Audio Books Video Articles Contacts Lectures