Friday, May 29, 2009

Fair votes referendum NOW !

Alan Johnson has called for a referendum on PR to be held on the day of the next general election. What is the logic of voting to change the electoral system on the same day as electing a new House of Commons under the old system ??? Of course, a referendum on the Jenkins Commission's recommended Alternative Vote top-up System is now more than ten years overdue. Labour's manifesto commitment to hold a referendum was the first of many promises broken by Tony Blair's government.

Small problem: under our daft, archaic and essentially monarchical non-constitution, the PM only needs to give everyone about four weeks' notice of when his time runs out, whereas public debates on referendums should last longer.

Big problem: The main block to PR has always been the strange unwillingness of MPs elected under first-past-the-post (stupid name for a system without a post) to vote for their own demise. However, we are now in a most unusual period when many MPs do not expect to be re-elected anyway. Perhaps Labour MPs would be willing to respond to a referendum now, as a way of avoiding a huge Conservative majority next year. If we wait to hold a referendum until general election day, we can be certain that a new government led by David Cameron will ignore the result. They would probably set up a new Royal Commission to think about it for another ten years.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The opacity of hope

My dictionary defines opacity as the quality of being difficult to understand. I was delighted when Barack Obama decided to close down Guantanamo Bay, but I do NOT understand why he has reinstated military tribunals and now has defended the "enhanced interrogation" authorised by the Bush administration to extract information from terror suspects as "legal, essential, justified and successful". Isn't there enough bad news already without this ?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Going, going, gone ! Not with a bang but a whimper.

At last, the Speaker has seen sense and announced his resignation. MPs must not imagine that his departure is the necessary reform of the Commons. So much more needs to be done. They would do well to look at the procedures of some other parliaments, perhaps not as old but then not as archaic nor hidebound by conventions that protect the executive from effective scrutiny. May I suggest having a look at the European Parliament ?

Oh mother ! What a parliament !

Once again the so-called mother of parliaments reveals its essential weakness. Once it challenged kings. Now it lies at the beck and call of Prime Ministers. The House of Commons does NOT control its own timetable. That privilege resides with the government of the day, so it's up to Gordon Brown whether MPs get to debate no confidence in his old mucker, the Speaker. Look ourt of the window, Gordon. Look at that statue of Cromwell and remember his words:

"you have been sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!."

Snuggery strikes again

Remember the Rev. Snuggs who cut down a yew tree. Well here's more snuggery - schools are giving up on proper ties in favour of clip-ons. I suppose it will put the next generation of yobs on a level playing field (if it hasn't be sold off) with the police when they come up against each other.

Actually, it's not a new story. Bramhall High in Stockport stopped using normal ties in 2007.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Dissolution : ask the Queen ?

It occurs to me ( and many others) that trust in parliament cannot be rebuilt without a general election. One of the many appalling features of our uncodified constitution is the power of the Prime Minister to choose the date of a general election. Gordon is in no hurry. I consulted my ancient edition of de Smith's Constitutional and Administrative Law to see if the Queen could dissolve parliament without his advice. The last precedents were in 1783 and 1834 and may not be helpful. de Smith says:

"[The Queen]...would also, it is submitted, be justified in dismissing her Ministers if they were purporting to subvert the democratic basis of the constitution".

He gives the examples of extending the life of parliament, obtaining a majority by duress or fraudulent manipulation of the poll. As m'learned friends say, this case is not on all fours. Nor of course is parliament; it is prostrate.

de Smith goes on to point out the difficulties in the way of the monarch 's insisting on a dissolution.

"It is true that the Queen might urge upon the Prime Minister that a dissolution might be in the best interests of the country and he might reluctantly agree to advise her to dissolve. But if he did not agree, and the Queen were to insist on a dissolution then she would have to remove the Prime Minister and find a new one; the procedure upon a dissolution of Parliament entails the making of an Order in Council and the issue of a royal proclamation under the Great Seal, and this requires the cooperation of Ministers."

He concludes that if the Prime Minister's colleagues refused to choose a different leader, the Queen could call the Leader of the Opposition to be Prime Minister for the sole purpose of advising a dissolution, which David Cameron would undoubtedly do. The Queen would thus become embroiled in party politics, but she would have immense popular support for doing it.

Whatever the political consequences, surely an election is a necessary condition of the renewal of our political system.

Since posting this, I have seen that Craig Murray has started a petition to the Queen to dissolve parliament. You can sign it here.

Friday, May 15, 2009

MPs' expenses: ask the tax man

The country is awash with proposals for reforming the system of MPs' expenses and allowances (Lynn Truss, please note position of apostrophe). Here are two more. Firstly, remove certain support functions from individual expenses altogether. For example, parliament itself should employ the support staff, as happens in the European Parliament. (It would be helpful if leading members of the Liberal Democrats could refrain from cheap cracks about "the Brussels gravy train" and perhaps learn some lessons from the EP instead). Secondly, pay MPs a higher salary and let HMRC decide which expenses are allowable as wholly, necessarily and exclusively incurred in the course of work. This would put MPs on the same footing as all citizens. There would still be disputed items but the decision would lie with the taxman and the courts, not the House of Commons fees office operating special rules for MPs.

Incidentally, according to Michael Brown, former Tory MP, Margaret Thatcher is to blame as she blocked a salary increase and introduced allowances instead, thus deceiving the electorate.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Swine pandemic in Commons

As the pigs of Animal Farm finally proclaim, "ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL BUT SOME ANIMALS ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS". If MPs do not wish to be equated with these same pigs for exploiting their allowances in ways that would be forbidden or condemned in any other job, resisting the publication of their expense claims and then defending their behaviour because it was "within the rules" that they themselves had agreed to and failed to change, they must do more than change the rules.

I suggest:
1) Sack the speaker who exploited the rules himself, spent £100,000 of public money on m'learned friends trying to stop publication of expenses and failed to give his staff the backbone to stand up to absurd claims;
2) Force the resignation from the Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet of the worst offenders;
3) Introduce retrospective Capital Gains Tax on all the capital gains made by MPs over the last ten years through abuse of the second homes allowances.

Only such drastic measures can begin to restore confidence in democracy. If we don't restore it, we will give strength to the campaigns of the demagogues of UKIP and the BNP.

What ho ! Wedding and Wodehouse

At a recent wedding reception a guest I had not met before said that I had already been described to her in suitably Wodehousian terms. I took this as a compliment, but on subsequent reflection over the eggs and b, I began to have doubts. She may not have been referring to Jeeves' superlative grey matter but to the young master himself or to Bingo Little, known to have frequented the National Liberal Club and conceived a passion for a waitress there (I have not). Surely she wasn't think of Aunts Agatha or Dahlia (of whom a well-known Somerset Liberal sometimes reminds me).