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The sofa of total power

One member, one vote has given Blair the sort of authority even Thatcher could only dream of

David Clark
Monday December 13, 2004
The Guardian

Lord Butler's broadside against Tony Blair's style of government has rekindled the debate about spin and the role of special advisers in Whitehall. Ministers, he insists, spend too much time listening to political appointees and worrying about the next day's headlines, and too little working methodically through the tried and tested machinery of government.

This is only a partial glimpse of the picture. Across most of Whitehall, ministers, special advisers and civil servants work together more or less as they have always done: civil servants prepare policy options, advisers add their advice and ministers decide, and the whole process follows a paper trail that is long and surprisingly efficient. The prerogatives of all concerned are respected. Where there have been exceptions to this rule, they have proved extremely costly for the people involved.

The practice described by Lord Butler in the current issue of the Spectator magazine, of decisions being taken informally by cabals of politicians and their favoured courtiers outside the usual channels, is, in reality, confined largely to Downing Street. It is here that the culture of government by sofa has taken root, as the evidence unearthed by Lord Hutton and Lord Butler himself demonstrates. The effect has certainly been corrosive for the system as a whole, but it is misleading to suggest that the motive behind it is political in the true sense of the term.

Tony Blair couldn't care less about the political provenance of those around him. The only thing that matters is their ability to deliver his agenda. If anything, he has shown a preference for working with career civil servants unencumbered by his party's ideological baggage. That is one reason why John Scarlett, the new head of MI6, was so readily embraced as a member of the Downing Street inner circle. The loyalty Blair demands of his closest aides is personal, not political. The closed, hierarchical structure that has developed as a result is one in which the Labour party and most cabinet ministers have found themselves at least as marginal to the decisions that count as Sir Humphrey is, and probably more so.

It is in making the charge of centralisation, rather than politicisation, that Lord Butler has something valuable to tell us about modern government. But even here he is unable to do more than describe the symptoms. That is a pity. The centralisation of political power in Britain is a subject that is frequently discussed yet rarely analysed, and it would benefit from the detailed attentions of someone with Butler's experience and knowledge.

We can all see that parliament and cabinet have been reduced, like the monarchy before them, to being "dignified" parts of the British constitution. The questions we should be asking are: how did this happen, and what can be done to reverse it? The answer to the first question relates to the nature of the constitution itself. Unlike the written constitutions favoured by most mature democracies, which disperse power by enshrining certain checks and balances, our unwritten constitution rests on a doctrine of absolute parliamentary sovereignty in which the only constraints on our elected leaders are their willingness to uphold established conventions about the conduct of office and their desire to get re-elected. Guarantees as flimsy as this were never likely to survive contact with a prime minister who respects nothing but power.

Even so, the transfer of effective sovereignty from Westminster to Downing Street would have been impossible without a transmission mechanism, and, like many observers, Lord Butler points the finger of blame at the creation of a disciplined party system, and the role of the parliamentary whips in particular. On its own, this is an unsatisfactory explanation. Political parties in their modern sense have been with us for more than a century and the whips for even longer. Yet, as Lord Butler points out, collective cabinet government survived even Margaret Thatcher's attempts to bend the political process to her will.

What distinguishes Blair from all his predecessors, and what has furnished him with unprecedented power, is the innovation of direct democracy in the form of leadership election by one member, one vote (Omov). He is the first prime minister in history who does not owe his status as party leader to his parliamentary colleagues. Cabinet government, as practised by Margaret Thatcher and Harold Wilson, was a function of their need to build and sustain coalitions of parliamentary support. They deferred to colleagues to the extent that they represented currents of thinking too powerful to be ignored. Blair is untroubled by such considerations. He can appeal over the heads of MPs to the party in the country, which in turn takes its cue from the mass media. It is this that has given British politics the brash, populist edge of which Lord Butler complains.

It is too late to put the Omov genie back in the bottle, and it is by no means clear that we should wish to do so. But an important extra-constitutional check on the power of the executive has been lost, and there is a growing need to replace it with something else. The most obvious would be an electoral system that made single-party government harder and three-figure majorities impossible. In continental Europe, where coalition government is common, the parliamentary Fraktion is a real arbiter of power. In Britain, where long swings of the electoral pendulum and an electoral system that exaggerates their impact have produced a stagnant majoritarianism, it is time to question our faith that stable government necessarily produces good government.

Another way of restoring a degree of constitutional balance would be a reformed second chamber with real powers and a mandate democratic enough to exercise them. But Blair's pledge on an elected second chamber has gone the way of his manifesto commitment to hold a referendum on electoral reform, and seems set to define the broken promise of a New Politics.

We shouldn't be surprised that Labour's constitutional radicalism has ebbed during its time in office. Sharing power somehow seems more logical when you don't have any. Surprisingly, perhaps, the exception to this trend would seem to be Gordon Brown, who spoke recently about the need to "reinvigorate the constitutional reform agenda we began in 1997" as a buttress to his new "progressive consensus". Not many with direct experience of the chancellor's personal style see him as an instinctive pluralist. But he was a principled advocate of devolution long before it became fashionable, and many of the younger and more thoughtful Brownites defied the prime minister to vote for a mainly elected second chamber. There are good reasons to suppose that they did so with some knowledge of his private views. More of the same would certainly strengthen his claim to be a radical prime minister in waiting.

Great reforming governments are defined by legacies that stand the test of time. The problem for New Labour is that the instruments of central power it has created in order to push through change from the top could just as easily be used to dismantle most of what it has achieved. Its place in history will depend on having the foresight to imagine a time when it is no longer in power.

David Clark is a former Labour government adviser