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http://politics.guardian.co.uk/labour/comment/0,,1747774,00.html

Blair's inner circle and its ferocious grab for power

From forcing through ID cards to the erosion of parliamentary scrutiny, a
determined clique is hijacking our democracy

Jenni Russell
Thursday April 6, 2006
The Guardian

In January the commissioner of the Metropolitan police got into enormous
trouble for saying that he couldn't see why the Soham murders had become such
a big story. Like every other journalist, I marvelled at his inability to see
what makes a story run. But now, as I follow the news, I have developed a
blind spot of my own. Piece by piece, month by month, Tony Blair's
administration is removing the safeguards that protect all of us from the
whims of a government and the intrusions of a powerful state. It is engaged
in a ferocious power-grab. Yet this story has not seized the imagination of
the media or the public. In our failure to respond, the government must be
reading a tacit acceptance that it can do what it chooses, because we either
don't notice or don't care.

The government is briskly and fundamentally reshaping the relationship of the
individual to the state, of the Lords to the Commons, and of MPs to
ministers. The ID cards bill will allow the authorities unprecedented
surveillance of our lives, and the power to curtail our ordinary activities
by withdrawing that card. The legislative and regulatory reform bill, now
entering its final stages, will let ministers alter laws by order, rather
than having to argue their case in parliament. Then this weekend brought
another shocking government proposal to increase its own power and weaken the
restraints upon it. Lord Falconer made clear that the government intends to
drastically curtail the powers of the Lords. The current convention is that
peers cannot block any legislation contained in a party's manifesto. In
future peers will have to pass any legislation that the government deems
important, whether it was in the manifesto or not. They will effectively be
neutered.

It appears that these changes cannot be stopped. Last week the Lords gave up
their battle to stop the imposition of an identity-card register. They had
pointed out that they were under no obligation to pass the bill, as the
Labour manifesto promised the scheme would be voluntary, but what was
proposed was essentially compulsory. The government's retaliation for their
principled stand was swift, and should alarm all of us. These events reveal
that our parliamentary system is already too feeble to stop a determined
executive imposing its will.

How improbable this scenario seemed when Blair won the election 10 months ago.
His majority was slashed. He won only 36% of the vote. Both he and Brown
stressed the need to listen more carefully to an electorate that clearly
wanted a smaller government majority. Many of us took that to mean this would
be a more careful, consensual government, aware that its mandate was limited.
But the opposite has happened.

Our political system is based on the assumption that there are always checks
and balances to prevent unbalanced legislation becoming law. This has to be
so, because as electors our participation in the whole process is so very
limited. We cannot distinguish between the elements we like and dislike in a
party's manifesto. We have to trust that any proposals that make us uneasy
will be open to change as civil servants, public and parliament consider
them.

Every element of that process is now being enfeebled. Civil servants,
ministers and MPs are all increasingly dependent on pleasing the executive if
they wish to progress in their careers. In the Commons, only those who don't
care about their political futures dare to rebel. The committees that
scrutinise legislation cannot act independently as they all have in-built
government majorities, with their members hand-picked. For instance, the new
committee scrutinising the contentious education bill has been stuffed by the
government so that not one of the 52 Labour MPs who voted against the bill is
represented on it. And now the Lords is threatened too.

This administration is taking the art of dismissing objections - from MPs,
peers or public - to new heights. At the committee stage of the legislative
and regulatory reform bill, MPs were assured that the act would not be used
for highly controversial measures. They asked for such reassurance to be
written into the bill, and for a long list of crucial acts to be excluded
from its remit. The minister refused, saying he would recognise a
controversial measure when he saw one.

In the ID cards debates in the Lords, Baroness Scotland attempted to bully the
peers into submission by maintaining that when the manifesto promised that ID
cards would be "a voluntary scheme to be rolled out alongside the renewal of
passports" that quite clearly meant ID cards would be compulsory for anyone
wanting to travel abroad. As for the public, the London School of Economics
was viciously attacked by the home secretary when it published a lengthy and
deeply researched report on the implications of ID cards. The LSE's most
recent report notes that, despite three years of notional consultation, the
Home Office has not been willing to listen to any critical views. The
legislation is going through practically unchanged.

This behaviour is alarmingly arrogant. The prime minister's circle believe
they have a right to push through any measures without hindrance, because
they have a monopoly on wisdom. Their contempt for everyone else's motives
and opinions is evident. Eighteen months ago a cabinet minister sneered at me
when I asked whether he was worried that the public-service ethos was
evaporating. It doesn't exist, he said; all these people care about is dosh.

This demonising and misreading of others fuels the self-belief of the inner
circle, who see themselves as valiantly trying to do the right thing in a
hostile universe. A leading Blairite was recently at dinner with a friend,
and found himself being challenged over the government's activities.
Eventually, frustrated by the criticism, he leant forward and said: "What you
don't seem to understand is that we are good people!"

That injured comment is revealing. Even if it were undeniably true, it could
not justify the hijacking of our democracy by a small, determined group. Good
people can do bad things. What's more, bad people can follow them. Assurances
of virtue are irrelevant. What matters is where power lies and how it is
controlled. That stale phrase, an elective dictatorship, is now a real
danger.

The perverse fact is that we are being asked to place great trust in a
government that makes a point of distrusting everyone outside its inner
circle. If we don't share their assumption that they alone know what is best
for the rest of us, we had better start protesting now. Last year Blair
promised to listen to us. As he dismantles our defences, what he is hearing
is something close to silence.

jenni.russell@blueyonder.co.uk