Clemenceau, a French Prime Minister, is credited with the remark that war was too important a matter to be left to Generals. It invites comparisons. Is Parliamentary reform rightly a matter for politicians or should we the people have the upper hand in all this? And at this moment should we place our trust in Nick Clegg, the self-appointed Reform Czar, or take matters into our own hands.
How have we done it, this reform business, in the past? Isn’t it true that Magna Carta which started all this in our time, in 1215, was the result of a group of Barons determined not to pay for King John’s foreign wars by the surrender of their rights and property? Did King John take any notice? Yes, he moderated his ways, which is all that could be expected, and we the people, established the principles of of ‘public’ consultation and justice under the rule of law.
The seventeenth century, that established for ever the principle of the sovereignty of Parliament, experienced a bloody civil war and the beheading of a King; and the Bill of Rights in 1689 was the result of an invitation to a European monarch, William III, to protect us against the ambitions of an English one, to re-write the script for the understanding between monarch and people, and to limit the powers of Parliament. And it was also an assurance for us that we would be protected against foreign powers. The 1832 Reform Act was the outcome of mass protests and demonstrations by the Chartists; and the enlargement of the franchise was achieved with the sacrifices of the many, the imprisonment and forced feeding of suffragettes and the untangling of woment chained to railings.
So what now is the driving force of our modern day reform demands? Well now, as it was then, it is the self interest of ‘politicians’ and those of us on the inside. It worries me that in one amorphous ragbag initiative called the Constitutional Bill all the various matters said to concern electors are lumped together in an all or nothing endeavour to appease an angry electorate and protect political prime movers from the wrath of the electorate: the reform of the House of Lords; a change in the composition of the Commons, involving the pressurising of the Boundaries Commission; electoral reform; fixed term Parliaments; and a brake on Parliament’s power to get rid of a Government and summon up a new General Election. And it is all to be done in less than two years. Any one of these measures would justify a separate Bill – there is no demand for quick fixes. What is needed is a Constitutional progamme over five years not two and involving the public in mature discussion.
Even if it were not true, and it is, such an unseemly scramble gives the impression of two political parties, the Coalition partners, seeking to cement their hold on power against what is feared to be a vengeful electorate. Hold on boys, it might be said, we the electorate, are sovereign. It is our rights you are tampering with, and you are not going to diminish them. We shall get rid of you if we choose. Blood and grief mark the passage to our rights and we are not going to concede them to you willingly.
As a reformer and revisionist, I recognise the need for reform. However, I am prepared to wait a little in order to obtain an all-party, non-partisan approach – assuming that such an approach is possible. There is a need now to oppose this partisan reform bill, to see off the Coalition, and then to start again. Let’s get it right!