Friday, 20 May 2011

Guess who?

It's often said children have a depth of perception that we as adults lack.

They are also generally more honest than the rest of us, having not yet learnt the more delicate arts of tact and politeness, preferring to call things as they see them.

That being the case, I will draw your attention to the delightful picture opposite (click for a larger view), drawn by little Charlie Warner, of Patcham House School, Brighton.

One would be forgiven for assuming that Charlie was illustrating an edition of Roald Dahl's 'The Witches', what with that evil grin, those menacing eyes and generally horrifying complexion.

In fact the subject of Charlie's portrait is none other than his local MP and Green party leader, Caroline Lucas. You can find it on her website here, under portraits.

Bravo, Charlie. You have shown most eloquently that a picture does, indeed, paint a thousand words.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

This is no time to be conservative over Lords reform

Lords reform: it makes no sense to falter at the final hurdle
As someone who is generally supportive of the Conservative party and who would quite happily describe himself as a Burkean/Pittite/Peelite Conservative, it may surprise some to hear me say I have always considered conservatism to be an idiotic inclination.

The important distinction here is, of course, the lower or upper casing of the letter 'C'. Conservatism, with an upper case 'C', is a uniquely Anglo-Saxon ideology that developed at the end of the eighteenth century out of a desire to see liberal changes to government, society and the constitution enacted through a cautious, carefully considered process with a high premium placed on the wisdom of the past, the value of tradition and the stability of tried-and-tested institutions. It has no immediate corollary in Europe.

Lower case conservatism, by contrast, is characterised by a stubborn, unthinking, resistance to change of any sort. It permeates all areas of society and, while we're on the subject of the eighteenth century, is illustrated no better that in the Church of England's attitude to wigs.

There is no greater stranger to reason, no more dogged enemy of logic than the attitude of clergymen at both ends of the century to its most recognisable aesthetic feature. At the end of the seventeenth century, when wigs were becoming popular, they were denounced as ungodly. Yet, although the fashion was abandoned shortly after the French Revolution, they continued to be a familiar feature of clerical attire well into the next century.

Unfortunately we are now seeing the very same thing from the Conservative back benches over reform of the House of Lords. As Daniel Hannan rightly points out, the very same arguments used against removing hereditary peers in the 1990s are now being resurrected to defend the raft of quangocratic life peers that were supposed to have destroyed the House.

Personally, I believe the hereditary nature of the House of Lords was one of the great accidental triumphs of the British constitution, providing Parliament with a ready-made chamber of independently wealthy peers with a strongly-imbued sense of history, duty and patriotism; largely free from corruption, patronage, the need for a state salary and even, to an extent, the party whip. Most of all, however, these people were highly educated, with the time to seriously and deeply consider and revise legislation proposed by the Commons. They also served as the living embodiment of the medieval roots of English rule of law and democracy.

But that's beside the point - we no longer live in a society in which the hereditary principle is a widely accepted form of government (one could even say it hasn't been so for the last 100 years). That being the case, it is pointless to cling onto this swollen (do we really need 789 peers?) House of cronies who have achieved their positions largely through their closeness to the government of the day.

Baroness Ashton is a case in point. This woman, a lifelong quangocrat, has, through her appointment to the Lords, managed to rise to one of the most powerful positions in the European Union despite never having faced either the British or European electorate. Of course, that says as much about the EU as it does about the Lords, but here is another analogy - the European Commission demonstrates amply that politicians chosen by politicians representatives do not make.

There have also been rumblings against the use of proportional representation to elect senators to the successor House. However, it only makes sense that a scrutinising chamber ought to be representative of as many differing views as possible in order to greater improve legislation that will have likely been passed by a single party majority in the Commons.

And, despite what Robert Halfon MP says, the Single Transferable Vote system proposed by the Government will not 'replace one form of patronage with another.' As the white paper states, 'Under STV, votes are cast for individual candidates rather than parties, and candidates are elected on the strength of the votes they secure as individuals.'

It's also worth considering the fate of other appointed upper houses in the Commonwealth. In Canada, the Senate has been treated as the national problem - a quandary on par with the hereditary Lords - for most of its history. In New Zealand, the Legislative Council was abolished in 1951, leaving the country with a unicameral parliament and, therefore, no check on the excesses of the lower house.

In Australia, by contrast, senators have been elected since 1901 and, after 1948, by proportional representation. The Australian Senate is actually more powerful than the House of Lords, though it is still  a principally scrutinising chamber, and there do not appear to have been any constitutional contests between it and the House of Representatives which, we all now know, is elected by the Alternative Vote.

Let's not end up like Canada or, God forbid, New Zealand. The Mother of Parliaments deserves better than this. Rather than clinging to a miserable little compromise (to borrow a phrase) let us move forward into this exciting constitutional development, to settle this question once and for all and to do it properly. But, if we are to be conservative, I would, in line with article 151 of the draft Bill proposals, beseech the reformed House to maintain the ermine robes used for new members and the opening of Parliament. Some traditions are just too stylish to dispose of.

Monday, 2 May 2011

There is no 'progressive majority'

Who was the 'progressive': free trade MacDonald or protectionist Baldwin?
Anti-Conservative prejudice is nothing new in British politics, though it has to be one of its odder characteristics. It continues to colour the judgement of certain people, for example, to the extent that they revolt violently over Tory policies that are near identical to those they acquiesced under Labour (NHS reform, tuition fees, top-up fees etc).

And, yesterday, Chris Huhne joined with lefty trolls Caroline Lucas and John Denham to urge voters to rig the electoral system against the Conservatives, on the basis that they have never polled more than 50% of the vote in any of the twentieth century's general elections bar two - 1900 and 1931 - and that therefore the majority who didn't vote for them ought to be the ones forming a government.

Their claim about this lack of majority support is, of course, correct but they omit to mention that the Conservatives are the only party ever to have polled 50% of the vote in the twentieth century (and in 1935 and 1955 they still polled more than Labour and the Liberals combined).

Even in 1945, Clement Attlee only managed 49.7% - meaning, by Huhne's own logic, there was a majority in the country against Labour's 'cradle to grave' welfare state, NHS and mass nationalisation and that it ought never to have taken place.

Their assertion, too, that 'the Conservatives have dominated our politics for two-thirds of the time since 1900' is on shaky ground. That the party has spent only 49 of those 110 years in government appears to have completely eluded them - as in any healthy democracy, the tables in fact turned a great many times.

The first ten years, for example, were still very much in the shadow of the Liberals' welfare reforms, while the decade following the Great War saw the reins of government swapping with each election between blue and red. This itself was followed by a long period of three-party coalitions stretching to 1945.

Then, of course, the following three decades were wholly dominated by Attlee's landslide Labour victory. The Conservatives not only declined to reverse the Attlee reforms but swallowed the new consensus whole - adjusting their public spending commitments accordingly. Indeed, the only period one could credibly claim as Tory-dominated was the Thatcher consensus after 1979.

But of course, Huhne, Lucas and Denham are not talking about Labour or the Liberals respectively - it's far more convenient for them to speak in terms of an imaginary 'progressive majority' between those parties, the nationalists and the Greens.

Indeed, their entire argument rests on the seriously flawed assumption that - despite the coalition serving evidence to the contrary - Tories are irreconcilably different from all other parties and that Labour are the Liberals' natural partners.

But this beggars the question as to why, if they are so similar, they have not worked together more often in the past and why, on the occasions in which they have (March 1977 to June 1978 for example), the relationship has broken down so quickly. Furthermore, why did one half of what is now the Liberal Democrat party (the SDP) split from Labour in the first place? And why have none of them ever gone back?

The whole thing rather flies in the face of Charles Kennedy's rhetoric early in the last decade that the Lib Dems were neither to the left nor the right of the political spectrum - that they opposed much of both Labour and Conservative policy because of the uniqueness of their ideological viewpoint. It also ignores the fact, highlighted by Tim Montgomerie, that a substantial number of Lib Dems, when pressed, see themselves as closer to the Conservatives than Labour, particularly in the south.

Hence, of course, why a coalition deal with the Conservatives was so relatively easy to hammer out. Both parties found strong common ground on the issues of civil liberties, choice in public services, localism and reducing bureaucracy - all things Labour had comprehensibly failed to deliver - while the Lib Dem policy of increasing the income tax threshold to £10,000 proved extremely popular with the Tory grassroots.

But this all really boils down to the question of what 'progressive' actually means. For example, it's not entirely clear - given modern attitudes to the subject - who was being 'progressive' on the issue of free trade in the 1920s and '30s; Labour and the Liberals for supporting it or the Conservatives for opposing it? And were the Conservatives being 'regressive' when, with a 103-seat majority, they extended the vote to all women in 1928? Or, indeed, a large swathe of the working class in 1867? (Huhne does, but that's because he doesn't believe these things actually happened).

No, the root of the matter is statism, pure and simple. The lowest common denominator binding Labour, anti-Union nationalists, loopy Greens (who want to stop you going abroad on holiday by the way) and some Lib Dems is higher and higher state spending. Meaning, of course, that they are all in favour of higher taxes and/or more public borrowing (though the latter, as we are seeing, inevitably leads to the former).

It is for this reason that the Conservatives will never go away and, despite the best hopes of these doppelgänger democrats, will never be permanently excluded from government. In the end the issue is, indeed, the economy, stupid and - even in 1997 - there is ample evidence to suggest voters wanted Conservative policies - sound economic management, prudence, a tough line on law & order - without the Conservatives, whom they had come to despise for their hubris and 'sleaze'.

But, in the 88 years since their first government, Labour have yet to prove their economic competence and have managed to consistently leave office with unemployment higher than they found it. The voters know this and, I can guarantee, a lot of Lib Dems know it too. And I wager it's the reason Germany - which has one of the most representative voting systems in the world - has had more conservative-led coalitions than any other.