What’s wrong with Britain

David Marquand

Thirty years ago, as Keith Middlemas reminds us in his messy, but important and sometimes brilliant new book,[*] Britain served as the model for the reconstruction of European democracy. Not only the British themselves, but their Continental neighbours, took it for granted that the secret of ordered freedom had been learned more successfully here than anywhere else, and that that secret had been encapsulated in the British version of parliamentary government. Today, it is clear to all but a handful of law lords, political columnists and past, actual or would-be Cabinet ministers that the version of parliamentary government which we thought we had thirty years ago no longer exists, if it ever did, and that the doctrines with which it was explained and justified no longer offer any guidance to the way in which our polity is organised.

Bagehot’s notion of Cabinet government is an obstacle rather than an aid to understanding the relationship between a modern prime minister and the rest of the Treasury bench, and an even greater obstacle to understanding the relationship between the Treasury bench as a whole and the Civil Service, on the one hand, and the House of Commons, on the other. Dicey’s notion of absolute parliamentary sovereignty is meaningless or mischievous in an age when most important legislation emerges out of private negotiations between the Whitehall departments and interest groups concerned, and when elected governments can be defeated, or even overthrown, by extra-parliamentary producer groups. John Stuart Mill’s conception of representative government has not lost its inspirational force, but the participatory, libertarian values underlying it run counter to the ethos of the modern centralist state, and the questions it raises are subversive, not supportive, of our existing political arrangements.

But no modern theorist has done for the late 20th century what Bagehot, Dicey or Mill did for the late 19th. Where our late Victorian ancestors knew, or thought they knew, both how they were governed and how it was right to be governed, we flounder in a pragmatic bog, uncertain of what is and hardly daring to ask what ought to be. We know that we no longer have Cabinet government, but we do not know what has replaced it. We know that parliamentary sovereignty is now a myth, but we do not know how to define the new reality. We are no longer convinced by the old, Victorian answers to the question, ‘Why should I obey the state?’, but we do not know what answers to give instead.

This might not matter if our existing arrangements were working well. In any settled society, there is bound to be a gap between legal form and political content. Even thirty years ago, the constitution as operated in the whips’ offices of the House of Commons or the research departments of the TUC and FBI bore little resemblance to the constitution as depicted in the pages of Bagehot and Dicey, while the assumptions on which it was operated were not merely different from, but antithetical to, the assumptions that inspired Mill. Yet thirty years ago, the gap between Victorian theory and 20th-century practice did no damage. Ministers, civil servants, lawyers, journalists, back-bench MPs, even trade-unionists and business leaders continued to celebrate the Victorian constitution they had been taught to revere in their youth, oblivious of the fact that, in their daily lives, they adhered to a quite different constitution, which had grown up imperceptibly inside the skin of the old one. But the system worked: and the fact that it did not work as the textbooks said was of academic interest only.

Now it has stopped working; and the gap between theory and practice – or, to put it more precisely, the absence of a theory to make sense of the last half-century’s changes in practice – matters a great deal. Everyone knows that we govern ourselves badly. The evidence is all around us, in our steady economic decline, in our botched relationship with the rest of Western Europe, in our denials of minority rights, in our sycophantic judiciary and our overburdened executive. But we do not know why; and because we do not know why, we lurch from expedient to expedient, palliating symptoms instead of curing the disease.

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[*] Politics in Industrial Society by Keith Middlemas. Deutsch, 512 pp., £14.95, 12 October 1979, 0 233 97129 7.