18 April 2016

Britain’s political class risks losing the authority to govern


Bruce Anderson is backing the Prime Minister David Cameron in his efforts to persuade the UK to stay in the EU. He explained why in a recent piece on CapX. Anderson’s friend, Lord Salisbury‎, a former Leader of the House of Lords, and a board member of CapX, disagrees forcefully and published an open letter in reply to Anderson. After a series of correspondence, Salisbury offers his concluding thoughts today.

Dear Bruce,

We seem to agree on what is wrong with Our Great European Home and I am glad you mourn the passing of Austria-Hungary.

We also agree that the EU is an ancien régime and you accept that such polities usually find it difficult to evolve quickly or fundamentally enough to save themselves.  In that, the EU is today not alone. Nations beyond the borders of Europe are facing similar difficulties: the USA and Japan among them, together with most EU members. The outward and visible signs are obvious and are much remarked upon: disgust with existing ruling elites and the rise in votes for fringe parties of both extreme left and right.

That disgust is reinforced by the suspicion, which I certainly share, that our respite from the late global financial crisis is purely temporary and that we should be anticipating its return. Meanwhile, the bankers, governments and others responsible for the last crisis are perceived not to have paid for their mistakes. Worst of all, the elites were unable to cure the problem. They appear therefore not only as crooked but, worse, incompetent.

Meanwhile, every minor scandal reinforces the story that the elites (whoever they are) are also corrupt and self-serving. Anyone will now believe anything, whether absurd allegations against our most distinguished living soldier, or that all politicians have their heads in the public trough. Of course, dying regimes do tend to attract an even greater share of dubious characters than others, adding a whiff of verisimilitude to the allegations. The super-rich seem to pay little tax on their immense incomes and it is not clear which amongst them is crooked and which honest. Meanwhile the middling sort find it impossible to save, let alone derive any income from the thrift governments once urged them to practice. Why should they continue to consent to the status quo?

Louis XVI should have had similar thoughts in the wake of the Queen’s Necklace affair, but perhaps did not.

Our own country is caught by all this, as it was in the first half of the 19th Century and in the middle decades of the 20th. We were able to adapt to survive: in the 19th by extending the franchise and in the 20th by expanding public services and mass prosperity. As a result British governments regained the authority to govern. They did so by reforming the institutions of representative government the country already had, thereby responding to the demands of an electorate emboldened and liberated by technological change.

Today, governments are once again losing the authority to govern, and for similar reasons. Another major financial crisis might lose them it completely; but a new crisis might not even be needed. Whitehall’s failure to control immigration, its puny efforts to tackle the housing question, the feebleness of our defences, the incompetence of our transport and energy policies might, whether jointly or severally, tip us over.

In the past, the country has been sustained in times of crisis by a solid body of electors who felt they had an interest in the existing structures which kept them, on the whole, safe and relatively prosperous.  That body’s support is no longer so solid. The IT revolution is largely responsible. The speed of communications make governments and Parliamentary procedures look flat-footed. Increasingly the public is at least as well-informed as the Whitehall departments who are telling them what to do. It is virtually impossible to keep anything secret and anyone who betrays a confidence is regarded as heroic.  The more rules we have, the more the public feels they are used as a means of flouting their spirit.

Worst of all, social media stimulate one issue politics and make the simple solution credible. You and I know that competent administration is boring and usually demands compromises. We also know that effective legislation needs careful preparation, much internal and external debate, a mind-numbing command of detail and a lively warning mechanism against the law of unintended consequences. The same applies to parliamentary scrutiny.

Any sensible electorate would be only too pleased to delegate this necessary day-to-day grunt to a Whitehall and Westminster it trusted and, although interested and argumentative, get on with the rest of its life.

Sadly, that is not where we are.

Without a convincing plan to remedy our governance arrangements, there is no guarantee that the bulk of the population will continue its present weary support for the status quo. It would take a smaller crisis than that of a few years ago to bring about a withdrawal of consent. It is true that we are lucky to have some very clever chaps keeping the show on the road, but the show is running out of road.

This would be a pity, because so much is going well in this country, certainly compared to the rest of the EU. We have a growing population, universities as good as any in the world and an impressive science base. Our creative industries are the finest anywhere and we wield more effective soft power than the USA.

This situation represents an opportunity for the Tory Party. Years ago, when I dabbled in politics, earnest undergraduates sometimes used to ask me what the Tory Party was for. It was one of the few questions I found easy to answer. The Tory Party stands for the Nation, its preservation, the guarding of its unity and liberties through vigorous representative institutions and thereby the nurturing of its prosperity.

Today’s Tory Party is defensive and unconvincing about many of its policies. However, I think that its most urgent task is to restore the electorate’s confidence in our institutions. For that to have a chance of happening, we need reform.  Making sure our institutions work is part of its job.

The government’s view is that the constitution has adapted successfully in the past like an old shoe to a gnarled foot. Even old shoes eventually split, but the government is betting that the Scotland Act and the other devolution arrangements will do. Just give them time and the new arrangements will settle down, they cry. However, the impenetrable fiscal compact and the experience of EVEL so far do not fill one with confidence.

As you know, distinguished observers agree with the government, saying there is no demand for further reform. That may be true, but ineffective regimes are vulnerable to snake oil salesmen. I would rather get in before them.

Both your and my instincts favour gentle evolution and the Burkean compact between the generations. Usually they go together. This time the Burkean compact demands something more comprehensive if we are to re-establish the authority to govern which seems to me to be slipping away.

That is why I feel a far-sighted Tory Party would embrace the idea of a new Act of Union and try and build a consensus behind its provisions. Once approved by post-legislative referendum in all four parts of the Kingdom, it would re-establish governments’ authority to govern and legislatures’ authority to legislate. Such an Act would not be enough on its own. Its true validation would come from what followed. We would need to reform public administration and local government in England, our embarrassingly complicated tax regime and many other necessary things.

Such an initiative might even concentrate the Party’s mind on the future after the 23rd June. A new leader will need something to keep the Party from tearing itself apart and I have been much struck by the broad range of support for the idea of a New Act of Union, not only from inside the Party, but also from members of other parties and of none.

Whether such a project could be carried out without interference from Our Great European Home should we still be members, I am rather doubtful, but I do think that successful polities, both politically and economically, are ones that are governed by representative institutions.  We are and the EU is not.

Yours ever,


Robert Salisbury is a former Leader of the House of Lords.