John Marriott: Great Britain and Northern Ireland at the crossroads

Our decrepit system of government both at national and local level is in urgent need of reform. Are we finally ready to change it?

Let me start by saying that this article is not about Brexit. However, Brexit, or rather how we deal with it, has called into question whether our political institutions are still fit for purpose. This would not be the first time that I have written on this subject over the years and it probably won’t be the last.

In the past, my musings were largely brushed aside. It’s not surprising that most people have got on with leading their lives, with little or no interest in politics of any kind. You only need to look at the turnouts in elections, both local and national, in recent years to see that many members of the public view politicians of all parties with a kind of disdain or even, following the expenses scandal and the failure to get to grips with you know what, with contempt. It would be hard to blame them.

The present state of British politics was summed up for me by the sight, a few weeks ago, of the Leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees Mogg MP (often referred to as ‘the Hon Member for the 18th Century) languidly lolling in his over large double breasted suit across the front bench during that late night Commons debate.

Whatever happens to our country over the next few crucial months, if we do emerge with a semblance of order, we really have got to do something about the way we are governed.

Let’s start with our so called Constitution. It’s ‘unwritten’, which means it’s evolved over centuries into a series of ‘conventions’, which are subject to interpretation. The cynic might say that it’s therefore a case of “make it up as you go along”. It needs to catch up with the 21st Century so it needs to be codified, in other words written down.

So, let’s start with a Speaker’s Conference and a Citizens’ Assembly to examine how it could be done. Then we need our own Bill of Rights to replace the 1689 version, which only covers England and Wales. It created our Constitutional Monarchy. We may wish to review that as well, although, while the Queen is alive, I do not detect much of an appetite for a President Blair or May!

Then there is the role of Parliament and its members. Many people, when they go to vote in a General Election, assume that they are voting for a government. They are, in theory, voting for someone to represent them in Parliament. When elected, that person is duty bound to represent all their electorate, regardless of whether or not they voted for them.

Despite some people expecting their MP to do their bidding, I still adhere to what Anglo Irish statesman, Edmund Burke said to the voters of Bristol in 1774; “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

To put it simply, according to Burke, a Member of Parliament is not a delegate but is duty bound to represent all their constituents to the best of their ability. I tend to agree with this. As for how an MP is elected, it is clear to many people that the present First Past the Post voting system is not delivering any more and needs to be changed to reflect what is today a more sophisticated electorate. If this results in more coalition government, then so be it. After all, a country like Germany, which has only had one majority government since World War Two, is hardly suffering from this fact.

Finally, we need to sort out local government, particularly in England. I have advocated a system of Unitary Councils to replace the remaining County and District Councils, together with enhanced powers for Town and Parish Councils for years. Lincolnshire would benefit from having one, two or possibly three unitaries to replace the eight first and second tier councils it has now. Then we need to devolve powers and money from the centre and to reform how we finance local government. After that, we could consider how we create a Federal United Kingdom, with Regional Assemblies in England similar to those parliaments in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, with a Federal Parliament at Westminster, together with a Senate to replace the House of Lords, responsible for Foreign Affairs, Defence of the Realm, Environment and Strategic Planning, which is more or less what the Bundestag does in Germany.

So, whatever happens after October 31, or perhaps later, our decrepit system of government has got to change. We could start with a Speaker’s Conference to decide priorities and then subject ideas to a Citizens’ Assembly, which would report its findings back to Parliament. I would still rather have a government scrutinised by parliament than government by referendum. It might suit the Swiss to be governed this way, but the UK is not Switzerland. In or out of Europe there is much for us to do, because we clearly cannot blunder along as we have done for decades and, above all, we have, as a nation, or a federation of nations and regions, got to earn a living on the world stage.

To those of you, who have managed to get to the end of this piece and might be questioning my judgement, let me end with a quote from the late Robert F Kennedy;” Some men see things as they are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were and ask why not.”