Wednesday 3 June 2009

Reforming Westminster

Recent events have exposed some of the weaknesses of the current political system operating at Westminster - and brought the idea of major constitutional reform to the centre of debate. Washminster will follow this debate closely.

The starting point must be Lord Acton's comment that "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."
In the UK we tend to concentrate on the latter part of the quote - congratulating ourselves that no one is given absolute power. The Magna Carta in 1215 established that no one was above the law, even the King has limited power. When the Stuart monarchs overstepped the mark - they were removed (In 1649 Charles I was tried and executed; and at the 'Glorious Revolution', James II was "run out of town" by Parliament and the 'Bill of Rights' passed). There is significant separation of powers at the very core of the British constitutional system.
But the first part of the quote is just as important. The possession of Power itself holds dangers. Human nature is flawed. We can easily convince ourselves that what is in our own interest is also in the interest of others. We can "cut corners" and become blind to the wrongfulness of our behaviour. It is significant that many MPs defending their actions have stressed that they acted within the rules in making their claims - apparently unaware of how appalling their behaviour appears to everyone else. History is full of abuses of power.
The answer is to set up checks and balances to counter this natural tendency. The US Constitution is built on that principle. Separation of powers is crucial because, as Montesquieu argues, when one person has a hand in all three branches of government, tyranny will ensue. The exercise of power needs to be transparent and there must be accountability. Those who take decisions must be answerable for them. That's why I am an advocate of powerful parliamentary committees able to demand explanations. Only when there is a culture of accountability can lessen the opportunity for the abuse of power.
Over the coming weeks, this blog will discuss many of the reforms that could build on the strengths of the Westminster system, whilst adressing the weaknesses. I hope you'll engage in this important debate.