Can the machinery of government be reformed without a constitutional upheaval? Which parts of the machinery are functioning and which are failing? Sarah Hogg offers an inside viewby Sarah Hogg / October 20, 1995 / Leave a comment
Published in October 1995 issue of Prospect Magazine
At a seminar in Chicago this summer, pundits from both sides of the Atlantic were lamenting the seemingly universal disillusionment with government. Paradoxically, we agreed, just when western democracy has resoundingly defeated communism in the great global battle of ideas, democratic politics and politicians everywhere in the west are sinking lower and lower in public esteem.
It took someone from Chicago to cut the hand-wringing short. Politics, he reminded us, is bound to be a rough old business. “Look,” he said briskly, “if all the airlines competed for business by telling you that the others were flown by incompetent drunks who couldn’t read a dial straight, pretty soon the airports would be empty.”
As one member of the present British cabinet likes to say, you shouldn’t expect a pay cheque and a round of applause too. Government is, has been, and always will be a difficult and thankless trade. But hasn’t it got more difficult? And more thankless? Asked how our arrangements measure up against the yardsticks of “dignity” and “efficiency” identified by Walter Bagehot in the 19th century, most people’s instinctive reply would be: badly.
Disillusion seems to be affecting not only the public but even the politicians themselves, to judge by the number packing their House of Commons bags in preparation for exit at the next election. Some point the finger at an increasingly aggressive media and the over-inflated expectations of voters for making political life less and less worth living. Others blame the system. Many constitutional doctors are prescribing radical courses of treatment for the entire body politic.
But the diagnoses vary sharply. At one moment, government-in-parliament is seen as too powerful-an “elective dictatorship”; at another moment, as too weak-dependent on the support of an unrepresentative handful of MPs holding disproportionate power. MPs themselves are seen at one moment as under-employed troublemakers, demanding-like any other trade union-shorter hours and higher pay. Yet at another, they are characterised as overstressed and under-staffed, burdened by the growth of constituency work and forced to consider important legislation in the small hours.