1997 Onwards -
Below is the text of John Major’s book written for the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) entitled “The Erosion of Parliamentary Government”, published in October 2003.
The Rt Hon John Major CH was Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from 1990 to 1997, having previously served as Foreign Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer. He was a Conservative Member of Parliament for Huntingdon from 1979 to 2001. Since leaving politics, he has returned to business in the private sector. He also lectures around the world and is active in many charities.
The aim of the Centre for Policy Studies is to develop and promote policies that provide freedom and encouragement for individuals to pursue the aspirations they have for themselves and their families, within the security and obligations of a stable and law-
The Decline of Democracy
The Decline of Parliament
The Politicisation of the Civil Service
The Manipulation of Government Information
In the six years since leaving Downing Street, I have been approached almost daily and invited to express my views on the Government, the Opposition or the issue of the moment.
Generally, I have resisted. As well I know, government is a tricky business and I have a degree of sympathy for the mistakes that are sometimes made -
And so, by and large, I have kept my counsel and remained silent -
When style and substance intermingle in politics, substance must predominate: where it does not, the fall-
The Decline of Democracy
We take democracy so much for granted in our country that we scarcely notice any longer whether it exists; how it is exercised; or the ways in which it is being undermined.
The visible structures appear intact: mature political parties; a universal adult franchise; free elections with a specified maximum term of office; a two-
Indeed, so familiar and comforting that we have scarcely noticed that the timbers which support it are creaking and diseased; and are in danger of collapse. The structures remain but many of them are being hollowed out. The erosion is evident from the top to the bottom.
At the grassroots, our political parties are shrinking in membership from mass movements to the size of special interest groups. The old convictions and prejudices that sustained them through the generations have been replaced by widespread disinterest and complacency. The broad mass of the nation is detached from politics. Many feel a distaste for it. They do not share the ancient tribal loyalties and look askance at the enthusiasts who underpin our system, attend party conferences, and work for the local party machine. W S Gilbert once wrote that every child was “a little Liberal or a little Conservative”. If any lyricist did so today, he or she would be regarded as seriously out of touch.
Our democracy owes a great debt to grassroots activists. But that should not blind us to the reality that all the party machines are moribund, near bankrupt, unrepresentative and ill-
Nothing is clear cut any more. These days, New Labour ministers are political cross-
No wonder our largely apolitical electorate is puzzled. But it is not the only puzzle. The widespread (but mistaken) view that “they’re all the same” and “nothing makes any difference” has led to a General Election turnout of under 60%, with the “don’t knows” and the “won’t votes” scoring as highly as the winning party. The campaigners for universal suffrage would have agonised had they lived to see such a day.
The Decline of Parliament
The rot in our political system is not only at its roots: it is evident in Parliament, too.
The behaviour of individual MPs is the lesser part of the mosaic of disregard for Parliament but it cannot be ignored. Parliament has always contained a number of bad hats. But their ruthless exposure over the last decade, aggravated by the unappealing public response of some of the miscreants, has been damaging. In the 1990s, the Labour spin machine in opposition, allied to elements of a receptive media, was so successful in labelling the Conservative Party as a whole with the sins of individual members, that it was able to damn the Conservative Government, too. But the appetite for scandal, once awakened, is not easily sated and, since 1997, it has repeatedly come back to harm and undermine New Labour.
The failings of a minority of politicians should not be allowed to get out of proportion. Most Members of Parliament have standards comparable to the general public and the Commons is big enough to deal with the abuses of those that do not: far more dangerous is the institutional undermining of our political system.
This arises if any major party is careless of Parliamentary traditions and propriety; if its use of power becomes an abuse of it; if it resorts to character assassination as a political weapon. Our present Government has all these traits.
New Labour has certainly not been ‘purer than pure’: the Prime Minister’s famous promise has not been kept. Since 1997, New Labour offenders have been far closer to the centre of power than their much-
And the perceptions are damaging. When senior members of the Labour Party were investigated by the Parliamentary Commissioner, there appeared to be an organised attempt to obstruct the inquiries or to withhold proper co-
All these are factors in the fall in the reputation of the House of Commons. There are wider elements as well. While some of these are inevitable they have rendered it less influential in our lives.
Vital decisions are today often decided in wider fora: in the G7, the UN or -
An antipathy to the EU is the Approved Text for many commentators, part of the Conservative Parliamentary Party and, re-
Nor is this the only loss. As part of this Government’s policy, Parliament has surrendered decision making within the UK to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the Mayor of London and the Northern Ireland Assembly. It looks set to do so to Regional Assemblies as well. As devolution grows, the corollary is inevitable: power is sucked from the Westminster Parliament.
I have never been in favour of devolved Assemblies except in Northern Ireland where, for decades, Ulster politicians had no responsibility whatever for policy. Yet even there I favoured only very restricted powers. My fear was that devolution would lead to the break-
New Labour took a more populist and self-
It was tactless beyond belief to appoint Dr John Reid, a Scottish MP as Secretary of State for Health in England. Even worse, it is wholly wrong that Scottish MPs are entitled to vote on legislation at Westminster affecting England yet not vote on similar legislation affecting their own constituencies: it is also a scandal that English MPs cannot vote on comparable legislation affecting Scotland. New Labour’s devolution was tantamount to gerrymandering an electoral system already biased in their favour by grotesque boundary changes to constituencies. These have resulted in a situation in which the Conservative Party needs an 8% lead in votes over Labour to win the same number of seats; in a system in which vigorous politics offers the best safeguard of individual freedoms, this cannot be acceptable. Parliament loses because Labour has chosen to ignore this anomaly so that it might benefit from it.
Parliament has lost elsewhere, too. The Mayor of London has responsibility without power and without resources in an experiment that, if left unchanged, will bring nothing but grief to London as well as to both present and future Governments. The Mayor needs either more resources or fewer responsibilities.
Monetary policy has also been subcontracted to the Bank of England and could, at some future date -
Some of these changes have merit -
This has been exacerbated by the Government’s disregard, sometimes contempt, for the Commons. Labour uses its majority as a rubber stamp. Select Committees are ignored or suborned. Complex Bills are poorly scrutinised as the Government is bound to get its way. And if the House of Lords attempts to block or amend legislation, which is its legitimate role, it is discredited and attacked. Already it has been mutilated and fears abolition.
Since 1997, Parliament has been downgraded in more subtle ways, too. Major policy statements have been made outside it, or leaked, before a Parliamentary announcement. This may be a good way to control media coverage but it is bad for democracy. During World War II, Winston Churchill, took the Commons into his confidence and treated it with courtesy and respect -
Prime Minister’s Questions has degenerated to pointless farce. Its purpose was never so much to impart or extract information, as to embarrass the Prime Minister -
Now, the triviality of the exchanges has robbed the circus of even that benefit. The Hutton Inquiry has revealed the extent to which the Prime Minister’s responses and emotions are pre-
Parliament has been weakened, too, by the Government’s policy towards the House of Lords. The abolition of the hereditary peers was a populist -
The House of Lords should have more power: there is much it could usefully do. It could improve the quality of our law by pre-
I do not agree with the current vogue for a largely elected Second Chamber. Yes -
I understand the urge for the legitimacy of election but it is a poor bargain for electors: a less talented House of Lords stuffed with more professional politicians is the wrong prescription for our democratic deficit.
If not election, what? Prime Ministerial appointment alone is no longer acceptable (although any mechanism must provide nomination by political leaders with the intention of maintaining a proper balance in the Upper House). We continue to need a system to nominate leading public figures to maintain and reflect the wide experience now available to the Lords.
And in my view, it should remain “the House of Lords”. Its members should continue to be Peers: to change the name would be pointless if it is to serve its traditional role as a revising Chamber and to withhold the courtesy of the title would be petty.
The Politicisation of the Civil Service
The neutrality of the Civil Service is vital and must be protected. Civil Servants support the policies of the elected Government but are trusted by politicians of every political complexion who acknowledge their political impartiality. This impartiality is now in danger of being compromised .
Civil servants need to be confident that preferment is based on merit; and that the civil service ethic is not diluted by politically motivated appointments. The barriers between carrying out the policy of the elected Government and offering support to the politics of the majority party is often a fine one: but it existed and was honoured. It was policed by the Cabinet Secretary and Permanent Secretaries and was jealously guarded. Thus, when a senior Civil Servant spoke, he was believed. He gave the facts without gloss. This was our tradition and the need to observe the proprieties imposed a great and valuable discipline upon Ministers.
Yet there is genuine concern that the present Government has imposed changes in attitude and structure that have undermined this impartiality. The effect of their actions, whether intended or not, is to begin politicising the Civil Service: too many Ministers behave as if officials should be committed extensions of the New Labour project.
A similar mindset has led to the unseemly sight of Ministers, from the Prime Minister downwards, openly blaming the Civil Service for errors that have in the past been accepted as the responsibility of Ministers -
This changed philosophy is evident in Downing Street. The tone was set by the appointment of a special adviser, instead of a career Civil Servant, as de facto the Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister with authority over career civil servants. This position is crucial. The Principal Private Secretary is the gateway to the Prime Minister. He has always had the vital role of ensuring the proper flow of non-
The position worsened further after those initial ill-
…a special adviser atop all three segments of the rejigged No. 10 -
Reporting to Powell were not only Jeremy Heywood, the PM’s Principal Private Secretary (formerly the head of the Civil Service-
So the traditional -
The Manipulation of Government Information
The pattern of by-
Spin is the pornography of politics. It perverts. It is deceit licensed by the Government. Statistics massaged. Expenditure announced and reannounced. The record reassessed. Guilt declared. Innocence proclaimed. Black declared white: all in a day’s work.
From the moment New Labour saw the value of spin, the truth became partisan. The outgoing Conservative Government was to be abused: no piece of character assassination, no lie, no half-
In its hey-
If the old Government Information Service was bypassed, it was not alone. Advisers from outside Government have flourished. The wholly unaccountable Lord Levy became the PM’s special envoy in the Middle East: yet I doubt he was better informed than our most senior diplomats. When Mr Blair wished to visit President Assad, an envoy was approached to check the lie of the land: it is not clear why our Ambassador in Damascus could not perform this function which is -
Some months ago -
The art of misrepresentation for political advantage is not new. While I am comfortable that, in my own Administration, we never set out to deceive, it would be naïve to suppose that no one will dispute the meaning and intent of specific statements and events: all Administrations face this.
But what sets this Government apart is the scale and pre-
It is fatal to the conduct of policy if the word of any Government is disbelieved until proven beyond doubt to be true. The erosion of trust has now reached the point where it is undermining the ability of the Government to call on the trust of the people -
This breakdown in trust between the Government, the media and the public has been recognised in the interim report of the Phillis Review. And some of the recommendations that have been made are welcome -
A few years ago, it would have been inconceivable that any Prime Minister’s Office could have been accused of distorting and misusing intelligence information to popularise the case for war and yet, whatever the reality, that has now become a widespread belief.
For the sake of the future conduct of policy this impression needs to be dispelled. In the case of the Iraq war, an independent Franks-
The sorry state of affairs in the House of Commons is a by-
I have seen three Governments at close quarters. Margaret Thatcher had a secure majority in 1979 and, from 1983, a very large majority. Once a policy was decided upon, her majority enabled her to be unbending and authoritarian. Such is her reputation. But, at close quarters, I never saw her disrespectful of Parliament. It was never ignored, bypassed or disregarded.
After 1992, with no effective majority, the Conservative Government could not have behaved high-
But New Labour has had no such inhibitions. What the Prime Minister has failed to understand is the importance and power of the traditions, customs and conventions that have shaped the values of our system of government and provided its checks and balances. The way our nation’s government works is not simply defined by the bare words and legal structures of legislation -
That is why, through the generations, wise Governments have taken constitutional change gradually and, as far as possible, by consensus and after consultation. That is no longer the case.
New Labour, apparently contemptuous of our history, has swept away centuries of institutional values. Rushed, ill thought-
Further diminution of Parliamentary authority will be accomplished within this Parliament if the Government enacts the proposed European Constitution as a superior overarching legal framework. The legacy of centuries of common law would be subordinate to ambiguous language interpreted and enforced by European institutions.
Such legislation is likely because, in almost all circumstances, democratic accountability in Parliament is suspended until the next election: even a cataclysmic rebellion can be ignored. With an 8% lead in votes in 1992 -
It is time for Parliament to reform, regain authority and increase the accountability of the Executive. Sadly, the reforms implemented by New Labour have reduced accountability and not enhanced it. The Government’s failure offers a real opportunity to the Conservatives: they must pledge themselves to enhance the power of Parliament and set out the manner in which this will be done.
New Labour’s style of governing -
The fate of politicians and governments does not matter: they are mortal and, in due time, are replaced by fresh administrations more tuned to the needs of the age.
But if the institution of Parliament declines; if respect is lost for it; if politics is seen as a game not as an essential bulwark of our constitution and our liberties; if Ministers bow the head to advisers; and if the public loses its trust in the integrity of government, then we are in serious trouble.
Is it too late for Parliamentary democracy? Has the watchman tolled the hour for our unwritten Constitution and Parliamentary system? I think not. I hope not. But the danger is clear and present.
And so is the need for action.