Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill

Part of Nato – in the House of Commons at 6:29 pm on 20th October 2009.

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Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Secretary of State for Justice 6:29 pm, 20th October 2009

I agree with the vast majority of what Dr. Wright has just said-except for one thing. I think that we are already in a constitutional moment and that the current crisis is very serious, requiring a better reaction now than this Bill. I am afraid that it is inadequate to the present circumstances. There is nothing in it specifically bad or obnoxious, but nearly all of it needs improvement-some of it radically. What is really wrong with the Bill, however, is what it does not do and its lack of ambition, given the size of the problem. As the hon. Member for Cannock Chase pointed out, it does nothing to change the system of election to the House of Commons, which is not just corrupt and unfair but, as the hon. Gentleman began to explain, politically disastrous. It fails to get rid of the undemocratic absurdity of a wholly unelected second Chamber-a House of patronage-and, as Kelvin Hopkins said in an intervention, it fails to do anything about the extreme centralisation of power in this country, which still remains after the devolution settlement. It fails to do anything to prevent big money control of our politics, and it even fails to remove the possibility of political interference in the criminal justice system.

There is a real crisis in British politics, but although all of us in the House know about it on a personal level, we do very little about it. It is a crisis of confidence in politics that threatens the cultural basis of democracy itself. Extremist parties are attracting support, and cynicism about politics and the people in politics is rife. I believe that confidence in Members of the House of Commons is now down to 14 per cent. The media are the only real political power in the land, but the media's own commercial difficulties mean that they use that power for increasingly shallow populist ends.

Over the past few weeks, I have been wondering whether the position is even worse than that. We live in a society that is obsessed with celebrity, and what we now see is the growth of an expectation that politics is, or should become, a kind of celebrity activity. We are seeing celebrity candidates for public office, not only in the United States but here. We are seeing TV celebrities elevated to ministerial office and places in the House of Lords. We are seeing political innovations, proposed or already in place, which, while they may appear superficially attractive, are in danger of turning into concessions to celebrity politics. Primaries, I believe, involve that danger; leaders' debates involve that danger; and elected mayors involve that danger-although I should perhaps add that the newly elected mayor of Bedford won his place without being a celebrity.

The serious question is, are we allowing a new system of government to develop out of the constitutional moment in which we find ourselves? Does the system that we are allowing constitute a kind of rule by the famous? The new system needs a name, and were we to give it a name it would be not a democracy but a doxocracy: the rule of celebrity. A new and urgent constitutional question about which the Bill does nothing is what we should do about that form of politics. One view is that we should simply go with the flow, give in to the celebrity politics that is developing and institutionalise its elements, such as primaries; but I believe that that will not end well. The sheer superficiality of celebrity politics will lead in the end not to greater engagement as its proposers hope, but to disappointment and to even more cynicism.