President Blair's House of cards

The Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution occupies a fine 18th-century house in Queen Square. Last Friday I went to speak at a meeting held in this shrine to the historic culture of Bath. It was organised by Charter 88. I am far too Burkean in my view of constitutional reform to be a member of Charter 88, but they have certainly been very influential. Just as the Institute of Economic Affairs inspired the economic reforms of the Thatcher Government, Charter 88 has inspired the constitutional reform of the Blair Government. That has probably been the most important part of Tony Blair's first administration. I was scheduled to talk about proportional representation for Westminster. Charter 88 supports PR and has helped to secure PR systems for Scotland, Wales and the European elections. I gave the reasons why I did not support PR for the House of Commons. However, the Government had announced new proposals for House of Lords reform only a couple of days before my talk, so I was asked to discuss that as well.

I had reservations about constitutional reforms of all kind. I'm worried about their unforeseen consequences, about the loss of traditional respect, about the loss - which we have already suffered in the House of Lords - of a particular culture of discussion, and about the difficulty of securing lasting acceptance of the new proposals. Nevertheless, once reform has begun it usually has to be completed, one way or the other.

I am critical of the Government's new proposal. I can see no point in mincing towards democracy by small and tentative steps. The 20 per cent of Members who will be elected will remain a mere minority in a House which will still be dominated by appointed Members. Constitutional reform should either have a strong pragmatic or ideological justification. What is proposed has neither; it will not be more efficient than the present House, nor will it be significantly more democratic. .....

These were serious Bath citizens, in a city which returns a Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament, who had turned out on a November evening to discuss constitutional reform. Many of them were members of Charter 88; some just visitors, paying £2 to help cover costs.

Ideally, constitutional reform ought to be popular; indeed, the support ought to be passionate. One thinks of the original Chartists, of the suffragettes, of the Scottish Nationalists and the campaign for devolution. One thinks of Charter 88 itself, which helped to persuade people that the venerable constitution of the United Kingdom needed the reforms of the 1990s. Not a word was spoken by anyone present in favour of the latest proposals on the House of Lords.

It is hard to find people who do support them. The Conservatives would not do so in any case; they are the Opposition. The Liberal Democrats do not support them; that is more surprising, for it is the nature of Liberal Democrats to love constitutional reform. When confronted with a constitution, the party is always for them: "Tinker, tinker, tinker," and "pass me the spanner, Roy". One might have expected to find some support in the Labour Party. The Labour backbenchers in the Commons are bubbling with revolt.

The Leader of the House of Commons, Robin Cook himself, has a keenly honed skill, developed in Scottish university debating, for rubbishing his colleagues. Though he is its sponsor, he has distanced himself from the project, and let it be known that it is all Derry Irvine's fault. Even the Lord Chancellor, who probably is more to blame than anyone else, leaves Lord Williams of Mostyn, the Welsh wizard who is Leader of the House of Lords, to justify the proposals on the Today programme. Those who attend the Lords know that Lord Williams could persuade the House that tomorrow is yesterday, that down is up, and that the Moon travels through the heavens because it is being chased by a large black cat which, because it is black, nobody can see.

Even the bishops, who seldom complain, regard the new proposals as a backward step. No Charter 88, no popular support, no Conservatives, no Liberal Democrats, no Labour backbenchers, no Robin Cook, no bishops; these proposals seem only to be supported in Downing Street and on the Woolsack. No doubt Lord Falconer of Thoroton also supports them. In short, we can detect all the makings of another Dome, what in tennis is called an "unforced error".