Justifying constitutional change

Today’s Quote of the day, from Telegraph columnist John McTernan, starts off “Constitutional reform is a waste of time, pure and simple.” While McTernan goes on to explain that this is because constitutional reform rarely achieves what it sets out to do, another argument as to why it may be considered a “waste of time” is that the general public is rarely interested in it and would prefer government focus on issues of a more immediate concern, such as the economy, crime, etc.

This point came up several times during Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s unveiling of the Government’s proposals for reform of the House of Lords:

Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): Let us be frank: Lords reform is not near the top of any of our constituents’ priorities. They are more interested—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I am grateful for that support; I am not sure whether the Deputy Prime Minister is. Our constituents are more interested in their schools and hospitals, and whether they will have a job at the end of the year.

Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): May I ask the right hon. Gentleman again whether he intends to continue to pursue, in the words of Lord Steel of Aikwood, “private obsessions with little public resonance—AV and an elected House of Lords, for example”?

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): Most people will agree that the House of Lords has become too large, but that could be changed by all the parties agreeing to stop making so many new Lords. I do not know what happens on the buses in Sheffield and what people on those buses are saying, but I certainly know that people on the Clapham omnibus in my area are not demanding the reform of the House of Lords, as they have many, many higher priorities, yet they have to see huge amounts of time, effort and money being wasted on this.

To that last point, the Deputy Prime Minister replied:

Of course I accept that many issues that we discuss in the Chamber, and many issues with which any Government must deal, may not resonate on the doorsteps, but they may none the less be significant and important to our national life. I think we all agree that it is important for world trade rules to work properly, but that is not an issue that is raised with me on the doorstep very often. It is important for us to get local government finance right, and that too is not raised on the doorstep very often, but it is none the less significant and important. The fact that an issue is not raised with us by our constituents does not mean that it is not worthy of debate. If that is not the case, I cannot imagine why Government after Government have debated this very issue for nearly a century.

Clegg makes a good point. Much, maybe even most, of what a Government does is hardly of interest or of pressing concern to the vast majority of the populace, indeed, a lot of it barely garners any press coverage. If you asked the average citizen to name five bills passed by the current Parliament, I wonder how many would be able to do so (I don’t limit this comment to the UK only – I daresay it would apply here in Canada, and in more than a few countries). Beyond cursory interest in the Budget, which is the only piece of legislation that definitely does impact virtually every citizen, most other bills and policy initiatives will be of interest to some in society, to select groups, stakeholders directly concerned with the matters the bill addresses. No one questions the legitimacy or need for such bills based solely on the fact that most citizens aren’t interested in the matter, nor does anyone argue that debating the issue is a waste of time and money. Constitutional and political reforms certainly fall into that category. I don’t see how anyone can argue that attempting to improve the functioning of the country’s political system and democratic institutions can be deemed a waste of time – it is central to ideals of good government and representative democracy. That it doesn’t capture the imagination of most people does not justify sweeping needed reforms under the proverbial carpet.

In an ideal world, issues such as Lords’ reform, electoral reform and fixed-term parliaments would generate great interest amongst the general public. The unfortunate reality is, however, that outside of general elections, most people are not that concerned with politics in general. Those who are would be a minority, and among that group, those who are very interested in issues of political and constitutional reform are an even smaller minority.  I don’t think that the fact that most citizens aren’t very interested in constitutional and political reform should be interpreted as a lack of popular mandate for a government to move forward and address such issues. That to me is akin to requiring a minimum turnout to legitimize the outcome of a referendum: equating abstentions with a vote for the “No” side. Since you can’t force people to be interested in something, disinterest should not be an excuse or justification to avoid addressing needed change.

Governments must do more than simply address issues that people want addressed – they also have to address issues that need to be addressed, even if most people might not recognize, or even care, that such change is needed.


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