John Major on the Union and the future of politics

12 July 2011

John Major nowadays rarely ventures into public debate.  But in a Ditchley Foundation lecture delivered to a large part of the political and civil service establishment on Saturday, he set out not one but two bold ideas for today’s politicians to ponder.

First he in effect called for a “devolution max” offer to be made to Scotland, and then for a straight “in or out” referendum to be held upon it.  By “devolution max”, Major includes full fiscal responsibility and pretty well all law making powers, except in respect of defence and foreign policy.

He clearly thinks that the Scots would vote to stay in the union on such a basis and, although he did not say this explicitly, that Alex Salmond probably thinks so too.

Calling for “devolution max” is easier than defining what it will be.  The crunch issue is whether Scotland is worse or better off with a full fiscal transfer.  Ingenuity probably needs to be focused on ensuring that it the impact is neutral at the point of transfer, with the Scots responsible for what happens thereafter.

The need for experts

Major’s other theme was in the inadequacy of party politics, and the existing House of Commons, to tackle the big issues of the age because of a shortage of experts able to look to the long term.  He called for a range of experts to be appointed directly to the Commons, alongside existing MPs.

John Major’s thinking is that each party would make such appointments in proportion to the seats it won in a general election.  Major was clear that these appointments should be made to the Commons, where the power lies, and not to the Lords, where (in his view) they would make far less impact.

This is an interesting idea, but I can’t see how it can begin to fly.  What legitimacy would these appointees have to determine the fate of governments by their votes in the Commons?

It is also unclear what these appointed expert MPs would offer in practical terms.  In technical areas, where there is little or no political controversy, the experts generally reign supreme already.  As Secretary of State for Transport, I didn’t waste much time second-guessing the experts on whole swathes of important technical issues – from car safety design to signalling systems on the railways – where there is little public controversy.  Although even in these areas, there are often difficult trade-offs which can’t be left to the experts alone.  For example, do you apply the full extent of car safety design regulations to electric cars that can only go at a top speed of 60mph?  Very tricky, very political – and the experts couldn’t agree among themselves on this one, as is often the case.

The role of elected politicians

However, as soon as you enter areas of public controversy, elected politicians have a crucial role in mediating between expert opinion and public opinion, and working out the best way forward that preserves or promotes public consent for changes, regulations or burdens being imposed by the state.  In these cases the politicians need the best possible expert advice, but the whole point of democracy is that ultimately it must be for elected representatives – not experts – to determine a sustainable way forward.  Not just because this is right, but also because it works.  Experts are in no place to play this mediating role; it isn’t their job.

The grey area is the extent to which ministers need to be elected.  In my view there is more scope for experts here – perhaps one appointed expert Minister within each departmental ministerial team – subject to proper accountability to Parliament and ultimate decision-making power continuing to reside with the elected House of Commons.  For this, see the IfG’s recent report, The Challenge of Being A Minister.

Lord Salisbury, prime minister in Britain’s imperial heyday, used to complain that the military experts were always asking him “to garrison the moon to prevent an invasion from Mars.”  But then, his generation of political leaders didn’t stop the First World War either.  Getting the right balance between politicians and experts is one of the fundamental challenges of government and democracy.

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  1. [...] John Major’s political reform proposals In a recent lecture to the Ditchley Foundation, former UK prime minister John Major calls for political reforms, especially the use of more experts in government and the role of politicians as a mediator between experts and the public. The details of his proposals are a bit unclear, but are discussed in a blog by Andrew Adonis on the Institute for Government website here. [...]

  2. David Rickard on 13 July 2011 at 8:32 am

    Major’s proposals on extending devolution to Scotland are unworkable on a number of levels, as I argue elsewhere. From the Scottish perspective, this is mainly because Alex Salmond has a mandate to consult the Scottish people on independence and to choose the options that will be on offer, which will probably include devolution max anyway.

    Politically, it would be absolutely bonkers for David Cameron to organise a referendum of the sort Major advocates. If he lost, which would be a distinct possibility, he’d throw the UK establishment into an even greater disarray and crisis of legitimacy than it is already having to contend with in the shape of the Hackgate scandal, following on from the expenses furore. And even if he won, this would be a pyrrhic victory, as Salmond would just go ahead with his own referendum anyway, for which he has a democratic mandate, as I’ve said.

    And then Major’s solution does absolutely nothing to address the West Lothian and English Questions. If anything, it only aggravates these issues in that the Scots have the maximum degree of self-government without independence while the English have . . . nothing, and continue to be governed as the UK by a parliament in which Scots (albeit fewer in number under Major’s proposals), Welsh and N. Irish MPs are still allowed to vote on England-only matters even though the Barnett Formula would probably have been abolished.

    In reality, the full logic of Major’s position points towards federalism. There’d be no justification whatsoever for non-English MPs voting on English matters, and you might as well just make the Commons an English parliament, and grant equal powers and responsibilities to each of the national parliaments / assemblies. All of which would then nullify Major’s suggestion about non-elected MPs, as the Commons would no longer even be a UK parliament – or, putting it another way, this second suggestion of Major’s is predicated on the Commons remaining a UK parliament and the English Question not being addressed.

    Major’s suggestion about non-elected parliamentarians does, however, make sense for the Lords, which in the scenario I’ve just mapped out would naturally evolve into the UK-federal parliament, dealing with those matters that remained the responsibility of the government / parliament for the whole UK. Indeed, it’s far more appropriate for non-elected experts to sit in the Upper House, which fits with its natural role as a revising and deliberative chamber.

    And the seats for non-elected members (whether Lords or MPs) should be allocated in proportion to vote share, not seat share. It makes much more sense for these non-elected seats to be distributed in accordance with share of the vote (not seats) even if Major’s proposals were to be adopted for the Commons as presently constituted, as this would help rectify the gross distortions of First Past the Post and make the Commons more not less representative of the electorate.

  3. [...] been stuck in the limbo of ‘awaiting moderation’ for several days. It refers to an article on the Institute for Government website discussing John Major’s recent contribution to the [...]

  4. Duncan of Benghazi » Spectator Blogs on 4 August 2012 at 9:34 am

    [...] career before they entered the House of Commons can. It makes a good case for John Major’s proposal some time ago to bring more experts into ministerial positions. Tags: Alan Duncan, International [...]

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