The Subservience of Parliament to The
Nick Clegg ~ The Observer ~ 17 May 2009
Voters' trust in democracy is shattered.
We must restore it. People must feel that they have more
power than the politicians, writes the Lib Dem leader
We are in the eye of the perfect storm: an
economic crisis followed by a total collapse of public faith in
politicians. One way or another, MPs' self-serving expenses will
now, thankfully, be changed for good.
But this must be a moment for fundamental change, not just
tinkering to eliminate the worst excesses of the past. The
uncomfortable truth is that these revelations are merely the tip
of an iceberg - our whole political system must be revamped.
Newspapers carried images last week of a dark cloud hanging over
the Palace of Westminster. But the cloud metaphor is too
generous: politicians are not innocent victims of the weather.
We created this cloud ourselves. It rose from the decaying of
It is because our political culture is so cut off from proper
scrutiny that these Alice in Wonderland expenses rules
For too long, we have believed the hype about the mother of
parliaments. The truth is that the pomp and tradition - the
tights, gowns and wigs, the silly names - disguise the fact that
Parliament has been hollowed out, ignored by an overbearing
executive of ministers and civil servants. Last month, I led
a campaign for Gurkha rights which secured a landmark defeat of
the government. But, absurdly, despite the vote, the government
need do nothing to let Gurkha veterans live in Britain if they
don't feel like it. Such untrammelled power is staggering when
you remember that this government was elected by just 22% of
With so little support, they get unconstrained power: layers of
Whitehall secrecy, the most centralised system of governance in
Europe, and such a stranglehold on legislation that they have
only been defeated five times in 12 years. This is madness.
No wonder, when new democracies were emerging from the Soviet
bloc in the 1990s, not one of them copied our model of
governance. Our system doesn't work: it doesn't deliver what
people want, it doesn't keep government or politicians honest
and it doesn't foster the meaningful debate we need.
This has got to change. We should start from first principles.
Power belongs to citizens, not politicians. That simple fact
must be written down in a short constitution setting out what
rights people enjoy and making clear the subservience of
Parliament to the people. A constitutional convention,
overseen by 100 randomly selected voters, should be convened to
draw it up.
We must clean up expenses through Sir Christopher Kelly's
independent inquiry. I've written to the other party leaders to
urge them to pledge - now - to accept his recommendations in
full. In normal times, I wouldn't propose adopting rules I
haven't seen, but only by binding our hands will we convince
people that we are serious about serving them, not our own
Public outrage at many individual MPs' expense claims has been
profound, but there is nothing constituents can do in response.
That's why I believe if MPs transgress the rules, there must
be a way for their constituents to sack them. I'd create a
"recall" system: a small percentage of constituents should be
able to force a byelection on any MP suspended for wrongdoing.
We must also cut back the size and power of the Whitehall state,
eliminating central bureaucracy and giving new freedoms,
including money-raising powers, to local communities. The
over-centralised bureaucratic state is the corollary of an
overbearing executive and a neutered Parliament. All must
Finally, but fundamentally, we need to give people a proper
say in who governs the country with fair votes. No government
should be able to secure total power with the support of just
one out of every five people.
Eighteen months ago, I approached Gordon
Brown and David Cameron to suggest a constitutional convention
to rewrite the rules of our democracy. They didn't take up the
offer. From their point of view, this was a logical response:
they have a vested interest in the status quo because eventually
the electoral merry-go-round will deliver them power. Why break
open a cosy arrangement which has served the establishment
parties so well over the years?
But we can no longer tolerate such a dysfunctional set-up.
We must finally haul our politics from the 19th century into the
21st. After more than a week of scandal, one thing is clearer
than ever: the game is up for the old way of doing things.
The question now is - do we have the will to start anew?
POLITICIANS FLEE UK PARLIAMENT
'The People' know many things: