Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin – The writing on the wall
Anyone who knows their Bible knows the story in the Book of Daniel, Chapter 5. The articles below give us some cause for optimism that, this time, the 'writing is on the wall' for the British Establishment and the United Kingdom.
Here is the King James version of the story of the writing on the wall:-
Daniel Chapter 5
1 Belshazzar the king made a great feast to a thousand of his lords, and drank wine before the thousand.
2 Belshazzar, whiles he tasted the wine, commanded to bring the golden and silver vessels which his father Nebuchadnezzar had taken out of the temple which was in Jerusalem; that the king, and his princes, his wives, and his concubines, might drink therein.
3 Then they brought the golden vessels that were taken out of the temple of the house of God which was at Jerusalem; and the king, and his princes, his wives, and his concubines, drank in them.
4 They drank wine, and praised the gods of gold, and of silver, of brass, of iron, of wood, and of stone.
5 In the same hour came forth fingers of a man's hand, and wrote over against the candlestick upon the plaister of the wall of the king's palace: and the king saw the part of the hand that wrote.
6 Then the king's countenance was changed, and his thoughts troubled him, so that the joints of his loins were loosed, and his knees smote one against another.
7 The king cried aloud to bring in the astrologers, the Chaldeans, and the soothsayers. And the king spake, and said to the wise men of Babylon, Whosoever shall read this writing, and shew me the interpretation thereof, shall be clothed with scarlet, and have a chain of gold about his neck, and shall be the third ruler in the kingdom.
8 Then came in all the king's wise men: but they could not read the writing, nor make known to the king the interpretation thereof.
9 Then was king Belshazzar greatly troubled, and his countenance was changed in him, and his lords were astonied.
10 Now the queen, by reason of the words of the king and his lords, came into the banquet house: and the queen spake and said, O king, live for ever: let not thy thoughts trouble thee, nor let thy countenance be changed:
11 There is a man in thy kingdom, in whom is the spirit of the holy gods; and in the days of thy father light and understanding and wisdom, like the wisdom of the gods, was found in him; whom the king Nebuchadnezzar thy father, the king, I say, thy father, made master of the magicians, astrologers, Chaldeans, and soothsayers;
12 Forasmuch as an excellent spirit, and knowledge, and understanding, interpreting of dreams, and shewing of hard sentences, and dissolving of doubts, were found in the same Daniel, whom the king named Belteshazzar: now let Daniel be called, and he will shew the interpretation.
13 Then was Daniel brought in before the king. And the king spake and said unto Daniel, Art thou that Daniel, which art of the children of the captivity of Judah, whom the king my father brought out of Jewry?
14 I have even heard of thee, that the spirit of the gods is in thee, and that light and understanding and excellent wisdom is found in thee.
15 And now the wise men, the astrologers, have been brought in before me, that they should read this writing, and make known unto me the interpretation thereof: but they could not shew the interpretation of the thing:
16 And I have heard of thee, that thou canst make interpretations, and dissolve doubts: now if thou canst read the writing, and make known to me the interpretation thereof, thou shalt be clothed with scarlet, and have a chain of gold about thy neck, and shalt be the third ruler in the kingdom.
17 Then Daniel answered and said before the king, Let thy gifts be to thyself, and give thy rewards to another; yet I will read the writing unto the king, and make known to him the interpretation.
18 O thou king, the most high God gave Nebuchadnezzar thy father a kingdom, and majesty, and glory, and honour:
19 And for the majesty that he gave him, all people, nations, and languages, trembled and feared before him: whom he would he slew; and whom he would he kept alive; and whom he would he set up; and whom he would he put down.
20 But when his heart was lifted up, and his mind hardened in pride, he was deposed from his kingly throne, and they took his glory from him:
21 And he was driven from the sons of men; and his heart was made like the beasts, and his dwelling was with the wild asses: they fed him with grass like oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven; till he knew that the most high God ruled in the kingdom of men, and that he appointeth over it whomsoever he will.
22 And thou his son, O Belshazzar, hast not humbled thine heart, though thou knewest all this;
23 But hast lifted up thyself against the Lord of heaven; and they have brought the vessels of his house before thee, and thou, and thy lords, thy wives, and thy concubines, have drunk wine in them; and thou hast praised the gods of silver, and gold, of brass, iron, wood, and stone, which see not, nor hear, nor know: and the God in whose hand thy breath is, and whose are all thy ways, hast thou not glorified:
24 Then was the part of the hand sent from him; and this writing was written.
25 And this is the writing that was written, MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN.
26 This is the interpretation of the thing: MENE; God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it.
27 TEKEL; Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting.
28 PERES; Thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and Persians.
29 Then commanded Belshazzar, and they clothed Daniel with scarlet, and put a chain of gold about his neck, and made a proclamation concerning him, that he should be the third ruler in the kingdom.
30 In that night was Belshazzar the king of the Chaldeans slain.
31 And Darius the Median took the kingdom, being about threescore and two years old.
Here are the Articles:-
Why an SNP surge at Westminster could mean the end of Britain
Scotland’s political earthquake isn’t over, and the rest of the UK doesn’t yet understand the consequences
Anyone seeking to understand the strength of the SNP should look to those parts of Scotland where the party is supposed to be weakest. At the last election, the nationalists took just under 10 per cent of the vote in the Scottish Borders. This year, Tory canvass returns suggest the SNP may treble its share of the vote in one of the most staunchly unionist seats in Scotland.
For months, opinion polls have made unremittingly gloomy reading for unionists. The nationalists are heading for a victory on a scale still not fully comprehended in England. The polls suggest the SNP could win as many as 55 of Scotland’s 59 seats, up from six at present. No one can quite bring themselves to believe an earthquake of such magnitude is about to strike Scottish politics. Bookmakers’ odds forecast a smaller SNP landslide, but winning even 35 seats might be enough to prevent Ed Miliband from winning a majority. Without its Celtic base, Labour would struggle to govern Britain — unless a deal is cut with the nationalists.
Far from finishing the SNP, the referendum campaign has left them stronger than ever. Indeed, the SNP is no longer just a party, it is a movement — and one boasting, per capita, more than twice as many members as the three main unionist parties combined. One in every 50 adult Scots has joined the SNP since the referendum. Nicola Sturgeon’s party has more members than the British army has soldiers.
Scottish elections have rarely made much difference in Westminster. Indeed, at the last election, nothing changed north of the border: every Scottish seat returned the same result in 2010 that it had in 2005. Scotland’s election was a quiet affair, untouched by change (or enthusiasm for David Cameron). This year, in contrast, England’s election may be inconclusive while Scotland will be the scene of a political insurrection.
Neither Cameron nor Miliband are in any position to shape the outcome of the election in Scotland. Each is curiously powerless. They sit in London, anxiously awaiting the news from the north that may determine their fate. The SNP, which has been polling at more than 40 per cent for four months, holds a significant structural advantage. Unlike its rivals, it has a cause which motivates an army of supporters — and a cause is a fiercely powerful thing. Stronger, certainly, than anything offered by a weak and divided unionism. Who else, the SNP says, can be trusted to put Scotland’s interest first?
The unionists try to pretend this isn’t happening. In Edinburgh last week, David Cameron claimed the constitutional question has been ‘settled’. No one in Scotland recognises it as settled, however, and if the Prime Minister thinks it is he is deluding himself. Unionism’s complacency remains a problem second only to unionism’s inability to recognise that it has a problem.
Every device intended to kill Scottish nationalism has ended up making it stronger. Devolution succeeded in killing Toryism north of the border, but only at the expense of fertilising nationalism. Labour’s hegemony in Scotland needed an opposition and the SNP was happy to fill that void. The independence referendum made the idea of secession seem a plausible reality. An alternative future was glimpsed and sold with commendable, if heroic, optimism. In the circumstances, it was little surprise that 45 per cent of Scots thought it a risk worth pursuing. In the long-term, this bodes ill for unionism and, if nothing else, the SNP is adept at playing the long game. It need only win once; unionism cannot afford a single defeat.
So, far from the Scotland issue being settled, it looms larger than ever. In terms of domestic politics, it is the greatest challenge to the authority and confidence of the British state since 1918, when Sinn Fein won a landslide victory in what, in the end, became the Irish Republic. For obvious reasons, the SNP dislikes comparisons with Sinn Fein. Nevertheless, its aim — the dismemberment of the British state — is the same. And this, in turn, makes Ed Miliband’s reluctance to rule out a post-election deal with the nationalists utterly baffling. The SNP likes the idea of being kingmakers but its true aim is to be wreckers. If Miliband genuinely wants Britain to stay together, why even consider joining forces with a party whose central aim is to tear Britain apart?
The idea of a weak and limping Miliband government dependent upon Alex Salmond’s support — albeit on a confidence and supply basis — is a useful second prize for the SNP. But the gold medal-winning result is another Conservative-led government lacking ‘democratic legitimacy’ north of the Tweed and Solway.
A second term for Cameron will add weight to the SNP’s claim that Scotland and England are such diverging polities that it makes less and less sense for them to be part of the same political union. The SNP’s agenda is to sue for divorce, citing irreconcilable differences.
Here we may perceive a difference between the SNP leadership and its newly swollen membership. The lion’s share of SNP voters (and, for that matter, Scots) prefer the idea of an SNP-dependent Labour government. In other words, the Tory argument ‘Vote SNP, get Labour’ encourages Scots to vote for their preferred outcome. This is worse than a dubious political strategy for the Conservatives to pursue — it is a reckless one.
Then again, Labour’s ‘Vote SNP, get the Tories’ warning is little better. It is intended to revive Labour’s vote in its besieged west of Scotland heartland, inviting Labour defectors to remember how much they hate the Tories. But this rendition of an old tune — one trotted out at every election for decades — shows little sign of persuading Labour-supporting ‘yes’ voters to return to their ancestral fold. According to one recent poll, just 8 per cent of ‘Yes’ voters plan to endorse Labour candidates in May.
And why would they return? What’s to return to? Jim Murphy, Scottish Labour’s new leader, claims a vote for Labour is a ‘patriotic’ vote but this, like so much else in Scottish politics, merely reminds voters that Scotland’s political weather is made by the SNP. Murphy appreciates that Scottish Labour must be more than just London Labour’s northern branch office, but almost all of Scottish Labour’s brightest and best — a relative term — are in London, not Edinburgh. Even Murphy only became leader in Scotland because he’d been passed over by Miliband in London.
The referendum campaign necessarily divided Scots along the line of the national question; the future of the country is plainly a greater issue than any differences over the NHS, education or even economic policy. This being so, no one should be surprised by the nationalist surge. The logic is chiselled from granite: if you voted ‘yes’ in September, why would you vote for a unionist party in May?
Moreover, if the election contest is framed as a battle to secure greater powers for the Scottish parliament (or ‘For Scotland’, to adopt the SNP’s shorthand) then voting SNP is the surest, perhaps only, way of ensuring the Scottish Question remains high on Westminster’s agenda. Even Labour voters accept that the SNP is best-placed to secure more powers for the Scottish parliament. Given that the nationalists may well become the third biggest force in a hung parliament, there will be ample scope for mischief.
If this infuriates English voters, so much the better. Alex Salmond will, in effect, be dispatched south of the border as Nicola Sturgeon’s ambassador to London’s television studios. His role is to run a guerrilla campaign, fomenting discord and division. Resisting his provocations will not be easy, not least because so few English Tories, whose arrogance is matched only by their ignorance, are aware that Labour is merely the opposition, whereas the SNP is the enemy.
The Scottish Tories see matters more clearly. In Edinburgh and Glasgow and Aberdeen, cities where the SNP is challenging Labour, there is considerable anecdotal evidence supporting the suspicion that many Tories are prepared to vote Labour, the better to thwart the nationalist advance. They would rather risk a Labour government than an SNP landslide that might put Cameron back in Downing Street. A Miliband administration is a misery that need merely be endured for five years. A nationalist victory, by contrast, risks a second independence referendum which might break the Union forever.
To the SNP, the next general election is just a staging post. Winning a majority of Scottish seats would be an excellent start, but influencing the governance of the UK is of relatively minor importance. Any deal with Labour — or even a stage-managed week of negotiations — will be conducted with the 2016 Holyrood elections in mind. An SNP majority next year would bring the power to call for a second referendum. And if a majority of Scottish voters call for one, through an SNP (and Green) vote, how can Westminster reasonably say no? This is why so many Scottish unionists will vote tactically in May: it is crucial that the nationalists’ momentum is checked now.
Then comes Europe. Should Cameron lose the election less badly than Miliband and earn a second term, he is committed to a referendum on EU membership. While Scots are more Eurosceptic than the SNP allows (a third say they would vote to leave), the English are still far more likely to vote to leave the EU. If they do, and Scotland votes to stay in, the thirst for independence might prove unquenchable. (Equally, how would England react if Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish votes determined the outcome of the EU referendum?) Cameron’s European difficulties are another opportunity for the nationalists. And a reminder that the Union can be lost in London as well as in Scotland.
It is depressing that so many English Tories are plainly more exercised by ‘threats’ from Brussels than from Edinburgh. As one Cabinet member puts it: ‘Scotland really is, now, another country: I’ve given up understanding it.’ Many have given up caring, too. It is clear that a good proportion of English Tories would accept a notional bargain in which Scottish independence was the price of levering the rump UK out of the EU. That leaves Scottish unionists, especially right-of-centre unionists, as the forlorn last-believers in a faith long since abandoned by everyone else — including those they mistakenly reckoned as their co-religionists.
Scottish votes could well determine the outcome of this general election, but the matter of Scotland — that is to say, the battle of Britain — will not be resolved this May. This is just a preliminary skirmish for the other, larger, battles that lie ahead. David Cameron would be wrong to think that his mission in May is to sneak over the finish line: his fight will have just begun. So unionists are entitled to feel a deep and heavy sense of foreboding. This election is going to be a disaster.
Tim Mongomery at The Times
Like the Greens, Nigel Farage’s party is a fractious coalition held together by protest votes. Don’t bet on it surviving
Buy land that doesn’t have permission for housebuilding. Once you’ve acquired the land you alter the planning permission. You’re the government after all. Build 500,000 homes at a cost of £100,000 per property. Spend another £50 billion on infrastructure so the new houses have roads and schools and GP surgeries. Then borrow the £100 billion total at the historically low interest rates we currently enjoy — an annual cost of £2 billion. That £2 billion can be financed by charging rents of about £400 per month on each new home. Moreover, as you sell the homes in future years, under a supercharged right-to-buy scheme, taxpayers should make a tidy return.
That should have been Natalie Bennett’s answer to the question posed by Nick Ferrari on LBC radio on Tuesday. Unfortunately for the Green party’s leader, the BBC’s Evan Davis is not her economics adviser. If she had used the explanation Mr Davis gave Newsnight viewers that evening she would have more than satisfied Mr Ferrari and his listeners. While most Green policies are nuttier than a nut cutlet, this is actually a policy that deserves cross-party support. It makes a lot more sense than throwing £20 billion of taxpayers’ money at private landlords every year in the form of housing benefit.
But, flattened by the Ferrari, she sounded like an amateur and is now something of a national laughing stock. While parties can tolerate being ignored, despised and even feared, they never want to be ridiculed. Ms Bennett’s “brain fade” does not have to be fatal, however. People aren’t voting Green because they expect to see her as prime minister or Caroline Lucas as chancellor on May 8. They’re voting to send a message. They want a greener government that spends more money on welfare and less on defence. In fact the Greens don’t really want to spend anything on defence. They think that nice Mr Putin can be persuaded to leave Ukraine over a nice cup of calming camomile tea. Ms Bennett’s car crash interview does not change the average Green voter’s calculation.
Ukip voters, by contrast, want to spend more on defence, less on welfare and quite admire Vladimir Putin. Otherwise, however, they have more in common with Green voters than they’d probably like to admit. While its immigration and European policies are pretty well known I doubt that one in 20 voters could name another Ukip policy. This might matter if people were voting Ukip because they wanted a Ukip government, but few do. They want control of immigration and hope that by voting Ukip they can shake the political establishment out of its complacency.
The man who most understands the need for a simple message is Nigel Farage. He knows that his party is hopelessly divided on many issues. While he is a pretty conventional libertarian he knows that large numbers of Ukip’s older voters are socially quite reactionary. But there isn’t just a gap between Ukip’s leadership and Ukip’s voters, there are growing gaps between Ukip’s leading lights. Patrick O’Flynn, MEP, for example, wants Ukip to move in a much more blue collar-friendly direction. He has advocated a tax on luxury goods and has welcomed George Osborne’s high rates of stamp duty on large properties. Mr Farage, however, has described such measures as “hate taxes”. O’Flynn is no ordinary MEP: he’s Ukip’s economics spokesman.
Paul Nuttall, of Ukip, wants sex education for under-11s scrapped. Mr Nuttall isn’t just Ukip’s deputy leader, he’s also its education spokesman. But, as with Ukip’s economics spokesman, don’t think that what Ukip’s education spokesman says is actually Ukip policy. That’s not how the party works. Mr Farage says he favours sex education for under-11s as part of a “rounded education”.
Earlier this week, Douglas Carswell declared in this newspaper that Enoch Powell was wrong. The many Ukippers who supported Nick Griffin’s BNP until a few years ago will not have approved, but the former Tory MP is brave and wise to take them on. While it is perfectly acceptable for Ukip to retain diverse views on luxury taxes, sex education or the future of the NHS — and Mr Carswell has been far from consistent on the healthcare issue himself — no modern party should have room for Powellite views on race.
So long as Mr Farage is Ukip’s leader this misfit coalition will probably be kept together. But how long will he stay leader? The ElectionForecast.co.uk website, run by three academics, suggests that the Tories have a 95 per cent chance of stopping Mr Farage from winning Thanet South. While this seems high I should point out that it’s not an anti-Ukip website. It also attaches a 93 per cent probability to Douglas Carswell retaining his Clacton seat.
If Ukip wins between six and a dozen seats and Mr Farage loses in Thanet, it will be difficult for him to retain his leadership. The centre of gravity of Ukip will have moved to Westminster and away from him. Without Mr Farage to keep the lid on things the fight for Ukip’s soul will then boil over. Will Ukip choose the Gladstonian reforming agenda of Mr Carswell? The populist economics of Mr O’Flynn? The anti-state libertarianism of Ukip’s earliest days? Or will it swing further leftwards to make gains in the north?
The battle for Thanet South will be one of the most important of this general election campaign. If Nigel Farage is kept out of parliament, Ukip’s misfit coalition is unlikely to last much longer.
Simon Heffer: Could the general election lead to constitutional crisis?
Another hung parliament and the ill-conceived Fixed Term Parliaments Act could compromise the country's constitution.
Although it has become a commonplace that the outcome of the general election on 7 May is less predictable than almost any in living memory, the consequences of a result that does not provide a majority government are only now beginning to be grasped. General elections are the agents of our democracy. They are supposed to ensure some relationship – however imperfect – between the will of the people and the composition of the executive that governs the United Kingdom. However, this was not strictly the case after the election in May 2010. No party won it. Once the Conservatives decided not to try to govern as a minority administration – it was never an option for Labour, with almost 50 fewer seats than their rivals – the outcome was a coalition for which, as with all coalitions formed after an election, nobody had explicitly voted. That coalition government has since then implemented a programme for which the electorate supplied no mandate, for the obvious reason that that specific programme had not been put before it at the general election.
Now it is quite feasible that what we call our democracy could be even more compromised in May. If there is a clear winner of the election, we can all continue smugly to congratulate and delude ourselves that our constitution is a model for the rest of the free world. But if there is not – as most opinion polls now suggest – the full consequences of the cocktail of constitutional changes made by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats since 2010, and by Labour after 1997, will suddenly become apparent. And it is far from impossible that they could provoke the greatest constitutional crisis in Britain since before the Great War.
Suppose no party wins outright, and the one with the largest number of seats is asked to form the government. Suppose also, for the sake of argument, that that is the Conservative Party. David Cameron, as the incumbent Prime Minister, meets parliament and offers a Queen’s Speech. His parliamentary party has made it clear it prefers minority government to more compromises with the Lib Dems; yet there may well be too few Lib Dems to give the two parties an overall majority. Even with support for him from the Democratic Unionists and Ukip MPs, he cannot carry the vote.
Labour, in this scenario, may have fewer seats than the Conservatives – thanks, perhaps, to the slump in the party’s standing in Scotland, and Ukip eating into its vote in English constituencies it hoped to win from the Tories – but with the help of the surviving Lib Dems, a much-expanded parliamentary SNP and Plaid Cymru, it can, and does, vote down a Queen’s Speech promising stringent further cuts. Cameron then resigns: and the leader of the Labour Party, for whom even fewer people voted than for the Tories, becomes prime minister. This is because the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act of 2011 allows for no dissolution when a prime minister has been defeated in the Commons on his legislative programme. If, after 14 days, Labour were to find that it could not get a Queen’s Speech through, either, there would be another election. More probably, either a rainbow coalition of the same left-leaning parties which voted down the Tory Queen’s Speech would then become the government of the United Kingdom, or Labour would run a minority government, having negotiated a confidence-and-supply arrangement with those minor parties.
However, given what has been promised to Scotland in the shape of tax-raising powers, even a confidence-and-supply arrangement could prove controversial: and this is where another constitutional change, that of devolution, could start to have profound constitutional consequences in the United Kingdom parliament and in England. Passing a Budget would almost certainly entail Scottish MPs, whether SNP, Labour or Liberal, voting for some tax-raising powers that would not affect their own constituents. And when Labour began to seek to pass measures that affected only England – say on health or education – it would, as things stand, be perfectly within its rights to do so using the votes of Scottish MPs. It would, however, remain to be seen whether the English electorate would be any happier about that than their Scottish equivalents would be for English MPs to renew their control over domestic Scottish matters. There are 533 seats for English MPs, so Labour would need to have at least 267 of them to be sure to pass any measure that affected only England using English votes alone. As it currently has 190, and even the most optimistic polls suggest Labour would pick up at most 50 to 60 English seats if the election in May goes well for it, a majority of English seats may still elude it.
Early this month William Hague set out a strange plan to deal with the democratic deficit suffered by England after devolution. It specified that the committee and report stages of any legislation that affected England alone, or England and Wales alone, would be dealt with solely by English, or English and Welsh, MPs. However, in order not to do something called “compromising the integrity of parliament”, Scottish members would be allowed to vote on the third reading.
Hague seems not to have understood that this would mean the routine vetoing of legislation proposed by a Labour government, because by third reading the shape that the legislation would be in would most likely be offensive to that government. Such bills would have been butchered by an English grand committee that would most likely be dominated by English MPs, to a point where they would have had any Labour policy hacked out of them, thereby defeating the government’s original purpose for the legislation. For example, it is quite likely that a bill on the NHS proposing to undo the Lansley reforms could have the attempt to overturn those reforms completely removed from it, making it almost pointless to pass it on third reading. However, such a ludicrous system will not be put in place before the next election because the Lib Dems would not vote for it; and whatever the outcome in May, it is unlikely to happen at all, such is the widespread dissatisfaction with it.
The SNP, which could well find itself with more than 40 seats after 7 May and therefore with the sort of clout the Irish Nationalists had while keeping Asquith in power after 1910, currently does not vote on solely English matters at Westminster. It has tried to argue that it could vote on the English National Health Service, giving the argument that funding shortages in England could drive people over the border to seek treatment in Scotland. But that is too far-fetched for many English MPs and, more to the point, for many English voters. For English MPs now to demand a say in the running of the Scottish NHS would be regarded as an outrageous and reactionary act of effrontery; it is surprising that some Scots do not see that this argument cuts both ways.
The SNP’s own credibility would be at stake if it suddenly started to vote on matters that for Scots are settled at Holyrood and in which the English have no say. The widespread assumption among Tory MPs is, however, that it would start to vote on solely English measures, however hypocritical that was. Otherwise, Labour could use its own, probably diminished, numbers of Scottish and Welsh MPs to pass measures that do not affect Scotland and Wales; but that would sit oddly with the party’s supercharged commitment to devolution and the removal of English influence from Welsh and Scottish affairs. And if the SNP realises the impropriety, given its principles, of voting on solely English issues, it would confine itself to helping Labour win votes of confidence and passing measures affecting defence, foreign affairs and the National Lottery; nonetheless a Labour administration might prove unable, without SNP support, or the support of non-English Labour MPs, to pass measures essential to the government of England.
Tory MPs are preparing to make an outcry if English laws are passed with Scottish votes, and it would be unwise to underestimate the effect such a campaign might have on the government’s standing. Since last September’s referendum, attitudes to this in England have changed. It might seem to be a quick fix for Labour in enabling it to gain power, but the resentment it could well create among an English electorate that is not stupid, and certainly smart enough to notice what the Tory press would daily call the interference of Scots in important matters that do not concern them, could cause Labour profound long-term damage. Some Labour MPs are aware of the democratically contradictory nature of this possible strategy, and deeply uneasy about it.
With Labour perhaps divided on other matters – such as the extent of the implementation of spending cuts, as recently suggested by Lord Liddle, and the general continuing criticism of the party leadership by Blairites – the government might quickly lose support during such a controversy. The SNP might also not enjoy the negative publicity, conscious of the great damage done to the Lib Dems by their participation in government. The Labour government might then find itself unable to get important measures through that would affect 85 per cent of the population of the UK, and feel it has no option but to resign. And that might in turn propel into office another minority Conservative government, quite possibly under a leader other than David Cameron, again because of the difficulty under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act of securing a dissolution. As before, if the Conservatives cannot form a government after 14 days, then there can be an election; or it would require a vote of two-thirds of the House of Commons, something unlikely to happen because it would entail large numbers of turkeys voting for Christmas. It would be much better for the country just to have another election, as was the practice previously, but the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act forbids such a simple solution. And while such a crisis plays out Britain would be at the mercy of financial speculators, and contempt among the electorate for the political process, which is already at an unhealthy level, would balloon.
Even before the ill-considered Fixed-Term Act, which senior politicians of all parties now wish to repeal, and the focus on democracy in England in the aftermath of the Scottish referendum, our electoral arrangements were far from ideal or equitable. Sometimes the party with the largest popular vote comes second in terms of numbers of seats: Labour did in 1951 and the Tories in February 1974. What has been called a “postcode lottery” means that a single vote carries far more weight in some constituencies than it does in others, in terms of the ease with which one party or another can be elected. The first-past-the-post system has long enabled the Tories and Labour to win most of the seats, while the Lib Dems, with over half the number of the main parties’ votes, have nothing like half their number of MPs. Now, it is quite possible that at the May election Ukip could register many more votes than the Lib Dems, yet end up with a small fraction of the Lib Dems’ parliamentary seats. Only the introduction of a system of proportional representation, such as is used in the European parliamentary elections, could obviate this injustice.
Yet in 2011, when at the insistence of the Lib Dems a plebiscite was held on introducing the Alternative Vote, it was roundly defeated by 68 to 32 per cent. Therefore we must assume that the public, or at least the 42 per cent who cared enough about the future of our electoral system to vote, are quite happy for the present system to continue.
What we cannot assume is public support for the Fixed-Term Act. The Lib Dems had a commitment to fixed terms in their 2010 manifesto; but the dominant partner in the eventual coalition, the Conservatives, did not. Fixed terms may work in presidential systems such as the US or France, where the head of government is elected separately from the representative assembly, and where therefore the political culture is fundamentally different. Here, the act limits the democratic option, as previously existed, of a failed government going to the country as soon as it has lost the confidence of parliament – as with the Callaghan administration in 1979; or of a government so weakened by events that it decides to seek a new mandate from the electorate, as Edward Heath unsuccessfully did in February 1974. It also prevents a government calling an election at a time of its choosing, although, as John Major found in 1997 and Gordon Brown in 2010, prime ministers do not always call correctly.
When Nick Clegg introduced the Fixed-Term Parliaments Bill in the Commons on 13 September 2010, the government front bench – as a Labour MP pointed out – was devoid of any Conservative ministers to support him. He claimed the measure was designed “to remove the right of a prime minister to seek the dissolution of parliament for pure political gain”. That was not quite true. Removing that right was indeed one of the reasons for the Lib Dems’ devotion to the idea of fixed terms. But the real reason why the promise was made immediately upon the conclusion of the coalition talks the previous May was an intervention by Sir Gus O’Donnell, the then cabinet secretary.
There are two categories of senior civil servant: those who act as true mandarins in tendering advice and implementing ministerial decisions with strict objectivity, whether they conform with that advice or not, and those who take a robust interest and keen delight in politics and the political process itself. Anyone who has come across Lord O’Donnell – as he has since become – will be aware that he belongs more to the second than to the first category. He was especially effective in Whitehall in dealing with ministers who were either inexperienced or not very bright. Cameron, whose first office of state was that of prime minister, and Clegg, whom few would expect to winMastermind, were putty in his hands. O’Donnell correctly identified that the international markets were waiting to see how serious the new government was likely to be in tackling the economic difficulties of the time, notably a deficit excessive both historically and by comparison with those of economies in the eurozone. He argued that announcing in the summer of 2010 that the next general election would not be held until 7 May 2015, barring exceptional circumstances, would constitute a promise of stability that the markets would love.
Whatever Cameron’s doubts about this – and in that way that he seems to lack conviction about almost everything, it is hard to discern whether he had strong feelings either way – he could see this might be a deal-breaker with the Lib Dems: and so, despite what he must have known would be deep hostility from many in his party, he signed up to the idea. So when Clegg, in his vapid and shallow speech on the second reading, said that the result of passing the bill would be “no more feverish speculation”, once a parliament entered its latter phase, “distracting politicians from getting on with running the country”, he told less than half the story. And those who should be running the country seem to have found plenty of distraction elsewhere to compensate for not having the date of a general election to speculate about.
One of the many points Nick Clegg seemed incapable of grasping, in choosing largely to ignore or not being able to notice that there might be other consequences of this measure, was that some displacement would occur. “The political parties end up in perpetual campaign mode,” he told MPs, “making it very difficult for parliament to function effectively.” Parliament is scarcely functioning effectively now, more than three months before an election. MPs of all parties are mostly in their constituencies, attempting to secure their re-election. Fixed term or not, that was always going to happen. The arguments to which Clegg devoted his speech in September 2010 in supporting his case for this fundamental change to the constitution have turned out mostly to be hollow.
But then he gave himself away on the day in response to an intervention by Sir Peter Tapsell, the Father of the House and widely respected on both sides of it, who first sat in the Commons in 1959, nearly eight years before Clegg was born. “Why,” asked Sir Peter, questioning the change, “do the Rt Hon Gentleman and our Prime Minister think that they are wiser than their 40 predecessors?” In a response sublimely fatuous even by the Deputy Prime Minister’s standards, he replied: “It is not a question of wisdom; it is a question of the weight of history.”
Bernard Jenkin, another Tory MP, accused the government of “gerrymandering the constitution in favour of a particular coalition” and of making up the constitution “on the hoof”. He called for a constitutional convention to weigh up the pros and cons properly. Chris Bryant, the Labour MP and historian of parliament, took issue with the five-year fixed term, pointing out that since the Reform Act 1832 parliaments, on average, had lasted three years and eight months. This was a more remarkable statistic than Bryant disclosed, because until the Parliament Act 1911 an act of 1716 required general elections to be held only every seven years. Jack Straw took up Jenkin’s point and accused the government of rushing through the bill without proper pre-legislative scrutiny. His colleague George Howarth came more directly to the point, describing the measure as “squalid in intent”.
The bill passed, but it is important to recall the extent of the doubts and fears expressed at the time by both Labour and Tory MPs, for it means that if we have a constitutional crisis caused by the act nobody can claim to have been unwarned. That 1911 act that established five-year parliaments as a maximum, and whose purpose was principally to end the veto of the House of Lords, was the result of precisely the extensive pre-legislative scrutiny and consultation that Jenkin and Straw (and many others) called for in 2010, but which in an act of scandalous dereliction, given the gravity of the measure, was entirely absent. The consequences of removing the peers’ veto – a necessary step in a country close to achieving full manhood suffrage, and which within 20 years would have extended the vote to all men and women over the age of 21 – were so completely discussed in the Commons, in the Lords, on public platforms, in the press and (most significantly) at two general elections within 11 months that very few were unaware of what they would be. And the widespread acceptance of this change to centuries of constitutional practice, as well as the absence of unpleasant surprises afterwards, were a tribute to the effectiveness of an exhaustive debate before it occurred.
The possible constitutional crisis of 2015 could be the gravest since that of 1909-11, which was occasioned by the peers’ rejection of Lloyd George’s “People’s Budget” and, once the fight over their right to throw out money bills was lost, their persistent refusal to contemplate surrendering their veto on all other measures. It was only when A J Balfour, the Unionist leader, was told in July 1911 that George V had promised Asquith, his prime minister, that he would create hundreds of Liberal peers to force the Parliament Bill through that the Unionists gave in and let the bill pass. The Lords were persuaded to surrender their veto on money bills by the Unionists’ defeat in the general election of January 1910, which forced them to pass the People’s Budget. When the peers would not agree to surrender their other veto powers Asquith requested another dissolution, and in an election in December 1910 the Unionists lost again.
Most MPs realised the game was up: many peers didn’t, hence the need for Asquith to extract the promise from the king to agree to use his prerogative to create enough peers to defeat the forces of conservatism in the upper house. But in the two years while this conflict continued, the matter was, at least, robustly discussed and extensively dissected.
Because such a debate did not precede the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, and the coalition was able to drive the measure through parliament without needing to pay attention to points of serious dissent, we stand at risk of a profoundly anti-democratic outcome from the forthcoming electoral process. This is recognised across parliament. Senior politicians from both the Conservative and Labour Parties, including Alan Duncan, Peter Tapsell, Jack Straw, Gerald Kaufman and Kenneth Clarke, have all called in recent weeks for the act to be repealed. Given that the present parliament has so little to do, it is a wonder that the Conservative Party – which has never liked the act – does not make common cause with the substantial number of Labour objectors and seek to repeal the bill now, before the election. It would hardly matter if that broke the coalition, which has but a few weeks to live in any case.
If that should mean that 2015 was a year of two elections, so be it. At least the second election would give the public the opportunity to reflect upon the indecisive outcome of the first, and to choose whether they wished to cast their votes differently. This is important not least because of the position with Scotland, and the growing controversy over the exercise of votes on English issues by Scottish MPs. If that question, raised by Tam Dalyell 40 years ago, is to be settled in a way that inspires the confidence of all concerned, it has to be settled by a government with proper democratic legitimacy. But if the British are to have a democracy in which they can properly believe, they cannot tolerate governments that come about contrary to the will of the people, and then are allowed to rule indefinitely because the mechanism to remove them has been abolished. The one lesson that should, above all, have been learned from the past 20 years or so, is that if a government decides to unpick parts of the British constitution, it should not begin to do so until all the consequences have been exhaustively considered, and – in keeping with the best ideas of a democracy – until the public has signalled its approval at a general election.
What do you think? Has the moving hand written “Mene Mene Teckle” on the wall for the end of the days of the United Kingdom?