The Big Tent Ideas Festival

Stepping Stones Report - Goals and Risks - Brexit - EU Referendum

Searching for the missing conservative soul in a Berkshire field

Various people have been raving about an event which took place last week in Twyford, Berkshire, where Conservative MP George Freeman set up a few yurts in a field and held an impromptu late-summer symposium on how to renew British conservatism.

The Big Tent Ideas Festival is a laudable ongoing effort to refresh and reset British conservatism while the Tory party is still in government, as opposed to waiting until they languish in opposition. This is easier said than done – as anybody can plainly see, Theresa May’s listless and fratricidal government has run out of what little ideological steam it inherited from David Cameron’s equally muddled tenure. Now they sit, idling in neutral, on the cusp of making an almighty mess of Brexit and being kicked out of office without a single lasting achievement to their name.

Mark Wallace of Conservative Home was in attendance, and describes the extent of the challenge:

The Right’s challenge is that time in government saps the energy, and increases the centralisation, of any movement. The never-ending trials of running the country drag in, and burn through, many of the policies and people. Indeed, we produce our best ideas and develop our greatest new talents when the variety of interests that exist across the centre right movement have room to breathe and freedom to operate. Often that happens in Opposition – the Party’s apparatus, authority and powers of patronage are more limited, and there’s a clear objective to pursue.

That’s as true for Labour as it is for the Conservatives – consider the contrast in energy between the respective camps of Major and Blair, or Brown and Cameron. The task for our movement today is to break that cycle: to renew and innovate now, while the Conservative Party is still in power. To do so requires us to recapture that freedom and urgency enjoyed in the years between 2004 and 2010, which saw such fertile growth of new thinking and campaigning organisations, the development of new outlets to communicate our ideas (not least ConservativeHome), the development of a raft of strong, new policies and the emergence of a generation of talented campaigners, thinkers and communicators.

The Big Tent is currently focusing on three main strands of renewal: Social Renewal, Political Renewal and Economic Renewal. Fair enough – these designations seem to make sense. And some of the questions being debated across all three areas resonate very strongly with topics that this blog cares deeply about, namely:

  • What are the causes of the deepening crisis of disconnection between government and the citizens it is supposed to serve?
  • How do we define a meaningful notion of citizenship with reciprocal responsibilities with the state, which works for us all?
  • How do we better support our third sector and encourage volunteering?
  • How do we reform our benefits system?
  • How do we build lifelong learning, from antenatal, through the early years, school and adulthood, and incorporating resilience, emotional and social learning, as well as key skills? How do we get parents and communities to support this in the poorest areas?
  • Is the rise of extremism – to left and right – a function of failure in the mainstream centre or simple liberation of the radical fringes?
  • Given the public’s rejection of mass low wage migration, how can we achieve the transformational skills and training revolution of the UK workforce which has defied policymakers for 150 years?

And particularly:

  • How do we embed lifelong learning to increase workforce resilience for the coming tech change tsunami so we do not make the same terrible mistakes as happened in 1980s mining areas (and from which we have still not recovered)?

Remarkably, though, the housing crisis was not called out as a separate issue for discussion, even though it is the pre-eminent challenge driving a wedge between the Tory party and otherwise potentially sympathetic voters. This is a very curious feat of omission, to the extent one wonders whether it can have been accidental. As with Conservative policy since 2010 there seems to be a deliberate refusal to acknowledge the need to do anything which might annoy the current rural, home-owning, NIMBYish Tory base by threatening the continual upward trajectory in the value of their houses.

This is short-sighted, and needs to be addressed urgently. Housing should be one of the absolute key issues being debated by the Big Tent, not something whispered about on the margins or tangentially as part of another discussion. In the 2017 general election, the Tories did not win a majority of any demographic until the average age ticked over fifty. Fifty! Conservatives no longer merely have a problem with youth voters, though we are certainly more radioactive than ever among this crowd. We are now almost equally unpopular among young professionals and people in early middle age.

At least the Tories of Margaret Thatcher’s day had some slick city Yuppies with stripy shirts and enormous cellphones in their corner. I have lived and worked in a professional capacity in London for a decade now, and can count the number of fellow “out of the closet” conservatives in my social circle on two hands, with fingers to spare. That CCHQ does not presently view this deficit among young, educated voters as an existential crisis speaks volumes about their complacency and sheer incompetence.

This is a demographic time bomb waiting to explode in the Conservative Party’s face. The metaphorical conveyor belt carrying young idealists from left-wingery to conservatism as they age cannot be taken for granted – it has only worked in recent decades because as people get older, government policy has allowed them to acquire a greater stake in society, primarily through home and equity ownership. People do not just magically start voting Conservative when they get their first grey hair, and people who have been consistently screwed over by selfish, short-termist policies which pander to the Tory base at the expense of the wider national interest will develop a lasting antipathy to the Conservative Party and to conservatism in general.

Dodging the housing issue is not an option. It must be tackled head-on, and (unlike Theresa May’s “dementia tax” debacle) it must be done with care and sensitivity. So long as Jeremy Corbyn or somebody like him leads the Labour Party, the Tories will have a bit of political cover to do something radical on housing – even if it enrages a section of their base, few of these people will defect to a Labour Party eager to tax them to death. Failing to act before Labour falls back into centrist hands means that the Conservatives’ scope for manoeuvre will be greatly reduced.

Additionally, while the tripartite focus on social issues is laudable at first glance, this area should not be allowed to dominate the discussion as it dominated much of Cameronism and now Theresa May and Nick Timothy’s very statist, paternalistic brand of conservatism.

Yet Toby Guise at The American Conservative reports that the “society” tent was by far the most popular:

The mainly young delegates heard speakers in tents marked “politics,” “economics,” and “society.” Tellingly, the last of these was the largest—with a program that opened with pitches from the founders of two significant charities focused on social exclusion. This theme reflected the fact that accusations of a compassion-deficit are at the heart of Labour’s attack on the Conservatives.

This reflects the current priorities and incentives for success in conservative Westminster politics. Being seen as a beardy Nick Timothy acolyte seeking to extend government influence into every home and mind is viewed as trendy and forward-thinking, while sitting at a desk thinking about how to encourage entrepreneurship and decrease reliance on the state is seen as excessively “ideological”.

It may sound harsh, but conservative renewal will not come about by focusing relentlessly on social issues, as though the state can and should provide an answer to every single social ill in Britain. It is tempting to believe that government must fill this expansive role these days, especially since the Tories are pounded day after day by Labour’s wobbly-lipped moralisers about how they are supposedly so callous and unfeeling. It is only natural in these circumstances to want to begin offering scattergun policy prescriptions to address every last issue which happens to excite the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Indeed, the phrase “compassionate conservatism” only plays into the Left’s hands by wrongly conceding that ordinary vanilla conservatism is somehow cruel and uncompassionate, and that we can only redeem ourselves by accepting statist, left-wing talking points and policies. This is a dangerous nonsense.

People say that they are interested in social justice and equality, particularly at dinner parties, when talking to pollsters or otherwise needing to make themselves look good. But when they are in the privacy of the voting booth they actually care about the economy and the general direction of the country. That means that to make a measurable difference in the fortunes of the Conservative Party, the Big Tent should focus primarily on the Economic and Political renewal branches, trusting that improving the overall health of the nation and spurring the reinvigoration of civil society will improve conditions for all. Rather than more government intervention, we need to create the conditions for a rapid growth of charitable (real charities, not 90% government-funded money laundering outfits) and private solutions to entrenched social problems rather than the clunky, failed attempts at social engineering preferred by New Labour and their successor Tory governments.

The good news is that there is precedent for all of this. In 1977, the “Stepping Stones” report was published by the late John Hoskyns and Norman Strauss, two businessmen (at IBM and Unilever respectively) who took it upon themselves to diagnose the “British disease” which threatened to doom us to long-term national decline, and propose radical solutions. Crucially, the treatment prescribed by Stepping Stones was not a mixed basket of scattergun solutions to individual problems, but rather a coherent package of reforms which sought to simultaneously treat all of the symptoms of the British disease while also identifying and destroying the root cause (the grip of statist socialism and the unions).

The Britain of the 1970s, wallowing deep in the failing post-war consensus, can hardly be described as being highly receptive to radical right-wing thinking at the time Stepping Stones was published. But that didn’t matter – Hoskyns and Strauss managed to get the ear of aides to Margaret Thatcher back when she was still Leader of the Opposition, and when she walked into Downing Street in 1979 she did so with Stepping Stones in her handbag and on her mind. Then, as now, the important thing to begin with was not that the country understands the entire plan or knows that the Tories view the current status quo as a disease to be cured, but just that the government seems to have energy and purpose again. The plan will reveal itself in good time, just as Stepping Stones did.

That doesn’t mean that the Tories can avoid coming up with a better narrative than “Strong and Stable” or “Brexit means Brexit”. These were appalling battle cries with which to fight the 2017 general election, and deserved to be mercilessly picked apart and ridiculed by the media and a newly-confident Labour Party. A new narrative is certainly needed, but this must be both authentically conservative and it must avoid clashing with policies that the government intends to adopt. For instance, it is no good for the Tories to publicly wring their hands about such-and-such social issue when they have little intention of directly tackling it through the levers of government. That’s why I am hesitant to support the Big Tent’s heavy focus on social renewal – it opens up endless opportunities for the sanctimonious parties of the Left to attack us for weasel words or hypocrisy, while at the very best all we can hope to do is fight the socialists to a draw.

But of course, back in 1977-79 all of this ideological and rhetorical renewal was done from the relative comfort and obscurity of opposition. Now, an intellectually exhausted Tory Party must effectively perform the same feat while in government and seeing their worldview held accountable for every little thing that goes wrong up and down the land. This is a much harder task, bordering on the impossible.

Yet that is exactly what we need. We need a new Stepping Stones report for the Britain of 2017, recognising that the challenges we face today – globalisation, automation, mass migration, Islamist terror and Brexit – are very different to those faced by the incoming Thatcher government in 1979, but that these contemporary problems must be tackled with exactly the same spirit and according to the same conservative values.

Hopefully the Big Tent can play an important role in this process. If nothing else, it is hugely encouraging to see somebody, anybody else finally acknowledge that the Conservative Party does actually need to renew itself and come up with a compelling conservative vision for Britain rather than arrogantly waiting for Jeremy Corbyn to fail. This blog has been something of a voice in the wilderness on this topic since mid way through the coalition government – hammering home the point here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, herehere and here – but it is good to be belatedly joined by a chorus of establishment journalists and conservative commentators who have finally woken up to the fact that the Tories need an explicitly ideological answer to Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s resurgent socialism.

Toby Guise is broadly hopeful that the Big Tent has potential:

Disheartened conservatives should remember that cultural Marxism was born out of weakness not strength—specifically, the failure of Western proletariats to obey Marxist doctrine by revolting during World War One. Since the fall of Communism, the strategy has been pursued with ever-greater vigour as a displacement activity from discussing discredited economic ideas. When British Labour politicians are put on the spot about policy, they often flounder spectacularly. Yet the overall direction of travel in Jeremy Corbyn’s speech today at the Labour national convention was clear: towards a Venezuelan-style command economy based on nationalization and authoritarianism. Equipped with this tried-and-failed policy program, it’s no surprise that the party machine diverts as much attention away from economics and onto kulturkampf. By refusing to engage this strategy—and instead directing attention firmly onto clear-minded political solutions that make markets work for all—the Big Tent Ideas Festival is precisely the right type of response.

Mark Wallace was also pleasantly surprised:

I’m pretty sure I saw some Hunter wellies, and some conversations did occasionally threaten to induce a minor wince. But, if we’re honest, there was probably less of each of those phenomena to be seen in the beautiful Berkshire sun than there will be in Manchester next week.

Crucially, they did not outweigh the value of the event, which grew on me as the day went on. Here were Conservatives, entrepreneurs, inventors, charity founders, policy experts, young people, older people and a mix of journalists and politicians talking about ideas for a whole day. That shouldn’t be unusual, but it is. The election, and the problems suffered by the Conservative Party among certain key demographics, was the inevitable backdrop to the discussion, but the Big Tent encouraged people to exchange views openly, to hear experiences alien to their own, and to consider how their principles might be applied to real world issues.

With about 220 people in attendance, it wasn’t a lobbying-fest, or a jockeying arena for glad-handing and card-swapping. It felt more like what I’d imagine to be Steve Hilton’s ideal wedding reception (except with more shoes): tents and bunting, a good buffet, and a bar of sustainably-produced beverages, along with speeches about the environment, prison reform and the impact of technology on democratic culture.

This wasn’t a representative sample of the Conservative Party, still less of the electorate, either socially or ideologically, but I found it refreshing to see people applying their minds and experiences to pressing problems.

I have also now volunteered my time and effort to the cause. And in a way, I will regard whether my offer of help is taken up as a sign of whether the Big Tent has the potential to be a useful vehicle for conservative renewal. Not because I am so amazing, talented and inspired that I can single-handedly save British conservatism, but because if they start listening to independent bloggers and other voices (besides the usual MPs, journalists, Westminster types, charity representatives and community organisers) then it will be a clear sign that British conservatism is willing to entertain ideas from outside the bubble. That having hit intellectual rock bottom they are finally willing to take a dispassionate look at their failings and make some vital changes.

Stepping Stones, which literally formed the blueprint for saving Britain from 1970s-style national decline, was not borne of a cosy conversation between people inside the Westminster political elite. It took outsiders – from the world of business, in this instance – to hold a mirror up to the country and to the establishment, showing them that the old path was unsustainable and that new ideas, previously dismissed as unworkable or politically unpalatable, were required to get Britain back on track.

We need a new Stepping Stones report for the Britain of 2017, and a Conservative Party with the ambition, courage and clarity of thinking to get on and carry out its recommendations, effectively executing a dramatic mid-term course change rather than waiting fearfully for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party to cast them back into opposition.

God speed to the Big Tent and the work they are doing; Lord knows that it is desperately needed.

 

Stepping Stones Report - Wiring Diagram

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Like, Why Can’t British Politicians Talk Fancy No More?

Great political speeches are only possible when there are great ideas to be expressed, and great leaders to express them

After watching the semi-famous video of former Labour minister Peter Shore arguing passionately against Britain’s membership of the EEC during a 1970s Oxford Union debate, Mark Wallace of Conservative Home has realised that the quality of contemporary British political oratory is perhaps not what it once was.

Wallace observes:

What’s striking is to try to list the modern speeches by Parliamentarians which have achieved the same quality. I’ve wracked my brains and, frankly, I can’t think of any. To be quite honest, while there are many excellent MPs in today’s House of Commons, I can’t think of a single one who speaks so well. Probably the most famous good speech of recent years was delivered by Hilary Benn, in the Syria debate – but watch it back, and you’ll see that while it was effective, it was done with notes and is still seen as exceptional rather than normal.

Depressingly, most of our Parliamentarians do not seem to prize public speaking. Indeed it’s a fairly regular occurrence to see some of them apparently struggling to convincingly read out loud from a bit of paper. Many are perfectly serviceable speakers, but compare modern performances to those from 40 or 50 years ago and it seems that today’s greats are not as great, the average is somewhat worse than it was, and the worst are now really quite dire.

Indeed. In actual fact, Hilary Benn’s speech on Syria wasn’t particularly good at all – it is memorable mostly because of the dramatic circumstances of its delivery during a period of unrest over Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, not the rhetorical exhortations of a man with all the charisma of a Quentin Blake illustration.

People also frequently praise the speeches of leftist politicians such as Mhairi Black (whose maiden speech in the House of Commons went drearily viral all over social media), but these speeches are also not particularly well-constructed or persuasive – they are simply very emotive, which makes them seem good in an age when feelings trump reason and reality TV has diminished our collective capacity to think.

Wallace continues:

Somewhere along the way, we ceased to value oratorical skill in our politicians. Perhaps it was the decline of the public meeting and the rise of soundbite-dominated TV campaigning that did it. Or maybe the decision not to teach school pupils how to debate left millions unduly intimidated by the idea of even trying to speak in front of an audience. There’s also a suspicion in some quarters that public speaking is somehow inherently elitist – a fallacy, given the many great orators who once arose, largely self-taught, from the union movement in particular, but a self-fulfilling belief, in that if you tell the majority of kids that only the rich and posh do speeches then you run the risk that they will believe you.

This is a clear loss to the character and effectiveness of our politics. How often do we hear people lament that politics is boring, that its main characters are bland, or that they don’t understand what it’s all about? It cannot have helped to have reduced the art and feeling in how we communicate about politics, and abandoned a means to compellingly communicate often complex concepts to mass audiences.

I am very glad that Mark Wallace and Conservative Home have woken up to the crisis in British political rhetoric. This blog has been lamenting the abysmal quality of British political speechwriting (and delivery) for years, not least here, here, here, here, here and here. Hopefully with the “bigger guns” of ConHome now trained on the problem we might force the discussion into the mainstream.

But good political rhetoric does not exist in a vacuum. Contra Mark Wallace and Peggy Noonan, the internet and social media are not a guaranteed friend of good political speechwriting, heralding a coming renaissance in speechifying. While it is true that some political YouTubers are able to gather massive numbers of followers with their witty or acerbic rants, I can’t think of any high profile social media activists who communicate in a genuinely persuasive way.

Case in point: if one looks at the likes of Owen Jones on the hard left or Paul Joseph Watson on the conspiratorial/alt-right (nobody outside the extremes has much of a following), these people are good only at preaching to the converted in order to generate clicks and likes. They will hardly ever cause somebody to reconsider their own deeply held convictions unless a process of personal political transition is already underway. This also applies to the likes of The Young Turks, Steven Crowder, Ben Shapiro and other voices in American politics, some of whom are good, but who tend not to do bipartisan outreach.

No, the art of British political speechwriting can only be revived if there is a simultaneous renaissance in British political thinking. And there are precious few signs of such a revival taking place any time soon. Right now both main parties are pretty much intellectually dead. The Labour centrists, utterly exhausted and discredited after the Blair/Brown years, are finished – and in their place is a holdover from the 1970s in the form of Jeremy Corbyn. Meanwhile, the soft and non-threatening quasi-conservatism of Cameron/Osborne gave way to the statist paternalism of Theresa May, another throwback to the 1970s which can hardly be considered progress.

Nowhere was this dearth of visionary thinking mirrored by equally uninspired rhetoric reflected more clearly than in the EU referendum campaign. This was a highly consequential, even existential political decision for the people of Britain, and yet rather than bold speeches and compelling narratives on either side we were offered little more than glib soundbites and canned catchphrases.

As I wrote at the time:

When the history of Britain’s 2016 EU referendum comes to be written, what will we remember? Of all the particularly dramatic moments in the campaign to date, none of them have been speeches. Sure, sometimes the fact of a speech has been newsworthy, such as when an unexpected establishment figure has been wheeled out to say that Brexit will usher in the apocalypse, but the content – the oratory itself – has rarely raised hairs or stiffened spines.

In fact, proving Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous assertion that great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events and small minds discuss people, the media has determinedly reported almost exclusively on the latter two. Of course that is always the temptation for journalists, but our politicians have hardly given the media much to work with on the ideas front, even if they were minded to cover them.

This is a depressing state of affairs. This most important debate should be bringing out the best in our politicians and our media. We should be witnessing a straight-up fight between advocates of the democratic, independent nation state and those who ardently believe in the euro-federalist dream, adjudicated by a press corps  beholden to neither side and always willing to challenge baseless assertions rather than merely provide a “fair and balanced” platform for two partisan idiots to yell at each other for an equal amount of time.

We will not see a revival in political speechmaking in this country until British politicians actually start having ideas and advocating policies worthy of grander rhetoric. So long as there remains in place a technocratic, managerialist consensus between centre-left and centre-right (which very much remains the case and has only been partially broken by Brexit), there will be no bold new ideas in British politics, and in turn there will be no speeches worth listening to.

When even the prime minister of our country sees her role as more of a glorified Comptroller of Public Services than a world leader representing a great and consequential nation, why would we expect her speeches to be any more memorable than the platform announcements at Waterloo station? And if the prime minister’s words are so utterly uninspiring and inconsequential then why bother listening to the words of those who are not even at her level, but merely vying to replace her in that diminished role?

Our current political debates are often petty and parochial, and so are the words we use to fight them. And those issues which might potentially generate bold ideas matched by bold words tend to be furiously ignored by political leaders – look at their refusal to properly confront the Islamist threat, or the staggeringly superficial debate about Brexit.

Great political rhetoric only occurs when there are great issues at stake and great minds willing and able to tackle them. Think of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself“, delivered as the American economy buckled under the Great Depression. John F. Kennedy’s “We choose to go to the moon” speech at Rice University, setting the United States the ambitious goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth. Winston Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches“, given after Britain’s deliverance at Dunkirk. Ronald Reagan’s “Tear down this wall“, made at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin (and ironically helping to usher in the post-Cold War world which for all its wonders also sucked much of the vitality from Western politics, together with our raison d’être).

And maybe part of the reason that there are no great contemporary British political speeches reflects our diminished status in the world, no longer a superpower or the pre-eminent actor in world affairs. Lofty words are easier to reach for when one reasonably expects that they might reshape the world. Perhaps this is why American political oratory has undergone a similar decline in the post-Reagan era, now that Pax Americana is drawing to an end and the uncertain new multipolar world emerges.

But one thing is certain: without conviction politics, there can be no speeches of great conviction. At best, a centrist or technocratic politician might be able to mimic the grandeur and cadences of famous speeches – as President Obama did so effectively, talking loftily of hope and change while a very different reality played out on the ground – but they will never truly achieve that perfect synergy of subject, argument and tone that is the hallmark of a great speech.

Why are there no great contemporary British political speeches? Well, try picturing one in your head, given the kind of issues we typically argue about and the politicians who represent us.

Imagine future historians studying the impact of rousing speeches about lowering corporation tax by a few percentage points or abolishing the so-called “bedroom tax”.

Imagine schoolchildren memorising the words to that famous speech opposing HS2 or supporting the renationalisation of Southern Rail.

Picture a crowd of thousands of people brought to its feet in genuine excitement by a pledge to reduce NHS waiting times by 15 percent in the next parliament, hire a few hundred more nurses or increase the minimum wage to an astronomic £8 an hour by the year 2020.

And there’s your answer.

Winston Churchill speech to Canadian Parliament - 1941

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As The World Burns, Britain’s Political System Remains Broken And Neglected

 

If it suddenly feels as though there are more loud-mouthed juveniles wandering about during the daytime, it is because both the nation’s schools and the House of Commons have wrapped up their business and gone home for the summer holiday. But while no one should begrudge our young people or their harried teachers a much-deserved break, Westminster’s politicians are returning to their constituencies with few solid accomplishments to their credit, and with the very effectiveness of Parliament itself now in question.

While the world is captivated by the latest slaughter in Israel and Gaza, and scrambles to respond to Russia’s aggressive expansionism and the downing of flight MH17, a number of far less dramatic but equally intractable problems continue to chip away at British democracy and our political institutions. Normally, these “dull” issues only see the light of day at election time – at which point everyone stops to wring their hands about how terrible it is that so few people bothered to vote, or (heresy of heresies) that they voted for UKIP – but a pair of articles in the Spectator and at Conservative Home  sound an early warning that we would all do well to heed before we get distracted by the 2015 general election campaign.

The Spectator piece, by James Forsyth, starts by bemoaning the fact that so many of the ex-ministers recently departed from David Cameron’s Cabinet following the reshuffle have also elected to stand down as MPs at the 2015 general election. But it grows into a broader, important discussion about the kind of MPs that we should want debating legislation and holding the executive to account in the Commons:

Most of those leaving are not doing so because they are past retirement age. Sir George Young might be 73, but William Hague, Andrew Lansley and David Willetts are only in their fifties and Greg Barker is a mere 48. When they go, they will take expertise and experience that the Commons desperately needs to do its job properly. Former ministers play a particular role in the Commons’ ability to scrutinise what the government is doing.

Although the details of each ministerial case are different, Forsyth correctly taps into an increasing sense among many current and aspiring MPs that the only goal worth shooting for is a top-level Cabinet position, and that any other trajectory (a brief tenure as a junior minister or a few terms on the backbenches) is an unacceptable outcome for their political career.

Forsyth then makes an important point about an over-emphasis on youth which seems to attract the ‘wrong’ kind of young people into Westminster politics (such as Labour candidate Emily Benn):

This emphasis on youth precludes people having had a long career outside of politics. One doesn’t have to agree with the former minister who says that ‘we have the worst of all worlds — people who aspire only to be managers but can’t manage’ to think that it is unfortunate that the ambitious feel they have to stand for office before they have had time to reach the top of another profession.

This complaint ties in very strongly with this blog’s own concern at the lack of real ‘citizen politicians’, people whose sense of civic duty compels them to take a mid- or late-career break to sit in the House of Commons representing their constituents for just one or two terms of office. Of course there are always a handful of one-hit wonders, but most one-term departures are a result of losing re-election, scandal, failing to achieve work/life balance or bitterness that plans for rapid promotion and the acquisition of power and prestige did not come to fruition.

Indeed, an MP voluntarily leaving Parliament for a reason other than these typical motivations is almost guaranteed to be newsworthy, as it was when Conservative MP Dan Byles, of the 2010 intake, announced his decision not to seek re-election. And instances of British political candidates pledging upfront to serve only a single term or a set number of terms are almost non-existent.

Forsyth’s twin solutions are quite radical – he proposes increasing constituency sizes to dramatically cut the number of MPs to around the 400 mark, which would make it harder for them to be coerced into wasting time going to battle  for individual constituents and their personal problems, something which better falls under the remit of local government. (It should, however, be noted that US congressional districts are as much as ten times larger than UK constituencies, and American representatives are still expected to fulfil this role).

But ultimately, Forsyth believes it may be necessary to split the executive from the legislature and impose a separation of powers in Britain once and for all. This really is quite visionary stuff, and would form part of the comprehensive UK-wide constitutional reform that Semi-Partisan Sam has long advocated. If the legislature and the executive were separate, the quality and effectiveness of the House of Commons would be less polluted by the presence of young whippersnappers who regarded their seats and duties to their constituents as a mere springboard to higher office. The opposition to such a split would be immense and the details would need to be worked out – would all government positions be purged from the Commons, necessitating a separate election for Prime Minister, for example – but it is a fascinating idea worthy of serious discussion.

Meanwhile, Mark Wallace at Conservative Home has the House of Lords in his sights, arguing that the size of the upper chamber (rapidly nearing 1000 peers) is too large, too inefficient and so stuffed with “cronies and failed politicians” that the ability of the chamber’s subject matter experts to properly scrutinise legislation is severely limited.

With a very unflattering comparison to the 3000-member Chinese National People’s Congress, Wallace explains that such a large body can only be a recipe for confusion:

The swelling ranks are an outcome of the Lords’ confused role. On the one hand, the Upper House is meant to scrutinise legislation as a home of expertise; on the other, it is a tool for morale and political management in the Commons – convenient vacancies are created on the green benches by bumping MPs up, patronage (or the hope of receiving it) is extended to maintain party discipline, and partisan appointments are made in the hope of improving the chances for Government legislation …

The Mail‘s description of many appointees as “cronies and failed politicians” is too often correct – we are meant to get experts, but a lot of the time we get party apparatchiks, trade union officials and the great and good from Whitehall and the media. For every great debate, like that on assisted dying, there are a dozen in which the prevailing ideological trends of our left wing establishment are recited as fact.

It’s hard to argue with that assessment. Semi-Partisan Sam was in the public gallery at the House of Lords on Wednesday, and was shocked by the perfunctory laziness with which Oral Questions was rushed through, the sloppy way in which the self-regulating peers kept (or rather didn’t keep) order, and the sheer amount of timewasting that takes place as the House resolves itself into a committee, out of a committee or divides for a vote (mechanics that are rarely seen by the British people as the House of Lords proceedings tend to be shown only in highlight reels by the BBC). Quite why many of the peers filling the benches for Oral Questions were there at all was a mystery, given their disinterested faces and sleepy postures – until one remembers the £300 daily allowance.

Reform of this sleepy and dysfunctional institution will not be easy – the most recent plans, hammered out in the coalition negotiations in 2010, were abandoned when Conservatives reneged on their agreement to support the changes. But at a time when any mention of House of Lords reform is met with sighs and knowing warnings that it can’t be done, Wallace’s proposal for an easy quick win on the issue should garner support from everyone:

We do agree on a starting point, though: the numbers must be reduced to make the House functional. David Steel’s proposals to require members to commit to being active, working Peers or face expulsion and to introduce an age limit both have merit and would go some way towards fixing the problem.

Yes, it would. We still see the problem of peers “clocking in” to Parliament to be eligible for their daily allowance, while otherwise doing nothing to contribute to the workings of the institution or the democratic process. Accepting an ennoblement should be contingent on making a commitment to turn up for work and do the job. The current situation – where there are life terms, no upper age limits, no requirement to actually do any work and no simple procedure for removing lazy or criminal peers – is a virtual incentive for poor performance and represents the antithesis to a well functioning upper chamber.

None of these very unsexy constitutional issues are likely to set the world on fire, not when so many pressing international human tragedies are doing such a fine job of keeping it aflame in the worst possible way. But we in Britain have a nasty habit of ignoring pressing questions about how we want to govern ourselves and make decisions, allowing them to smoulder untended in the background until events cause them to suddenly burst to life in a wildfire of public outrage.

Think back to 2010, and the pompous outrage that met the formation of a Conservative-led coalition government that “nobody voted for”. It’s certainly true that there was no box on the ballot paper marked “Cameron & Clegg Double Act”, and so in that strict sense the plaintiffs are correct. But we all went into that 2010 general election knowing (or deliberately choosing to remain ignorant of) the way that our voting system worked, and that a hung parliament was a possibility. If the people do not have the proactivity or the attention span to think about these possibilities and make their preferences known beforehand, there are no grounds for complaint when Sir Gus O’Donnell and other senior civil service mandarins facilitate a resolution of their own behind closed doors.

In the same way, we all know (or deliberately choose to remain ignorant about) the variable calibre of politicians that are currently attracted to Westminster, and the hazy unwritten rules and conventions which govern Parliament’s workings. But as well as being cognisant of the problem, we are also now armed with a few radical suggestions for digging ourselves out of our democratic deficit.

With a small window before the 2015 general election campaign to get these issues debated and make them part of the policy discussion before the parties publish their manifestos, advocates of constitutional reform should see this moment as a rare opportunity.