National Rot, Patent Remedy

By Chris Patten and Andrew Neil | The Independent (London, England), September 15, 1995 | Go to article overview
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National Rot, Patent Remedy

Chris Patten and Andrew Neil, The Independent (London, England)

Chris Patten, Governor of Hong Kong and former Tory chairman, weighs the case for change

Home Thoughts from Abroad are invariably an annoying provocation to those yoked to the domestic agenda. I have tried to eschew giving offence for the past three years. But Trappist caution is challenged by Andrew Marr's entertaining polemic, which will detonate an avalanche of prejudices wherever it is read. And it does deserve to be read widely. Mr Marr has become one of our foremost political commentators; his amiable common sense illuminates every column. So I hope he will not mind if one of his admirers notes that, like most of us, he is better at description than prescription.

To be fair to Mr Marr, he never pretends to have a boxed set of answers. Arguably that is for politicians, not commentators. But it is none the less mildly frustrating to get to the end of an interesting discussion of the European Union's institutional challenges, and a brief set of proposed remedies, and be told that if we don't much care for any of this we shouldn't blame the author, who is, after all, "no constitution writer".

Well, no, but if Mr Marr and other constitution rebuilders want us to take their premises more seriously, they should have a bit more confidence about their solutions.

Mr Marr's central argument is familiar from Primrose Hill to East Sheen. Few join Dicey these days in celebrating the matchless charms of our constitutional arrangements and ascribing to them our prosperity, order and liberty. Local democracy has, it is argued, been hacked down. Westminster - said to be the sovereign bulldozer - looks to the critics a ramshackle irrelevance, vainly seeking some way of exercising democratic control over European institutions.

The courts challenge executive decisionsmore and more often and puzzle over the tensions between domestic and European law. Scotland presses for its own parliament. Globalisation of markets, money and information sweeps over national boundaries and sweeps aside national pretensions about sovereignty.

Mr Soros passes judgement on currencies and chancelleries, and all the economic excitement seems to have drained away to India and East Asia. Political parties, rusted Dreadnoughts, pound one another with ideological ammunition long past its sell-by date. The "unmistakable signal of degeneration now", Mr Marr asserts, "is fuzziness and confusion, the destruction of clear lines of responsibility and blame".

There are three reactions to all this. First, some say that nothing is wrong. They may agree with Burke that "it has been the misfortune . . . of the age that everything is to be discussed, as if the constitution of our country were to be always a subject rather of altercation than enjoyment". Or they may have a slightly queasy feeling that all is not well, but reckon that the best advice in such circumstances is: "Don't just do something - stand there."

The next category is those who largely buy the analysis but aren't sure what to do. "Something must be done," they argue, and hope that a good working model of "something" can be found soon.

Third, there are those who know exactly what is required: the constitutional Lego-builders. Given a weekend and the back of an envelope, a new constitutional settlement can be swiftly devised. There are several models on offer, for example those devised by Charter 88, the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Institute for Public Policy Research.

I find myself on the move, at least under cover of darkness, between categories one and two. Something must probably be done for two reasons on which Mr Marr only lightly touches. We are certainly going to face serious institutional challenges in Europe, not as we follow single currencies up a cul-de-sac but as we wrestle with the strategic and political problems of central and eastern Europe. We are told so often that the European Union was established so that there would be no more wars in Europe.

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