Letter from London: New Orchestra, Same Tune (Parliament)

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WAYNE HUNT is a member of the Department of Political Studies at Mount Allison University. He spent the 1996-97 academic year as visiting scholar at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. In 1997 he was a visiting fellow in international studies at the London School of Economics.

British politics is made interesting by its contradictions. One of the most important also seems to draw the least comment. The new Labour government is committed to the modernization of the great institutions of state in order to create a more meritocratic society. Yet it seems quite comfortable with the most antiquated and least meritocratic of these institutions: the monarchy. How is this paradox to be explained? Part of the reason has to do with another antiquated and far from meritocratic institution: parliament.

PARLIAMENT structures public discourse into polar positions. The system is meant to provide for a government and a government-in-waiting. Conventional opinion had it that the Conservatives, who had been in office since Margaret Thatcher first assumed the prime ministership in 1979, were simply tired and bereft of ideas. This became an axiom of journalistic truth. But, as with all matters of conventional wisdom, there was both more to this and less than was at first assumed. The more lies with the notion that the Iron Lady's notoriously strained relationship with the Queen went beyond personalities.

The most incisive commentary upon this came from a political philosopher at Oxford, John Gray, who argued that Thatcher did indeed create a social and economic revolution, thus the "ism." But the Tory embrace of unfettered market forces hollowed out the very institutions upon which the life of the community had depended. This argument was not new; Gray was developing a thesis that other philosophers, such as Jurgen Habermas and Alasdair MacIntyre, had already given a wide currency. But Gray took the argument out of the realm of abstract reasoning and applied it to practical questions of public policy, where it provided a more cogent analysis than the conventional assumptions about government fatigue and lack of creativity. A thorough examination of the Conservative Manifesto in the recent election shows that the party was indeed capable of innovation. The party's proposal for spousal tax relief fell into this category, as did other election planks intended to restore a sense of moral order.

There was a larger philosophical turmoil behind this, however, a turmoil Gray analyzed to brilliant effect. In surveying developments immediately prior to the election, Gray wrote of "The Strange Death of Tory England." He examined the way in which the push for flexible labour markets had broken down traditional family structures. Flexibility implied mobility -- the ability to move from job to job and location to location. Not unrelated to this was Britain's divorce rate, the highest in Europe. Gray noted that the Conservative Party made a point of emphasizing "family values," but it was becoming clear that these values would have to be imposed through social engineering on a grand scale. And here there was a marketing problem: the Tories as the exemplars of public ethics? Such a long time in office with little career mobility meant that some members had put their good offices up for sale to the highest bidder, and the antic sexual mischief of a select number of their Tory fellows only served to take the theme from high concept to low farce. In this sense, at least, the honourable members were at one with the younger generation of royals. But where they parted company was in the Tory Party's embrace of a self-concocted notion of national identity.

John Major championed a "one nation" Britain, while a different vision of the national character was promoted by Buckingham Palace. In 1994 Jonathan Dimbleby conducted an interview with Prince Charles in which His Royal Highness questioned his own role with respect to a state-sanctioned religion. …