“Constructing a Humanist Politics”


                                                                Issue No 6 Friday 10th October 2008


This week


·         Measures to deal with the financial crisis in Britain and USA may not be quite the same, but the way the constitutions responded to them are a world apart.

·        Unelected Mandelson parachuted into key position.



News Stories

Highlighting  news stories important to the Civic Republican view, particularly those that are overlooked or little covered in the main media.





·         Measures to deal with the financial crisis in Britain and USA may not be quite the same, but the way the constitutions responded to them are a world apart.



On Wednesday the 8th October 2008, at 11 am, Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, and Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, called a press conference at 10 Downing Street to announce the package of measures they had devised to address the problems of the banking and economic meltdown we are experiencing. The measures were generally applauded by economists, journalists and bankers and were inevitably compared with the measures that had been set in train on the other side of the Atlantic by President Bush and his Treasury Secretary, Hank Paulson.


Whichever way this goes, it is accepted by everyone that there is no magic bullet that is going to fix the western economies quickly. The measures announced are just the start of a long grind to financial regularity that is likely to take years. It is quite reasonable to say the world is never going to be the same again and everyone’s attitude to economic matters and the chief players in them has been permanently modified.


But what I wish to discuss here is the difference in the way the decisions were made in Britain, a constitutional monarchy, and the way they were made in USA, a presidential republic. The British leaders were able to hatch their plan, no doubt involving discussion with various expert and interested parties, and then simply announce them at a Press Conference in the morning at 11 am. What should be considered remarkable is that there was no visible political dialogue involved in this whatsoever. The plan was simply a done deal and no argument was envisaged by its architects or expected by anyone else. Note that the plan was not even announced first in the House of Commons, which is theory is supposed to be able to at least challenge and debate government initiatives.


This is not remarkable in the context of the Kingdom but to anyone who knows just a little of how a properly constituted presidential republic works it certainly is. It is even more extraordinary when the proposals have enormous (to put it mildly) implications for the financial position of the government and therefore of every tax payer in the country. It is the House of Commons that is supposed to represent those taxpayers and see that their interests are defended in Parliament. Thirty years ago, the prime minister would never have had the nerve to make a major announcement like this to the press before he made it to the Commons. But such is the way that more and more power has accumulated in the office of Prime Minister that it is quite routine for the people’s chamber to be bypassed in this way.


In fact, the House of Commons was formally told about the measures at 12.33 pm - one and a half hours after the press. Hansard recalls the following;


The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Alistair Darling): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement on the proposals that I announced this morning. I hope the House will understand that it was necessary for me to issue a statement this morning ahead of the opening of the markets, for very obvious reasons”


Quite what the “obvious very reasons” are is certainly not obvious to everyone - except to say that the “markets”, as far as the government is concerned, certainly take priority over any constitutional process.


A gesture had been made to democracy in that the opposition leaders had been informed during the same morning of the 8th October. Again Hansard recounts


Mr. George Osborne (Tatton) (Con): I am grateful to the Chancellor not just for his statement, but for discussing it with me this morning” and “Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): My colleague and party leader has already made it very clear that we support these measures as being in the national interest.”


Osborne’s groveling comment that he was “grateful” for the “Chancellor … for discussing it with [him] this morning” shows just how far our politicians have gone with their assumption that the Executive has no obligation to consult the representing house, even on major measures involving, major expenditure and major risk. Note that Osborne was only informed as far as we can see just about the same time as the Press Conference at number ten.


Nobody in politics or in the press considered the way the decisions were made and announced in any way extraordinary (** but see below). All comment has been focused on the actual proposals. The absolute power of the Prime Minister and his Chancellor to decide and implement is considered normal in this supposed democracy.


What is of great interest to constitutional republicans is the contrast between the way the Kingdom’s package was implemented and the way the corresponding financial measures were implemented in the United States, a federal republic. The cliff hanging process whereby the Bush/Paulson measures had to be steered carefully through Congress represents a complete contrast with what happened in the Kingdom. The Bill was finally passed by the House of Representatives on Friday, 3rd October. But this was only after it had been thrown out the Monday before by the House by a significant majority. The world markets plunged but the House had ruled. The bill could not go through as it stood.


Following that, the bill had to go to the “upper” house of Congress, the Senate, where, following modification, it was passed. It then returned to the House of Representatives in modified form and, after another cliff hanger, was passed. The speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, admitted that "we were dealt a bad hand and made the most of it" - accepting that the bail-out was neither popular nor enough to stem the economic crisis. It was clear that a majority of House Republicans still opposed the bail-out plan.


Barney Frank, one of the key Democratic authors of the bill called the legislation "emergency medicine", and pledged that the next Congress would examine long-term measures to make sure that the crisis could not recur. And Democrats also pledged to hold hearings to see who was to blame for the crisis - targeting both the Bush administration and Wall Street. But it is clear that there will be far less agreement on long-term solutions than on the emergency rescue package.


The Congressional debate ended with the ringing message by Nancy Pelosi to the Wall Street bankers who had played such a key role in creating the meltdown, while lining the pockets with hundreds of millions of dollars: "The party is over. That’s the news. The party is over”.


But Ms Pelosi is not in the Executive. She is leader of the House of Representatives, the equivalent of our House of Commons. How is it she has the authority to lecture the Wall Street bankers? And remember she is a Democrat. The president is a Republican.


The point is that Congress has great power independent of the President. If anyone ever imagined that the Separation of Powers that the US constitution is founded on was not effective, there could be no better illustration of how this works in practice.


When you look at the off hand way with which the Prime Minister of the Kingdom, with his Chancellor, ignored Parliament, bypassing its supposed authority to speak directly to the media, with only a last minute nodding, cozy chat with the opposition leaders, as a gesture towards consultation, the real nature of political power in Britain becomes very clear. We have no equivalent of a Nancy Pelosi to challenge the power of the Executive and make warnings to the City of London on their future conduct because we have no Parliament with power independent of the Executive.


And the situation is getting worse. Under New Labour, the Executive has become more and more arrogant and dismissive of the role of Parliament, seeing its proper constituency in the unelected media. Journalists at number ten were given longer time to question the authors of the financial package than MPs in Parliament


There may be arguments for and against the different measures adopted by the US and British governments in the face of financial meltdown. But there surely is no doubt about which constitution showed itself best able to reflect people’s fears and judgment on the measures and expose failings.


(** Later in the evening, following the writing of this article Diane Abbot did briefly make this point on This Week, BBC1)





·        Unelected Mandelson parachuted into key position.


The appointment of Peter Mandelson as the new Business Secretary provides another apt comparison between the way the Kingdom and the United States operate constitutionally.


Mandelson was parachuted into his post on Monday 6th October, as a surprise (even to him) decision by Gordon Brown. He has no elected position not being an MP and no position of any kind in the British administration, his last job being as European Commissioner (a grace and favour position fixed for him by Tony Blair when he was Prime Minister).


We could draw a comparison with this and the way that Hank Paulson was awarded his position as Treasury Secretary in the Bush administration when he also had had no government position prior to that and was never elected. Previously he had been high up in commercial bankers, Goldman Sachs.


It is fairly well understood in this country that the US President can select the members of his or her Cabinet from whether they choose. They are not elected politicians and, indeed, in keeping with the object of Separation of Power between the Presidency and Congress, cannot be. It is less well appreciated that the Prime Minister has a similar latitude in selecting members of the British Cabinet except in a sense it is even greater. Cabinet members, however, are nearly always elected Members of Parliament, although they are also selected frequently from the unelected House of Lords. (To regularize Mandelson’s position there is talk of appointing him to the Lords and this will almost certainly happen.)


Although Hank Paulson’s appointment is as arbitary as that of Peter Mandelson there is one big difference in the constitutional implications. Paulson was appointed by a directly elected Head of State. Brown like any British Prime Minister has never been elected to his post. The party machines take care of selecting the Prime Minister.


It is integral to the presidential system that the President can draw their Cabinet from wherever they like. But it is absurd that a leader who is not directly elected can appoint others who have no mandate from the electorate. This is yet another example of the extraordinary power and freedom of operation that goes with the Executive in the Kingdom.


You would think the archness of the Mandelson appointment would have at least raised a few highbrows. But the acceptance of the absolute power that resides in the unelected office of Prime Minister is so pervading in the acquiescent population and media that it is just passed over.



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…….Until next week