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The British Constitution Now.

Ferdinand Mount warns his readers that they will find his book 'a queer mixture: part history, part political theory, part contemporary polemic, with several spoonfuls of biography thrown in'. More than half the book takes the form of commentary on his predecessors' writing, particularly those he calls The great simplifiers': Walter Bagehot, A. V. Dicey and Sir Ivor Jennings. When he is discussing what might be called the big familiar themes -- Prime Minister, Cabinet and Civil Service -- his tone is that of a text-book, though enlivened by his role as once an insider, as he was from 1982 to 1984 head of Mrs. Thatcher's policy unit.

There is much here that is sparkling: he sees the monarchy as gaining in influence and acceptability because of the occasional royal utterance, or the sharpness of the remarks of Prince Philip, Prince Charles and the Princess Royal, he notes that the Queen wisely refrains from any such challenges to controversy. But so it is generally, in our world without standards: judges give interviews, and civil servants are prompt, even keen, to give copious evidence in public to Select Committees. He notes that (because of, or despite? remorseless television coverage) there is a decline in 'the magic of Parliament'; he is consistently critical of the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty. Given the to-and-fros in recent decades inside each of the major parties on major themes: devolution, the size and finance of local government, membership of the EEC and/or the EC, he puts forward a somewhat plaintive piea for a written constitution to preserve a bill of rights to protect the citizen. He does not stress that this would provide yet one more cornucopia to be raided by that already overworked and over-compensated profession, the lawyers. And he fails to mention what any American constitutional commentator would tell him: that government by law means in practice government by lawyers. Some might think that we already have more than enough of them.

Ferdinand Mount recognises that a form of written constitution may be coming anyway, thanks to the European Communities Act of 1972, which is a major entrenchment of a superior source of authority'; it will permit the introduction via |subsidiarity' of various forms of devolution, and of yet more reorganisation of regional government, and with or without any formal change in the functions of the House of Lords. Would any written document protect us from the invasion of lawyers and bureaucrats themselves?

I detect only one omission in a wide-ranging, provocative and thorough probing of our present political discontents. What was basic to the proposals put to Edward Heath by the Scottish Policy Group in 1967 (of which I was a member) was less a new Scottish Parliament (with all the arguments over nationalism that accompanied and followed it) than the locating in Scotland of the existing Scottish Standing Committee of MPs to which the Second Reading of all Scottish legislation goes -- a recommendation on which action has long ago been taken. Although Mr. Heath's speech at Perth, like Lord Home's later proposals, came close to a recognition of a need for a distinct and separately-elected Scottish Parliament, the original proposals were not so revolutionary, and were primarlily concerned with the strengthening of the existing committee stage of bills. Here -- as elsewhere today -- the press and the media blow on issues, add fuel to the embers and create fires by doing so; and bureaucracies grow by what they feed on. But this is the only point on which I would seek to question Mr. Mount's interpretation. His book is challenging reading.
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Author:Wright, Esmonnd
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1992
Words:596
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