The Plan: Twelve Months to Renew Britain
The Hannan-Carswell (or is in Carswell-Hannan?) essential thesis is that the country has gone to the dogs and we need a revolution. Not of the Glorious or the bloody kind, but some sort of via media which will shake up the mechanism and practices of government. Mr Hannan says: ‘The government has taken more than £1.2 trillion in additional taxation since 1997, yet still fails to discharge its primary functions competently. Our schoolchildren compare dismally with their contemporaries in other countries; our healthcare system is likelier to kill its charges than any other in the EU; we have the highest prison population in Europe and one of the highest crime rates; we have lost control of our borders; our transport infrastructure is overloaded. The state is running at capacity. It has taken too much on. It literally cannot assume additional responsibilities and carry them out efficiently.’
Indeed not. They do not wish to see the next Conservative government tinkering at the edges - doing the same sorts of things as New Labour but ‘more efficiently’ or ‘sharing the proceeds’ - but engaging in reform of such constitutional magnitude that its effects and provisions are, like the Act of Settlement, likely to be ‘for ever’.
According to The Plan, this means a wholesale shift in power ‘from the state to the citizen, from Whitehall to elected councillors, from Brussels to Westminster’. And it is all possible within a single legislative session of Parliament. Some of the ideas include:
• Scrapping all MPs' expenses except those relating to running an office and travel from the constituency
• Selecting candidates through open primaries
• Local and national referendums
• "People's Bills", to be placed before Parliament if they attract a certain number of signatures
• Placing the police under locally elected Sheriffs, who would also set local sentencing guidelines
• Appointing heads of quangos, senior judges and ambassadors through open parliamentary hearings rather than prime ministerial patronage
• Devolving to English counties and cities all the powers which were devolved to Edinburgh under the 1998 Scotland Act
• Placing Social security, too, under local authorities
• Making councils self-financing by scrapping VAT and replacing it with a Local Sales Tax
• Allowing people to pay their contributions into personal healthcare accounts, with a mandatory insurance component
• Letting parents opt out of their Local Education Authority, carrying to any school the financial entitlement that would have been spent on their child
• Replacing EU membership with a Swiss-style bilateral free trade accord
• Requiring all foreign treaties to be re-ratified annually by Parliament
• Scrapping the Human Rights Act and guaranteeing parliamentary legislation against judicial activism
• A ‘Great Repeal Bill’ to annul unnecessary and burdensome laws
They desire to restore power to the individual, and, where this is impractical, to the lowest feasible level of government. This is the subsidiarity principle which is supposed to be at the heart of the functioning of the EU, but which has never (as far as Cranmer can see) been exercised. But there is already broad agreement across the parties that power rests with ‘the lowest feasible level of government’; the problem is that not everyone agrees what this level should be. Even as David Cameron talks of restoring authority to local councils, he simultaneously announces the restoration of weekly refuse collection and capped council tax for two years.
Mssrs Hannan and Carswell will have just as hard a job persuading many citizens of the rightness of this plan as they will have their fellow Conservative politicians. Many of Cranmer’s readers and communicants may regret that this is not the Conservative Party’s next manifesto, but most will understand why it cannot be.
The Plan may excite and envision, but it does not take account of the zeitgeist, nor of the pathologically-centre-left media. It is not subtle. In a postmodern world in which the distinction between political parties, newspapers and pressure groups is blurring, communication that is be effective has to be in the vernacular, even if that vernacular is imprecise and obfuscational. We may not like such language, but our focus has to be on ends. Does one any longer go onto the streets and shout ‘Repent of your sins and accept Jesus as your Lord and Saviour, or you’re going to hell’? It may be the gospel, and it may be true, but the approach is offensive and yields no results. The gospel which leads to conversion is the gospel which incarnates patience, relationship and love. It is rather like ‘banging on’ about withdrawal from the EU instead of constructively and more subtly engaging in the need to ‘repatriate’ certain aspects of lost sovereignty. The latter will lead to the former, and so the media never have to be presented with the ‘alarming’ stumbling block of withdrawal at all. Even the yellow and black cover looks like a caricature; it might as well be red on white, for people do indeed judge a book by its cover.
The Hannan-Carswell plan may be a most attractive gospel, but it is written in Greek – not the gobbledegook of the inaccessible political realm, but the direct and confrontational language which many may consider abrupt, revolutionary, or ‘extreme’. This is ultimately (and sadly) a stumbling block to those who need saving.
It is a clever politician who plays a long hand and bides his time. They may frustrate the impatient and radical, but they may also rise slowly and painstakingly through the political ranks and ultimately attain those high offices of state from which they may implement their policies. Daniel Hannan would have to rise to the shadow cabinet to have a real chance of shaping Britain's future, and Douglas Carswell would need to be at his side. This book does nothing to assist either.
It is doubtless true that political parties as they have traditionally been constituted are at an end. What were once organic and complex structures - bringing together local branches, clubs, activists and sympathetic newspapers, professions, trade unions, churches and pressure groups – are indeed dying. But the assertion that the modern political party will be protean: ‘a series of ad hoc, issue-by-issue coalitions’ is to negate the importance of cohesive philosophy. The Plan demands independent MPs accountable only to their electorates. This is to turn the clock back a few centuries, and return to a parliament without parties. Independent MPs who are free to coalesce around specific issues on an ad hoc basis does not only negate the party system, it neuters the whip, for there is no need of discipline as every vote is free. This is not remotely likely to be adopted.
The Hannan-Carswell plan is excitingly radical and provides many high quality whats and whys, but it is sadly lacking on the how. The solutions presented – in terms of legislation – would divide the parties with years of wrangling and have little chance of becoming law. There is simply no point having a cunning plan if one does not have the cunning strategy for implementation
Nevertheless, it is a fascinating book for Mr Cameron’s ‘post-bureaucratic age’, and Cranmer heartily recommends it. It may be purchased here.