Picture credit: Alex Broadway/Getty Images

Constitutionally deformed

Robert Peston and Kishan Koria would make our democracy far more dysfunctional

As the old idiom goes “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it”. Robert Peston and Kishan Koria in their book Bust?, subtitled Saving the Economy, Democracy and Our Sanity, believe that our democracy is “bust” and requires saving. Unfortunately, their policy proposal for saving our democracy will inflex the idiom with their idiosyncratic approach of trying to fix the unbroken parts of our constitution and leaving the stuff that is actually “bust” in situ. 

In the book, the authors’ (at times it is not clear who is articulating a position because they have an annoying habit of using I and we interchangeably) anti-Monarchy view shines through brightly. We, the poor readers (or should that be me) are told that Peston is not a “principled anti-monarchist”. Indeed, that is quite clear in that the anti-monarchist claims in the book are not argued from first principles or from any clear conceptual framework but they are placed in the form of questions. 

This style is an unfortunate hallmark of the book. They claim that the “rational base” for the Monarchy is a “constitutional confidence trick”. They make more irrational and hocus-pocus claims such as that the United Kingdom being a Monarchy will disincentive foreign businesses and investment, and they claim that the Monarchy is not a marketable brand for the UK, especially to former countries who were part of the British Empire. 

The most irrational point they suggest is that businesses or “new business opportunities created by artificial intelligence” will be put off by, according to Preston, a “country whose people have just been asked to pledge in unison as follows: ‘I swear that I will pay true allegiance to Your Majesty, and to your heirs and successors according to law’.” On the contrary, according to a consultancy firm, Brand Finance, based on their cost-benefit audit the Royal Family contributes a positive impact on the British economy including the 2023/24 financial year. Peston was not happy with the Coronation of the King during a “cost-of-living crisis” but the Coronation year was also a net benefit to the economy. Indeed, we are better off due to the  Coronation. Yet, it seems that the authors don’t have the confidence to argue against the Monarchy on either sociological or constitutional grounds.

Peston does suggest some policies to “fix” our democracy. He and Koria believe that Ministers and perhaps those in government require a “just-in-case mindset” and all policies should be “subject [to] rigorous data analysis” to see what the “costs, benefits, unforeseen consequences, and impact on inequality and prosperity”. So, let’s now take a look at these. 

The first proposal is to reduce the number of MPs to 220 and pay them £250,000 a year. These MPs would be elected on “strict proportional representation” electoral system and probably to the amazement of the MPs they would not have to do any constituency work. The constituencies however, according to the policy suggested by Peston, would increase to three times the size of their current scale. This policy would have major foreseen consequences as it would “bust” a fundamental feature of our parliamentary system; that is, the close connection between the MP and their constituency. Plus, the ability to turn up to an MP’s surgery and raise a grievance for redress that the MP could raise the very same day would be abolished. 

Another implication, perhaps an unforeseen consequence of cutting the number of MPs would be the increasing influence of the “payroll vote” — those MPs who are required to support the government because of collective responsibility. This is not just ministers, but trade envoys, PPS’s and those who hold party roles such as vice-chairman. The payroll vote can be as high as 136 MPs. Peston’s reforms would mean that only 84 MPs would not be on the payroll unlike 514 today.  The consequence would be a tilting of the balance of power towards the Government and thus reducing the influence of the House of Commons. 

Okay, if we give Peston the benefit of the doubt and assume that he would cut the size of ministers by the same amount as MPs, the consequence would be fewer ministers in bigger departments and further increase in the dominance of the civil service. Perhaps all this doesn’t matter because Peston believes that his reforms, of fewer MPs that are better paid who have passed a “competence” threshold, will yield more competent politicians. Peston and Koria seem to be in favour of epistocracy — rule by the all-knowing — and those in favour of epistocracy normally plump for a test. Perhaps, though, on the strength of this book, Peston and Koria will not be in favour of a test on constitutional reform.

If you ask four people about what form the House of Lords should take you will get at least five distinctive, discrete and implausible proposals

If you ask four people about what form the House of Lords should take you will get at least five distinctive, discrete and implausible proposals, and Peston has added to these by suggesting that the House of Lords should have 650 elected members. These members should be elected using the alternative vote system. It seems that the 2011 Alternative Vote referendum where the British public voted 68 per cent to 32 per cent against introducing AV for the House of Commons should be ignored. 

Anyway, these 650 members would do all the heavy lifting in terms of constituency work because work would be transferred from MPs to members of an elected House of Lords. The result of this is it would pose a challenge to the primacy of the House of Commons as members of the new House of Lords would be literally in touch with constituents. The very idea that the elected members of the House of Lords would be content with being a revising Chamber only without the right to initiate legislation (which current members can do) does not stand up to scrutiny. Indeed, it is also suggested that 150 appointed experts would also be added to the Chamber. It seems then that Peston is not against appointing per se, but just the concept that “political parties” are doing it rather than experts. The consequences of these policies would mean less representation. It would turn our democracy into a poor version of epistocracy, and it would actually remove people with real expertise and experience from our parliament and government. It would prioritise those with the credentials that Peston and other elites prefer, and it would elevate those would-be politicians who could pass Peston’s “competence” threshold, and not those that can connect with the British public and win an election. 

What about those areas of our constitution that do require reform? Peston wants to double down on devolution despite it being a disaster and a platform for nationalist parties. Reform of the Supreme Court is not mentioned. At least we could rename the court. There is nothing on the EHRC or the Human Rights Act either. In other words, if it does require reform, don’t reform it, is Peston’s approach it seems.

I would like to end with agreement with Peston that policies should be subject to rigorous analysis, but his own policy proposals do not pass his own tests. His constitutional policy suggestions would be costly, they would not be beneficial to the body politic and the consequences of them would not be marketable. For our sanity, Peston and Koria’s constitutional proposals should not be heeded.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover