Blair's reshuffle and the garb of tradition

Michael Malkin calls for the abolition of the monarchy

Government reshuffles are normally a one-day wonder. The metropolitan media gleefully gorge themselves on a free lunch of carefully stage-managed news from Downing Street, and then spew forth a mass of verbiage about ‘who’s in and who’s out’.

Who cares? Normally very few, apart from the media and those pathetic parliamentary careerists - some of them even call themselves ‘socialists’ - who are busy trying to climb the greasy pole. This time round, however, it has been slightly different, slightly more interesting, for two reasons.

First, the unbelievable ineptitude of how the thing was handled - trying to pose as a courageous war leader, a great statesman and an all-round genius has evidently taken its toll on Blair; one senses that he is losing his grip.

The decision of Alan Milburn, one of the more able and intelligent Blairites in the cabinet, and moreover the man holding the key health department portfolio, to spend more time with his family was a serious blow. That was the last thing Blair wanted.

But it can hardly explain the hasty, cack-handed shambles which saw the prime minister’s so-called fixer, John Reid, parachuted into health, his fifth job in this government, and a tired retread like Estelle Morris returning to office as minister of state for the arts - after she fled the cabinet post of education secretary only last autumn, claiming that it was all too much to bear. Maybe the salary of £93,413 was sufficient inducement, given that the lady candidly admits that she knows nothing whatever about art. Or there is Alun Michael. Wales was certainly too much for him, as you recall. Now, no doubt to the great joy of all British farmers, this diminutive nincompoop emerges as minister of state for rural affairs.

This is hardly a government of all the talents. It looks weary, shop-spoiled and directionless. There is even a whiff of Major about it.

Secondly, we have the mini-constitutional ‘crisis’ whipped up by the Conservative Party and its press, but avidly fed upon by the whole media circus, concerning the abolition of the office of lord chancellor and the creation of a department of constitutional affairs, to be headed by Lord Falconer of Thoroton QC. The subsequent furore even prompted the speaker of the House of Commons to demand that the prime minister explain himself.

The silly season has arrived early. And how silly it is. We are asked to believe that the departure of Lord Irvine of Lairg (you remember, the insufferably pompous oaf with the £300-a-roll wallpaper, whose sole claim to fame and only qualification for the job was that he was Tony’s ‘mentor’ and introduced him to the fragrant Cherie) marks some kind of colossal constitutional watershed.

‘One thousand, four hundred years of tradition’ - a phrase mindlessly repeated even in the pages of the broadsheet press, whose writers, educated at good public schools, should know better - have supposedly been wiped out at a stroke; an office of state second only to that of the monarchy itself in terms of age and majesty has been vandalously destroyed; the putative independence of the judiciary, its mythically watertight separation from the executive, are in dire peril; the constitution itself is in danger. Bring back the man in the full-bottomed horsehair wig and the black stockings.

Now, of course, you know who I am talking about. The one with the handbag. Every year he grovels and scrapes his way to the throne and hands his oversized reticule to Mrs Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glucksburg, our dear queen, who proceeds to tell us all the good things that ‘my’ government has in store for ‘my’ people. On less ceremonial occasions, he sits on a notoriously uncomfortable object called the wool sack and functions as the speaker of that venerable democratic institution called the House of Lords.

When not in drag, he is a senior cabinet minister and head of the judiciary, presiding chairman of the appellate committee of the House of Lords, and of the judicial committee of the privy council; president of the supreme court of England and Wales, comprising the court of appeal, the high court and the crown court. He also goes to a lot of parties, so if you are thinking of inviting him, bear in mind that he is lower in precedence only to members of the royal family and the archbishop of Canterbury. Given such an enormous burden of work, it is no surprise to learn that he is supported by three parliamentary secretaries (£84,483 apiece) and a couple of parliamentary private secretaries, whose wages, being probably no more than three times those of a decent worker, are not quoted in the press.

It sounds impressive, but compared with previous lord chancellors in the fabled ‘1,400 years’ of their history, Derry Irvine was nobody at all - just a jumped up barrister. Two of his predecessors became canonised saints, but everyone’s favourite has got to be Thomas, Cardinal Wolsey (1475-1530). For 14 years (1515-1529), Tom Wolsey, the son of an Ipswich butcher, and therefore despised by the aristocracy, ran the country for Henry VIII, accruing in the process unimaginable power, wealth and patronage. If his negotiations with pope Clement VII to secure an annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon had been successful, England might still be a catholic country, we are told, and Oxford might still have a Cardinal College.

The point being that by contrast the present office of lord chancellor, stripped of all the camp peripherals and all the pseudo-historical fake tartan, fake this and fake everything claptrap that surrounds the house of Windsor itself, amounts tout court to nothing more than what in other states is called a ministry of justice.

The notion that the late and very much unlamented lord chancellor Irvine was sacramentally pure, existing by virtue of his sacral anointing in a realm where judicial appointments emerge via the promptings of the holy ghost, was always rubbish, of course. How many working class Tory lawyers took silk or got on the bench since 1997? No doubt some, but not as many as if their ‘own’ lord chancellor had been in the job. The same applies pari passu, had there been a Conservative government in power. Jobs for the boys and girls who behave themselves. The so-called ‘independence’ of the judiciary, which the vested interests of the bar now tell us is in desperate danger, thanks to Tony Blair, never existed.

When the new born secretary of state for constitutional affairs, Lord Falconer (age 51; salary a mere £96,960), coincidentally another of Tony’s old cronies, gets up in the Lords to explain his new role, thanks to the sheer incompetence of Downing Street he will have to serve as a sort of nanny lord chancellor, looking after their noble lordships until primary legislation is passed to get rid of the unwanted office. Evidently nobody gave a thought about who is going to run this ‘constitutionally vital’ chamber of antiquated hereditary aristocrats, placemen in their dotage and grateful time-servers awaiting the grim reaper’s call. The one good thing you can indisputably say about John Edmunds is that he had the innate decency to decline the invitation to join this club.

All the fuss about Blair’s ‘unconstitutional’ tinkering with offices of state and the dire consequences to follow at least reminds us that we do not actually have a European or US-style constitution. Nothing easily accessible; nothing straightforward. Just an immensely weighty and complex burden of custom and precedent, which it suits our betters to interpret for us, as and when they see fit.

So what do we do? Demand the restoration of ‘our’ lord chancellor, call for a referendum on the abolition of his office? Hardly. Yesterday’s lord chancellor is today’s secretary of state for constitutional affairs. Different men wearing different clothes, but doing the same job (“robes and furred gowns hide all”, as king Lear said, after his purgation on the blasted heath).

What of the ‘1,400 years of history’? All the institutions of the state in bourgeois society are constantly being remade in terms of what Hobsbawm calls the “invention of tradition” - the ‘ancient’ and ‘time-honoured’ customs that are now part of our historical/constitutional wallpaper were largely concocted in the 19th century.

Of course, despite the nonsense talked about the reshuffle, Blair is indeed rewriting the constitution from above. But it is not just a case of saying ‘no’ every time. The bourgeoisie has constantly been engaged in remaking the constitution as it goes along. The crucial factor from our point of view is to highlight the fact that this is an ongoing process deriving from class power, class relationships.

What we, self-evidently, need as communists is not a reactive but proactive approach to the question - in other words, a working class movement to sweep away the whole constitutional monarchy system from below.