We used to have state institutions and rules that restrained our leaders. Our basic liberties had been fought for, and built up, over hundreds of years – since at least Magna Carta in 1215. Yet within just two decades, and at an accelerating pace, almost all these restraints have been sidelined or swept away. All in the name of efficiency, or defeating terrorism, or what 'the people' want. But now these restraints have gone, there is nothing left to protect us against our political leaders. And those leaders have shown every willingness to harass, bully, spy on, arrest and imprison us without trial if it squares with their view of what’s best for us.
Parliament, for instance, has been neutered. There's a ‘payroll vote’ or around 120 ministers, whips and others, so you can’t expect many complaints from them.The Cabinet, once a forum for heated debates on policy – remember Michael Heseltine striding out over the Westland helicopter affair? – is now more of a brief weekly chat about general issues. And the civil service is now completely politicized, stuffed full of political appointees. Armies of spin-doctors quieten another potential source of opposition, the media. They reward favourable coverage with interviews, tip-offs leaks and exclusives – using public information as if it were private property – and punish criticism with silence.
For years, even the Opposition didn't present much opposition. They were so divided that they focused mainly on opposing themselves. The government did not need to win any arguments. It is no wonder that its power grew so rapidly, and that so much bad legislation was simply nodded through.
And that, perhaps, is a challenging point for the Conservatives. Will they, in power, be prepared to raise the quality of their legislation by encouraging strong debate on it? Will they protect the long-term interest of the public by accepting restraints upon themselves? Will they save themselves from hubris by welcoming public scrutiny of their actions?