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Nick Clegg Made Me Do It: Why it’s time to end our constitutional ignorance

I wasn’t going to write this post. It was a lovely, sunny day and I was feeling perky and optimistic, in the mood for some light-hearted fluff about weather-related metaphors. And then I picked up the Evening Standard.

Nick Clegg, former Deputy Prime Minister, had written another of his periodic columns on why the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Fair enough. But then he did it. He made that stupid, infuriating comment that’s trotted out from time to time when someone is having a pop at the Government…

     “…the founding flaw of this Government – it has a PM who was never elected by anyone, who has no legitimacy  of her own.”

I think that Theresa May’s constituents, the good people of Maidenhead, might take offence at the suggestion that their ballot papers had nothing to do with the election of their MP. Mrs May herself might have been somewhat surprised to find herself in the House of Commons without having been “elected by anyone”. Can you imagine it? One day she’s sitting there, tucking into her grapefruit breakfast at the kitchen table – I’m sure it’s grapefruit; she strikes me as that kind of woman – and the next she finds herself sat on a green leather bench, waving bits of paper at the people opposite. Remarkable.

Except of course, that’s not what happened. Theresa May, as David Cameron before her, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair and John Major, was elected as an MP by her constituents. That’s it, people. it was the same for all of them. Because NO-ONE DIRECTLY ELECTS THE PRIME MINISTER.

Just to spell it out – because no-one ever seems to – the only person you vote for in a General Election is a candidate for your constituency. Most candidates stand for a particular political party, and when all the votes have been counted and all the individual MPs elected, the leader of the party with the most MPs becomes Prime Minister and is invited by the Queen to form a Government.

It’s really not that hard.

The only difference is that Theresa May became leader of the Conservative after a General Election. You might argue that when people voted for Joe Bloggs instead of Janet Biggles in the constituency of Little Townsville South, they expected that if the Tories got in David Cameron would be Prime Minister – but unless they lived in Cameron’s constituency of Witney, they had no opportunity AT ALL to either vote for him or not.

It’s not just the man who a few years ago was Deputy Prime Minister who pedals this kind of tripe. It’s all over the place. And it’s not just about “unelected” Prime Ministers. There were also – in the wake of the Brexit judicial review – newspapers and even MPs talking about “unelected judges”, as if the separation of powers wasn’t a fundamental principle of our constitution, an essential bulwark against despotism. There was the confusion between Parliament and Government during the MPs’ expenses scandal. There were the MPs expressing horror about the law on bribery having changed a year after they had passed the Act, as though it somehow had nothing to do with them. There was Theresa May, when she was Home Secretary, saying that police and crime commissioners should be in charge of the fire and rescue service because councillors on fire authorities weren’t directly elected, without anyone ever pointing out that she hadn’t been directly elected as Home Secretary either.

This isn’t pedantry. This stuff matters. It matters because a democracy relies on voters having some kind of a clue about what they’re voting for. People need to know how the system works.

And I’m not blaming Joe Public for this. I went to a decent (comprehensive) school and got a first class degree from a Bloomsbury Group University; I read broadsheet newspapers and tried to keep up with current affairs, and I didn’t know any of it either. Because it was never taught. And because commentators like the former Deputy Prime Minister misled us all with the kind of nonsense highlighted above.

It wasn’t until I joined the civil service and was made to do a compulsory six-day course called Parliament, Government and the Civil Service that I understood what the various bits of the system were there to do. For the first time, I knew how they related to each other, how they were held to account, where the tools for influence lay. I had the information I needed to be an engaged citizen.

A little something to be getting on with…

And honestly – I’m starting to wonder if some of this disinformation isn’t a product of design rather than accident.

Do I honestly believe that someone who was Deputy Prime Minister for five years didn’t understand how he got the job? That the Lib Dems went through a set of coalition negotiations with the Tories somehow under the misapprehension that the Ministerial jobs they were arguing about had already been distributed by the electorate in some way?

Clearly, Nick Clegg has seen fit to use an inaccurate and misleading soundbite as a way of scoring political points. Ok, politicians do that all the time.

But should he be allowed to get away with it unchallenged? And is there, perhaps, the smallest chance that there’s more to it than the usual political hollyhocks?

Is the absence from the school curriculum of a grounding in the fundamental building blocks of our constitution  – whisper it – deliberate? Does it help to keep power in the hands of the people who are on the inside? Should I be scratching my head about the fact that the only time I was taught about the most basic elements of our constitution – the only way I even realised I didn’t understand it in the first place – was when I became a civil servant, prevented from engaging in political discourse?

I’m not usually a fan of conspiracy theories and I’m not saying this is all a result of conscious decision-making. But you have to wonder whether the reason this gap in our collective understanding isn’t addressed is because the people with power just don’t think it’s important. Because perhaps they think things work just fine as they are. Perhaps they believe – even at a subconscious level – that the people who need to understand how the system works, how to effect change, already have that information. People Like Them.

But when “the country’s democracy is in a fragile state” (Stephen Kinnock MP, quoted in the same newspaper just six pages on from Nick Clegg’s column), when people have been asked to engage directly through a referendum on issues of sovereign importance to this country’s future, when hardly a day passes without someone banging on about “frustrating the will of the people”… Well, it just seems to me that “the people” should have a bit more of a clue about how this shit works.

It’s time we demanded proper constitutional education as part of the curriculum. It’s time citizens, all of us, were given the tools to make our democracy actually mean something.

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