The House of Commons is on a one-line whip today. It was on a one-liner from early afternoon yesterday, and it will be again tomorrow.
Last week things were hardly heaving. Nor the week before, or indeed before that.
To put it bluntly, not a great deal is happening in Parliament right now. Little primary legislation. Not much oversight.
Perhaps you think this is a Good Thing? After all, who needs meddlesome politicians thinking up new ways to boss us about? Maybe, like the Texas state legislature, which is forbidden to sit on more than 140 days each year, we should not judge our representatives on the basis of what they do, but what they stop officialdom from doing?
Perhaps. But if only our under-engaged MPs in Westminster were as effective as those on the Capitol in Austin at overseeing the activities of government. Instead, they seem to be reduced to telling people when they might smoke in cars. No longer holding government to account, bossing the rest of us about is about the only thing left for our MPs to do.
The House of Commons' current state of inactivity demonstrates why the Commons needs to take back control of its own timetable. Not so long ago, the Commons decided what the Commons debated and voted on.
Like so much else about our constitution, slowly but surely the old constraints have been subverted by the governing classes. Today it is a government committee of grandees that meets to decide what our elected representatives should be allowed to debate and vote on.
Thus there is never, apparently, enough time for a Recall Bill. That In/Out referendum Bill? "Not space for it, I'm afraid, old boy." That promise about Open Primaries, and the necessary change in the law to allow local people to petition returning officers? "No space."
A decision about the future of airports? "Bit busy right now. Let's set up a commission." So much in Westminster seems to be on hold. Is this the best way to run a country?
With Whitehall setting Westminster's agenda, it is hardly surprising that the Commons no longer does its job. Ahead of the budget, Commons select committees ought to be gearing up to approve – or veto – the budgets of the department they are supposed to shadow. Few MPs even look at the number, let alone understand them.
That army of quangocrats that really run the country should be required to appear before a select committee confirmation hearing. No chance.
In place of real decision making, our moribund Commons passes declaratory legislation designed to "send a message"
The Commons Order Paper is cluttered with meaningless Early Day Motions that allow MPs to do nothing but posture and preen. Meanwhile, the big decisions are increasingly made elsewhere.
No wonder fewer and fewer people bother to vote to decide who sits within it.
Five years ago today, the Bank of England cut interest rates about as low as they can go: 0.5 percent. And there they have remained.
If rates have been rock bottom for five years, our central bankers have been cutting them for even longer. You need to go back almost nine years to find a time when real interest rates last rose. Almost a million mortgage holders have never known a rate rise.
And this is all a Good Thing, according to the orthodoxy in SW1. Sure, low rates might hit savers, who don't get such good returns, but for home owners and businesses, it's been a blessing.
Don't just compare the winners with the losers, say the pundits. Think of the whole economy. Rates were set at rock bottom shortly after banks started to go bust. Slashing the official cost of borrowing saved the day, they say.
I disagree. Low interest rates did not save the UK economy from the financial crisis. Low interest rates helped caused the crisis – and keeping rates low means many of the chronic imbalances remain.
To see why, cast your mind back to 1997 and Gordon Brown's decision to allow the Bank of England to set interest rates independent of any ministerial oversight.
Why did Chancellor Brown make that move? Fear that populist politicians did not have enough discipline. Desperate to curry favour with the electorate, ministers might show themselves to be mere mortals, slashing rates as an electoral bribe.
The oppostite turned out to be the case. Since independence, those supermen at the central bank set rates far lower than any minister previously dared. And the results of leaving these decisions to supposedly benign technocrats at the central bank has been pretty disastrous.
Setting interest rates low is simply a form of price fixing. Set the price of anything – bread, coffee, rental accommodation – artificially low and first you get a glut, as whatever is available gets bought up.
Then comes the shortage. With less incentive to produce more of those things, the supply dries up. So, too, with credit.
With interest rates low, there is less incentive to save. Since one persons savings mean another's borrowing, less saving means less real credit in the system. With no real credit, along comes the candyfloss variety, conjured up by the banks – and we know what happened next. See Northern Rock...
When politicians praise low interest rates, yet lament the lack of credit, they demonstrate an extraordinary, almost pre-modern, economic illiteracy.
Too many politicians and central bankers believe cheap credit is a cause of economic success, rather than a consequence of it. We will pay a terrible price for this conceit.
Low interest rates might stimulate the economy in the short term, but not in a way that is good for long-term growth. As I show in my paper on monetary policy, cheap credit encourages over-consumption, explaining why we remain more dependent than ever on consumer- (and credit-) induced growth.
Cheap credit cannot rebalance the economy. By encouraging over-consumption, it leads to further imbalances.
Think of too much cheap credit as cholesterol, clogging up our economic arteries, laying down layer upon layer of so-called "malinvestment".
"Saved" by low rates, an estimated one in 10 British businesses is now a zombie firm, able to service its debts, but with no chance of ever being able to pay them off.
Undead, these zombie firms can sell to their existing customer base, keeping out new competition. But what they cannot do is move into new markets or restructure and reorganise. Might this help explain Britain's relatively poor export and productivity performance?
What was supposed to be an emergency measure to get UK plc through the financial storm, has taken on an appearance of permanence. We are addicted to cheap credit. Even a modest 1 per cent rate rise would have serious consequences for many.
Sooner or later, interest rates will have to rise. The extent to which low interest rates have merely delayed the moment of reckoning, preventing us from making the necessary readjustments, will then become painfully evident.
A clear majority of the local population in two provinces want to break away and become part of their larger neighbour, with whom they felt a national and cultural affinity.
The larger, militarily formidable neighbour sends troops across the border in support of the secessionists.
Access to an important sea port is at stake. Protocols are signed in remote capitals insisting that the existing territorial integrity is a "European necessity".
I refer of course not to the situation in eastern Ukraine today, but to the Schleswig-Holstein question of the 19th century. In that instance, Prussia played the role of Russia, and Kiel that of Sevastopol. Let's hope Britain still plays the role of Britain.
This is not the first time, nor the last, that the international order will be challenged in this way.
What should we do? Take great care, for a start.
At the time of the Schleswig-Holstein question, when Britain was the world's hyperpower, we avoided wading in. We would be wise to be cautious now.
Every time there is an international crisis, a great deal of nonsense is talked about Britain in danger of being bypassed, of becoming a global irrelevance. Unless we are calling the shots, Benedict Brogan suggested today, we are just a bystander on the world stage.
Is that really so? I don't see India or China or Switzerland or Australia or Japan as global bystanders. Are they wading in or throwing their weight around? Maybe, just maybe, this desire to be in the thick of things comes less from a sense of our strength, and more from a fear of our weakness. Perhaps after Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, a certain kind of British official feels that this is what one does.
British diplomats might want to be doing the deals and laying down the terms of the UN resolutions. But since when was the amour-propre of British diplomats the yardstick by which we measure the national interest?
Twenty-first-century technology might make the world's problems seem more immediate. But 21st-century reality means that we should not seek to embroil ourselves in all of them.
Secondly, we would be wise to recognise that as with Schleswig-Holstein, sometimes boundaries do need to be redrawn – and the world is a better place for it. Does anyone today seriously suggest Schleswig-Holstein should still be part of Denmark? Would the Balkans be a happier land if Yugoslavia was still intact?
Finally, we need to recognise that the world – despite the spread of liberal democracy and global trade – remains a dangerous place. If Russia and others are to try to challenge the existing international order, we need to prepare accordingly.
Closer ties with our Anglosphere allies. A bit more defence spending and a little bit less energy dependence, for a start.
The Left once stood for democracy. In the tradition of the Levellers, the Chartists and the Suffragettes, the British Left once fought to take power away from the elites and dispersed it among the people. The Labour party, when founded by Keir Hardie, stood up for the working man – and woman.
No longer. The Left simply does not trust people.
They have become not merely undemocratic, but anti democratic. Rather than standing up to elites, the Left actively defends the concentration of political and economic power in the hands of an unaccountable few.
Many Lefties opposed the creation of directly elected Police Commissioners. Some did so for the rather bovine reason that it was a Tory idea. Others remain fearful of what they sneering dismiss as "populism".
Left wing pundits and campaigners have tried to vilify ordinary mums and dads who have wanted to set up their own free schools. They prefer to side with the education establishment against ordinary people wanting the best for their kids.
Guardianistas remind us daily of their visceral opposition to an EU referendum. They don't simply distrust the people, but are on the side of unelected Commissioners. Confronted with the Euro crisis, which has seen tens of millions ordinary Europeans impoverished, self-styled "progressives" have put themselves on the same side of the argument as those calling for public money to be used to rescue bankers from their own folly.
The modern Left is no longer socialist, but corporatist. They do not seek public ownership of the means of production. Instead they stand to create a world in which private meetings between Brussels lobbyists would buy commercial advantage.
Rather than democratise politics, giving everyone say over candidate selection, as the Tory party has begun to do, Labour has given us Falkirk.
There is an essential dishonesty about the British Left today. They know that they cannot obtain a popular mandate for many of the grand schemes they want for us. So they have embraced anti democratic means to impose them instead.
They cannot win the argument for wind turbines, so they foist them on us using hidden subsidies and a local planning process that gives the locals little say. They could never win a mandate for the unrestricted free movement of people into Britain – so they hand control over such matters to unelected officials and judges.
On issue after issue, where they know they cannot win openly, the Left has passed responsibility over to quangocrats and Commissioners, Human Rights lawyers and judicial activists.
The Left obtains by top down decree what they cannot win at the ballot box. And the Right loses, even when we win elections.
Far too many on the right still seek either re-heated Thatcherism or a kind of mid-70s, patrician Toryism. Neither will do.
A truly modern Tory party needs to recognise that we must do battle against the Left not merely for votes on polling day. If the Left has created structures that are beyond meaningful democratic accountability, we must embrace direct democracy. We must be prepared to re-engineer the machinery of the state – the quangos, the senior civil service, the judiciary – and yes, even Parliament – to make them properly answerable to the rest of us.
Either we do that, or we face more defeat and retreat.
Fitting a roof-rack on the car the other day – as dads do – I got thinking about design. Instead of trying to screw one of those unwieldy metal cages to the top of the car the way my folks used to do, I was clipping in place a sleek, aerodynamic box that wouldn't take the paint off.
It's not just the design of roof-racks that has got better. The cars on which they sit are a vast improvement on what we had in the Seventies. As are buses, tubes and trains. So, too, suitcases that now all come with wheels. Phones aren't just better designed, they include features such as video cameras, maps and games, which would have seemed like science fiction not long ago.
Yet when it comes to the way we do politics, we still do things the same clunky way we did before.
Prime Minister's Question Time is rigged, with faux questions and faux outrage. The weekly ritual generates much heat, but like an eco light bulb (a rare example of design getting worse) little light.
Seven out of 10 constituencies remain "safe seats", unlikely to change hands at a General Election. Politicians still get far too much say over who gets to become a politician – the public much too little choice.
The mechanism within our democracy that is supposed to translate public preference into public policy seems to get stuck, like a Seventies gearbox. Instead of being ruled over by representatives of the people, answerable to us, ideas seem to emanate from a closed shop in Whitehall. Politicians have become apologists for what the mandarinate decides.
From bank reform to energy policy, the result is groupthink and policy stalemate – with the emphasis on stale.
Politics desperately needs a redesign.
The system of jukebox politics we have today lets you listen to the same records over and over again. We need to think Spotify. Just as you can now select your own music playlist, let voters select party candidates where they live.
Rather than expecting activists to become submissive party members, why not use the web, an endless network of innovation, enthusiasm and ambition, to create an army of folk wanting change? Make iMembership a compelling retail proposition, with votes on policy and a chance to have a real say, and you might increase party membership.
Instead of party bosses in SW1 presenting voters with a worthy manifesto – which no one outside SW1 reads – let registered supporters help write it wiki-style. "But you can't trust the people?" I hear you say. Wikipedia manages to, having re-defined encyclopedias.
One day someone will implement these type of changes, and then, as with mobile phones, we'll wonder how we managed before.
It started as the G6. Back in 1970-something, finance ministers from the world's six leading economies – France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the US and the UK – got together to talk.
They had, one might imagine, quite a bit to discuss. There were oil shocks to contend with. Post-Bretton Woods, how were they to manage the money?
And back then, of course, those six Western players, were – economically speaking – it. The West accounted for almost 60 percent of global GDP.
Things have changed a little since.
By 2003, the West's share of global output had fallen to less half. By 2030, it is forecast to be about a third.
Already, Italy no longer makes it into the top six. Another decade of Euro-sclerosis, and only America and Japan would qualify from the original guest list.
So to keep everyone on board, in the late Nineties they came up with the G20, which meets this week in Australia. (Who knows, by 2040 they might be calling it the G80 so France can still make the list. Squeeze 'em in beside Burkina Faso.)
Apart from allowing politicians to feel important, what is the G20 actually for? Other than posing for group photos (and the occasional selfie), what do they actually do? Isn't this all just politics tourism for the sort of people who all met up in Davos the other week?
According to initial reports, the G20 finance ministers meeting in Sydney have decided that they will be adding $2 trillion (£1.2 trillion) of extra growth to the world economy. If it really was as easy as all that, why not an extra $4 trillion?
Over the two days of the G20 meeting, I cannot imagine that finance ministers from, say South Korea, South Africa and Russia, can do much besides talk generalities. Stand by for communiqués ladened with clichés. So why do they do it?
It is hardly as if these international shindigs have produced any good ideas I can think of.
International bank reform? Six years on from Lehman's bankruptcy, we've still not seen significant changes.
Advances in free trade? For all the talk, things seem to have become bogged down in corporatist quota setting, masquerading as free trade agreements.
Coordinated monetary policy and exchange rate management? When five of the G6 finance ministers agreed at the Plaza Hotel in New York in 1985 to manipulate exchange rates, it had some pretty disastrous unintended consequences. Heaven forbid anyone try that again.
Far from leading to better global governance, I fear that these get-togethers reinforce groupthink.
Perhaps what really makes ministers keep coming is the badge of respectability they feel it gives them. A kind of peer approval. And, of course, an army of diplomats and officials, each with careers and departmental budgets invested in such supra-national summits.
"The age of purely representative democracy," Peter Mandelson once told us, "is slowly coming to an end."
And he was right. Throughout the Western world, public policy choices which were once in the hands of representatives we elected have been farmed out to technocrats.
Whether it is making decisions about dredging or about monetary policy, ministers might justify and explain what has been decided. They rarely if ever make the decision themselves. The machine runs most ministers, not the other way round. Vanity might stop egocentric politicians 'fessing up to it, but most ministers are little more than departmental mouthpieces.
Whitehall mandarins have long since stopped pretending that they merely implement policy. They make it. More than that, they routinely overrule elected ministers who want things done differently.
To see the most extreme manifestation of post-representative democracy, look at Italy. Any moment now, the mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi, is about to be made the third Italian prime minister in a row who wasn't actually elected to the role. Renzi in office will probably deliver the same bland policy nothingness that every Italian "leader" seems to have produced for as long as anyone can remember.
To understand quite how anti-democratic Italy has become, imagine if, after having had Adair Turner run the country for a bit, followed by Lord O'Donnell, the Queen then invited Boris Johnson to have a go. It might all be rather colourful, yes, but it would hardly be democratic. Nor I suspect, given that only those willing to tag along with mainstream establishment opinion would be chosen, would it lead to better government.
Representative democracy was invented in order to rein in the power of parasitical elites. For a while it worked rather well. Governments were kept small and accountable.
Increasingly, however, the governing elites – the sort of people one finds at Davos each year – have discovered ways of subverting the democratic constraints. The result is big, bloated, inept public administration.
Real Conservative modernisers need to think of new ways to rein government in again. Open primary candidate selection, recalls, popular initiative, annualised budgets, confirmation hearings – we need to make representative democracy a little more direct if we are not to see it replaced by a smug, self-serving Davos technocracy.
Who is the greatest French man or woman to have ever lived?
Napoleon Bonaparte? I'd argue his involvement in human affairs was largely destructive. Louis Pasteur? He must have saved an awful lot of lives.
Pierre Michaux and Lallement, who helped invent the bicycle? Louis Le Prince, inventor of movie cameras? There are many French inventors, especially from the late nineteenth century, to choose from. Francois Hollande? On April 1st, perhaps.
I reckon that one of the greatest Frenchman of all time is a fellow called Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850). Not heard of him? France, I reckon, would have remained a truly great global player if more people had.
A free market, Classical liberal thinker, Bastiat grasped how wealth is created - and how parasitical elites and vested interests will seek to live off the productivity of others.
Nations rise, he could see, when various naturally parasitical interests were reined in, making production more fruitful than parasitism. Nations sunk into mediocrity, or remained there, when the parasites got their way - and other people's wealth.
Far from being just a creature of his time, Bastiat speaks to us now. His spoof petition of the candle stick makers (they lobbied politicians to block out unfair competition from sunlight) tells us a great deal about the behaviour today of energy renewable interests and central bankers.
As a free market thinker, Bastiat was up there on a par with Adam Smith or Richard Cobden. Yet unlike Smith and Cobden, for all his brilliance, Bastiat had little impact on the French body politic. French lassiez faire gave way to dirigisme. A once global player, presided over by enarques and corporatist interests, France has sunk into Hollandesque mediocrity.
My fear is that free market thinkers on this side of the Channel turn out to be little more than British Bastiats. Already the land of Adam Smith is run by a big, bloated state bureaucracy. The country that produced Cobden trades with the world on the basis of quota, not free competition.
There are of course lots of French people who like Bastiat believe in free markets and enterprise. France's problem is that they all seem to live in west London.
Unless the Conservative party begins to outline a coherent, credible free market alternative, Britain too will descend into corporatist mush and mediocrity. There will be lots of entrepreneurial Brits out there, trading freely with the world. But they will be doing so from Singapore, Sydney and Shanghai.
This article first appeared on the Telegraph site, where Douglas writes regularly.
In fairness to Lord Smith of the Environment Agency, he can't control the weather. Anymore than Lord Turner of the Financial Service Authority was able to control the credit cycle. Or Lord Rooker of the Food Standards Agency was able to control the food chain.
From flooded levels to tanked banks, public policy failure comes not because quangos control things, but because we presume that they can.
No central government quangocrats - no matter how worldly or wise - could gather enough information in any one place to know where to dredge to withstand every winter gale. Nor could they know precisely when to raise bank reserve ratios to withstand a financial one. Thus we eventually get overwhelmed.
For a generation or more, under successive governments, public policy has been handed to central quangos.
Sea defences, once left to district authorities and land owners, became a county responsibility. Then it became the responsibility of two or three Whitehall bodies. And finally in 1996 the preserve of just one, the Environment Agency. Has more land been reclaimed or abandoned to the sea since that process of centralised policy making began?
It's been a similar story for everything from financial service to food regulation.
"But at least these quangos are independent" I hear you say. "Instead of playing politics, the experts can just get on with it".
Letting the experts get on with it never works out quite how we imagine.
With only experts running things, there's no one around to ask those dumb, non-expert questions that need asking like "why aren't we dredging, like we used to?" Or "what happens if Northern Rock, which borrows short term to lend long term, couldn't borrow for a while?"
Worse, leaving things to "experts" means that faddish ideas that excite such people become the basis on which wider public policy interests are decided. The public rarely has much say.
If you work for the Environment Agency, you might well believe in elevating the natural over and above the interests of the human. But does that mean that the rest of us really want "managed retreat"? After centuries of reclaiming land from the sea, are we to now prioritise salt marsh over farm land?
If you work at the Financial Service Authority you might well believe, like so many "expert" economists, that low interest rates are a cause of economic success. What happens if low rates are a consequence of economic success instead? What about the interests of savers?
If you run the Food Standards Agency, it is much easier to insist that every last sandwich shop in the land has a five star rating on its front door. Checking that those cottage pies aren't really cheval pies seems a bit tedious.
Some have suggested that Lord Smith should resign. Replacing leftie Labour placement with Tory placemen will not solve the problem. Passing responsibility back to local government, and making government agencies properly accountable to Parliament, just might.
I'm not sure how I would vote in the Scottish referendum if I lived in Scotland.
On the one hand, I am a Unionist – literally, one side of my family having English roots (plus a bit of Welsh mixed in), and the other being Paisley Scots. There's probably not a street on this island in which there are not family ties binding our two countries together.
Harwich, in my part of Essex, boasts a magnificent bagpipe band, which regularly parades in kilts, testament to the large numbers of Scots that have settled in the area down the years.
It would be a shame if our two countries, which have achieved so many great things together, were to go our separate ways. Do we really want so many cousins, great aunts and grandparents to become foreigners?
And yet if I lived in Scotland I think I would want change.
The argument that Scotland is somehow "too small" to be a success is nonsense. Norway copes with self determination.
A staunch "localist", I reckon if I lived in Scotland I'd be hyper sensitive to the idea of remote officials in London and Brussels making decisions on my behalf. I'd want Scottish concerns decided in Scotland – and I'd want those doing the decision making in Scotland to be made properly answerable to me in a way that they are currently not. A lot of devolution seems to have transferred decision making from one unaccountable elite in London to another in Edinburgh.
Most of all, I think I'd want financial autonomy, the Scottish government living within the Scottish tax base. Decades of fiscal dependence on London have had an enormous impact on Scotland and on the political economy north of the border. And not necessarily for the better.
Since Scottish taxpayers don't have to pick up the tab, what is the rationale in anyone standing for office in Scotland offering voters a lower tax and spend alternative? And we wonder why Scottish politics has drifted ever further left.
The land that produced Adam Smith now has a big, bloated, sclerotic state bureaucracy. I am not sure that that is a long term recipe for prosperity.
What Scotland needs is so-called devo max. Scotland should have complete control over tax and spending decisions. Offer that, and I suspect many voters tempted to vote for separation might just decide to vote to remain in the Union.
New! Download Douglas' new paper on economic policy and monetary reform
"A revolutionary text ... right up there with the Communist manifesto" - Dominic Lawson, Sunday Times