IN 1978, the Conservative peer Lord Hailsham published a book entitled The Dilemma Of Democracy. If you can dig out a copy, it is well worth reading. In it, he took an honest look at the British state, from the point of view of an establishment insider. He had seen it close-up, not only from the pretty angles presented to public audiences, and he was not impressed.

He recognised that the British state hung by a very thin and fragile thread. In the absence of a written constitution, or any effective checks and balances, the whole thing could be overthrown, and whatever merits and virtues it possessed could be trampled underfoot, by a wayward prime minister backed by a well-whipped partisan majority.

Lord Hailsham was not the first to make this observation. In Victorian times, the great legal reformer Sir James Fitzjames Stephen wrote that “The character of our public men is the sheet anchor on which our institutions depend”. As long as political life was sustained by “wise and honourable” people, any defects in the system could be borne and corrected. But, he warned: “If, however, the personal character of English politicians should ever be seriously lowered, it is difficult not to feel that the present state of the constitution would give bad and unscrupulous men a power for evil hardly equalled in any other part of the world.” Well, indeed.

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When Hailsham was writing, that prospect of “bad and unscrupulous” people getting into power was still mostly hypothetical. The informal restraints of the “good chaps” theory were mostly still working. Hailsham feared not so much personal corruption, as excessive ideological zeal. He was worried that a far-left Labour party might come to power and start sweeping away private property and nationalising everything in sight.

It turned out, however, that such ideological zeal was found – in the 1980s and ever since – on the right. It wasn’t excessive, irresponsible, doctrinaire nationalisation that was imposed upon the people by crudely majoritarian, centralised, unbalanced, top-down decision-making institutions; it was excessive, irresponsible, doctrinaire privatisation, union-busting, deregulation and cuts.

Even so, Hailsham’s assessment was fundamentally correct: that the paradoxical weakness of the British state was that its central executive was too strong. Decisions could be taken at the top, by a small group of ministers, officials and advisers, and then rammed through without proper thought, deliberation, scrutiny or control. It was this pattern of decision-making – without moderation or constraint – that allowed Liz Truss, almost in the space of an afternoon, to ruin what was left of the Brexit-battered economy.

Lord Hailsham’s prescription for how to fix this problem will come as no surprise: devolution-all-round (including to English regions), a reformed second chamber, some kind of electoral reform (although he was reluctant to embrace proportional representation for the House of Commons), all wrapped up in a written constitution with a justiciable bill of rights.

Similar ideas, with the addition of a commitment to proportional representation for the Commons, were proposed by the SDP-Liberal Alliance – the “radical centrist” party that later became the Liberal Democrats – in their 1983 election manifesto. These became the “standard package” for British reformists, most notably in the Charter 88 proposals.

Tony Blair made some progress towards such reforms. Devolution and the Human Rights Act were perhaps the greatest achievements. However, the fundamental problem which Lord Hailsham had identified – the lack of a written constitution to give grounding, substance and clarity to public institutions – was unresolved. Not wanting to limit the power of their Westminster majority, New Labour’s approach was piecemeal, incremental and inconsistent, tinkering at the edges. It left some things better, but the whole system worse than before, because whatever coherence it had previously possessed was lost.

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We have seen the product of that incoherence in recent years. Westminster does not know how to handle Scotland or how to recognise multiple self-governing nations within one state. The use of the Section 35 order to veto an Act of the Scottish Parliament is just the latest and most obvious indication of their wish to make Scotland go away.

We might go away sooner than they think. Whatever Brown and Starmer propose will not be enough to fix the Union. If they had really wanted to fix it in 1979, 1997, or even 2015, they could probably have done so. But now there is no fix to the Union. England has to get its own house in order.

Just as the Soviet Union was not brought down by Ukrainian nationalism, but by Russian corruption, demoralisation and disarray, so the United Kingdom might not be brought down by Scottish nationalism, but by English corruption, demoralisation and disarray. It is easier for a distressed and distracted England, absorbed with its own deep, mostly self-inflicted, economic and political problems, to put up its hands and say: “Be gone with you.” Let us be ready, with our lamps trimmed and burning.