Christopher Foster's scarifying critique of the de- generation of British government under Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair could not have appeared at a better time. The central issue in this soporific election is the man who called it. Blair was once Labour's great white hope. Now he is very nearly its albatross. No prime minister since Neville Chamberlain in 1940 has suffered such a precipitous fall in credibility and stature. The proximate cause is the Iraq war, but the true cause goes deeper. Blair's decline has been caused, in the first place, by the very attributes that once enabled him to bewitch his public - his mastery of spin, his appearance of wide-eyed sincerity, his ability to be all things to all men, his light ideological baggage, his skill at economising with the truth and his Houdini-like capacity to wriggle out of blame. He has been rumbled, and no one can de-rumble him. On a deeper and less obvious level, his decline is also owing to his patent belief that he has a direct line to the Almighty, and the contempt for due process that this belief has bolstered.
Contempt for due process runs through the history of the Blair governments like a livid wound. Though few people noticed (I certainly didn't), it was manifested right at the start in the outrageous use of the royal prerogative to give Jonathan Powell and Alastair Campbell - personal prime ministerial appointees whose sole responsibility was to their patron - the power to give orders to professional civil servants, recruited on merit, whose ultimate responsibility was to the public.
That was venial compared with later manifestations. Again and again in the Iraq saga, Blair and his entourage defied legality or due process or constitutional propriety, or all three. The war itself was illegal, as the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, has made clear. Other examples include the "sexing up" of the notorious dossier (amply confirmed by the evidence in the Hutton report, even if the good judge did not grasp the implications of his own revelations), the slippery treatment of the Attorney General's advice on the legality of the war, the savage campaign against the BBC after Hutton reported, and the unminuted conclaves of trusties around Blair's sofa that became a substitute for cabinet government. David Blunkett's incessant attacks on the independence of the judiciary and Charles Clarke's assault on some of our most precious civil liberties are in the same category.
The answer of the Labour government is that such matters are of no concern to "our people". Only the chattering classes care; the good, solid folk from whence the Labour movement comes, and the less solid but electorally crucial denizens of "Middle England", have more sensible priorities: economic growth, improved public services and a crackdown on crime and immigration. This answer smells strongly of a regime slithering towards crisis. It reminds me of the things the East German or Soviet nomenklatura used to say in the late 1980s. The truth is that deepening disdain for the government's slipperiness - and deepening distrust of Blair himself - are as common among "our people" as among Hampstead liberals or Guardian readers. Indeed, they are shared by large numbers of Labour Party members, and perhaps by most of them. Labour voters in this election will be going to the polling booths holding their noses. So, I suspect, will a fair number of Labour MPs.
Even if it were true that only the chattering classes care about due process, it would not follow that Blair's contempt for it is a light matter. What is at stake is the health of British democracy, perhaps even its survival in any meaningful sense. Due process and the rule of law are not, in themselves, guarantees of democracy, but they are indispensable to it. Without them, democratic forms are merely camouflage for institutional mob rule or the soft totalitarianism that Alexis de Tocqueville warned against in Democracy in America. In countries with written constitutions, they are enshrined in a fundamental law. In Britain, as Foster shows, they have been embodied in a complex network of precedents and conventions, protected partly by the courts, but most of all by a professional, meritocratic, non-partisan civil service, whose career paths were in effect immune from political interference and whose duty was to tell truth to power.
Pre-eminent among the conventions that these institutions protected was the notion of disinterested public administration. Cabinet government - government by a college representing the range of opinion within the governing party, and the range of interests covered by the departments whose heads it contained - was also very important. So was a tacit division of responsibility and power, whereby the "low politics" of service delivery was left to locally elected persons who knew at first hand where the shoe pinched, while "high politics" went to the centre.
That system has perished. The Thatcher governments crippled it, and the Blair governments have given it the coup de grace. It has been replaced by a curiously manic form of manipulative populism, highly centralist in effect and strongly tinged with authoritarianism. Under the Thatcher regime, manipulative populism centred on the leader. Under the present regime, it centres on the diarchy of Blair and Brown. This is not the only difference between the two administrations. Not the least of Foster's achievements is to show that, despite her authoritarian instincts and her propensity to appeal to a largely imaginary people over the heads of cabinet, party and civil service, Thatcher maintained the facade of collegial government and knew how to distinguish between policy and spin. Under Blair, the facade has gone, and policy and spin have become indistinguishable. The Blair governments have been driven overwhelmingly by the imperatives of media management; with the solitary exception of Iraq, policy content has come second to an unremitting, 24-hour-a-day campaign to shape the headlines and stay ahead in the polls. As Foster demonstrates with icy clarity, the evisceration of the civil service and the cabinet have followed from that imperative as night follows day. So has the mounting illiberalism of the government's approach to crime, immigration and the threat of terrorism.
So where do we go from here? At this point, Foster loses his bite. He is for representative democracy, wishes to revive it, and makes sensible points about its prerequisites, but he is cool towards the idea of a written - or, as he calls it, "legal" - constitution, and sees no need for a new constitutional settlement based on first principles. He wants, he says, to "reconstruct, while modernising, what we have", instead of lurching in one direction and then another. He does not seem to realise that we do not know what we have: that the British political tradition encompasses several understandings of what democracy is, how it came to pass and what it ought to be.
Yet the crisis of British government that he has diagnosed so lucidly is a crisis not of individuals, but of the system. It has crept up on us, not just over the 26 years since Thatcher became prime minister, but during the 40-odd years since the essentially Whig vision of democracy and the democratic state that we inherited from the 19th century started to collapse. We are in our present mess because that vision has not been replaced. The manipulative and authoritarian populism with which Blair triumphed, and which now seems to be his nemesis, reflects a vacuum of understanding and principle. It cannot be replaced by meliorative tinkering. Only a British orange revolution will do.
David Marquand's most recent book is Decline of the Public: the hollowing out of citizenship (Polity Press)