The proposals for constitutional change announced by the prime minister Gordon Brown in the House of Commons earlier this week are as dramatic in their implications as any that that chamber has seen over the course of the last 300 years, writes Professor Conor Gearty, Rausing Director of the Centre for the Study of Human Rights at LSE, in the latest issue of The Tablet.
In his article on constitutional reform, Professor Gearty writes: 'The proposals for constitutional change announced by the prime minister Gordon Brown in the House of Commons earlier this week are as dramatic in their implications as any that that chamber has seen over the course of the last 300 years. Other reforms have been more incendiary: the restriction on the powers of the House of Lords achieved by the Asquith administration would be one example, the great reform legislation of 1832 another. But in its range and content, the green paper that accompanied the prime minister's statement evokes memories of no less a predecessor paper than the Bill of Rights of 1688.
'That revolutionary set of proposals effectively saved parliament from obsolescence by crafting a new relationship between the executive and the state while at the same time setting in train a dynamic that was eventually to lead to a democratic state. These proposals have the potential to do in the 21st century what that iconic law did in the 18th and 19th. That this would seem to be possible not only without revolution but without even a change of administration (other than at the very top) is a testimony to the flexibility as well as the durability of that unwritten work of genius, the British constitution.
The Brown reforms have two aims: better control of government and a more engaged democratic culture. To succeed, the first must wrestle successfully with the abiding conundrum that is at the core of the British system: how can parliament be the legislative mouthpiece of the executive while at the same time holding that branch of government effectively to account, in other words be both lapdog and guard dog at the same time?
'The Brown plan preserves the essence of the system which delivers strong government to the United Kingdom: there is nothing here on federalism, on contriving a new separation of powers, on changing the voting rights of Scottish MPs on English issues (specifically ruled out in fact), on breaking down the party system or on radically changed voting procedures. But within that framework, clearly viewed as essential to the business of effective governance, the clout of the executive is to be greatly circumscribed. The prerogative powers of the Monarch, long exercised on his or her behalf by ministers, are to be brought under parliamentary control, so that such matters as the declaration of war, the ratification of treaties, the recall and dissolution of parliament, and the making of many senior appointments will henceforth attract an entirely new form of democratic scrutiny. There is to be a new Civil Service Act with guarantees of independence, a review of the powers of the attorney general and a withdrawal of the government from any role in the appointment of judges. Trust in the executive in the field of national security (at a very low ebb post Iraq) is to be rebuilt by drawing parliament far more into discussions of strategy and then into the oversight of those agencies tasked to implement whatever is agreed. This extraordinary menu of change is evidence of the Brown administration's determination to win back the confidence of the public without conceding so much that government becomes impossible. If all goes well this week's statement may come to be viewed as one of the finest examples of that rare breed, a deeply radical position that is also mature, serious and carefully thought through.
'The second goal of the proposals, the revival of Britain's democracy, also has Parliament at its core. Further reform of the House of Lords is promised. New committees to engage with the regions are to be established. The case for voting at weekends is to be examined. All women lists of parliamentary candidates are to be maintained. The House of Commons is specifically asked by the prime minister to agree a new process for ensuring consideration of petitions from members of the public. This commitment to democratic reinvigoration goes further than Westminster, to embrace both "a new concordat between local and central government" and innovative powers to allow the public directly to engage with their representatives via local initiative powers and new "citizens juries". Even public protest is given a symbolic nod of approval with the promise to consult over a change to the law that currently controls protest in the vicinity of parliament. And as though all this were not enough, the prime minster has invited the public to engage in "a sustained debate [over] whether there is a case for the United Kingdom developing a full British Bill of Rights and Duties, or for moving towards a written constitution". However this is promised not to take the place of the European Convention on Human Rights which is given a special acknowledgement towards the end of the discussion paper. So while the emphasis in the Brown plan is on British freedom and British democracy, there is no sense of this being in any way a camouflaged attacked on the non-British (immigrants or asylum seekers, for example).
'The scene having been so ably set, responsibility for this agenda for change is now shared, with success depending as much (or even more) on parliamentarians and the informed public as on Mr Brown and his Cabinet team. The scheme of democratic revitalisation via a renewed focus on parliament is clearly here to stay for the foreseeable future at least: this was evident in the careful, unspun way in which these proposals were presented, not on this or that sofa or some television studio or via a ghost written column in a popular Sunday paper, but on the floor of the House of Commons, and accompanied by a genuine discussion paper rather than a series of fait accompli (in contrast, to take one example, to the government paper on a human rights bill published in 1997 which came with a fully drafted set of proposals). The calm and reflective way in which the new ministerial team not only at No 10 but also at the Home Office reacted to the large-scale terrorist crisis which engulfed them in their first hours in power was also a remarkably promising augury for the future: here is a group of men and women who are not likely to buckle under pressure, or ditch a policy to achieve some short-term goal. After ten years in office, new Labour under Gordon Brown is finally settling into power, less willing to jump through other people's hoops and more confident about setting its own agenda, not so much a fag-end administration, perhaps, than one about to catch fire?'
This article appeared in The Tablet: see http://www.thetablet.co.uk/issues/1000056/
9 July 2007