A major issue within British politics has been constitutional reforms; the reform of the Lords, devolution and the potential for a written constitution. How effective have been the reforms that have been passed?
The centrepiece of Labour’s programme of constitutional reform was undoubtedly devolution. This was achieved with remarkably few problems. There now seems no likelihood that the new arrangements could be reversed, even by a Conservative administration. The election on 6th May 1999 of a Parliament in Scotland, with extensive powers of primary legislation, and an Assembly in Wales, with powers of secondary legislation only, will have a profound impact on governance within the UK. In Northern Ireland there is an Assembly with a complex power-sharing arrangement, but it will wield significant authority only if agreement between the parties can be reached. Only England has, so far, been left out of the devolution framework. Although power has been devolved to a Greater London Assembly and Mayor, this represents city rather than regional governance.
Promises of ‘revitalising’ local government, by granting it more powers in return for more stringent responsibilities, have largely been unrealised. The regions themselves have had since April 1999 regional development agencies, but these are national bodies appointed by ministers and not regional bodies directly answerable to an electorate. There has been some relaxation of controls on local spending, but this does not represent significant reform. It should be emphasised that, despite these decentralising tendencies, there has also been a good deal of centralisation of administrative power into the Cabinet Office and the Prime Minister’s own office. Both represent important constitutional development but they are in opposite directions. In the summer of 2002, John Prescott, the minister responsible for the regions, spoke of his desire to give to English regions more devolved power similar to those that Wales and Scotland have. However, no details were released by the minister when he made this statement.
As both critics and proponents of devolution have pointed out, devolution is a process not an event. Consequently, the devolution settlement will continue to evolve over the coming years, and politicians in the devolved governments are likely to press for extra powers. Furthermore, if the devolved assemblies are seen to be a success, the English regions are likely to campaign for their own regional assemblies to give them an equivalent voice - and to hold John Prescott to his word. Indeed, they have already started - in the north there is a Campaign for a Northern Assembly, and there are similar stirrings in the North West and in Yorkshire and Humberside. If they are successful they might set off a process of ‘leapfrog’, as has happened in Spain: as those regions with fewer powers seek to catch up, those which are already ahead may press for even more in order to maintain their lead.
The government’s reforms contain a number of elements that will lead to change at Westminster. The biggest change would be the adoption of the Jenkins Commission to elect the House of Commons. The government was committed to holding a referendum on the voting system during the life of the Parliament, but that has not happened. The Commission recommended a system it called AV plus: using the alternative vote in single-member constituencies, but adding 15 to 20% additional members to provide greater proportionality. Whilst not making coalition governments inevitable, AV plus would certainly make it more likely, and this would lead to the loosening of party ties that are already under pressure because of devolution. With PR, the nature of the Commons might change too - it would be less adversarial - in the two-party sense - and there would probably be more women and ethnic minority MPs.
The picture on electoral reform is mixed. The single transferable vote (STV) was used to elect the new Northern Ireland Assembly, the hybrid additional member system (AMS) was used to elect the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh and Greater London Assemblies and a regional list system was employed for the 1999 elections to the European Parliament. So proportional representation (PR) is now widely used in Britain - but that is as far as it goes. There may well be some support for using PR at local government level, but the key measure - electoral reform for general elections - remains a remote prospect. Tony Blair, once an enthusiast, has apparently lost interest. Not surprisingly so as the current Labour majority could suffer through a PR system. The Labour manifesto for the next general election - when ever it may be - may well not contain the proposal.
The second chamber stood out as the prime candidate for reform. It has long been an ambition of the Labour Party to tackle what it has seen as both an anachronism and a remnant of class privilege in Britain. In the past, the party had insufficient political authority - no Commons majority - to affect any reform, but in 1997 that was changed. With a huge electoral endorsement and a leadership determined to take on the Lords, the process began. Stage one saw the removal of most of the hereditary peers, leaving 92, who were to remain during a transitional period.
Meanwhile, a committee led by Lord Wakeham reported on the way forward. It recommended a new House to be composed partly of elected members and partly of appointed life peers. It advocated the creation of a commission to filter out unsatisfactory candidates and to ensure that the political balance of the future House would not favour the ruling party. At this point the incentive ran out; Labour has decided to wait for a fresh electoral mandate before completing the reforms. One further minor initiative is the intention to create a small number of ‘people’s peers’ - independent members, largely self-nominated, who are to represent the ‘man and woman in the street’. This largely cosmetic measure is unlikely to further the cause of democratic participation a great deal, but would be ideally suited for the Labour Party, as it would make for good publicity.
By contrast, virtually no progress has been made with the Commons. It was hoped that the scrutiny arrangements in the Commons would be increased, possibly including pre-legislative committee hearings, reformed procedures and more member-friendly hours of business, but little has changed. Indeed, the Conservatives have taken the initiative with the Norton Report, which proposes a considerable strengthening of the select committee system.
The modernisation of the civil service has made much less impact than the radical reforms conducted by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. There have been few institutional changes and, to a large extent, New Labour’s programme has been little more than an extension of the process introduced under Thatcher and Major. More executive agencies have been and are being created. The concept of ‘value for money’ - known officially now as ‘best value’ - continues to be stressed, as does the need for efficiency and good public service. However, the main constitutional effect of civil service change has occurred gradually and largely unannounced: the growth in the number of ‘temporary’ civil servants, and political advisors who have been brought into the civil service with the express purpose of providing political advice.
The growth in the influence of such advisors - Alastair Campbell and Jonathan Powell are key examples - has had serious consequences for the traditional neutrality of the service. The government has stressed that devolution does not mean the end of a unified civil service, but in the long run it seems unlikely that the pressures to end it can be resisted. If there are alternative or opposing regimes in Westminster and Edinburgh or Cardiff, civil servants may find their loyalty and neutrality tested. Furthermore, the devolved governments will not wish to tolerate for long a situation where the professional head of their civil service is the Cabinet Secretary in London. The civil service will have to develop new ways of working with the new governments, operating under the umbrella of bodies like the Joint Ministerial Committee on Devolution, which will be the main forum in which the UK government negotiates with the devolved governments.
Most progress has been made in the field of the protection of individual and minority rights. The Human Rights Act, which came into force on 2nd October 2000, incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights into British law. Rights campaigners are disappointed that the Convention will not be superior to parliamentary legislation. It will still be possible for Parliament to pass laws that contravene the Convention. However, government ministers, the devolved assemblies, local authorities, quangos and all public bodies will be subject to the Convention. It remains to be seen how effective the act will be. That depends on how Parliament and government react to its criticism and how determined the courts are in enforcing its provisions. Nevertheless, all are agreed that it represents a significant step towards the more effective protection of rights.
The Freedom of Information Act has given citizens greater powers to view information held about themselves and allows Parliament and the media greater access to official papers and reports. Though it marks a significant step on the road to open government - a vital element in democratic government - campaigners have been disappointed by its lack of scope. The principal objection to the current proposals is that government will still have the opportunity to deny access to a very wide range of information. In effect, it appears that ministers will still have opportunities to block access in ‘the national interest’, which is a very wide measure. The Act can be seen as a good start, but with the restrictions bounded upon it the government have been criticised for ‘not doing better’.
The paradox of Labour’s plans for constitutional reform is that the Government has delivered a vast, far-reaching programme of change, meeting most of the demands of the majority of ardent reformers, and representing the biggest changes in our system of government since 1911. But it has been largely overshadowed by the shady deals and political fixes through which it has been introduced, and the lack of any real desire by Labour to make Parliament more effective.
In a purely constitutional sense, the Britain pre-Blair was a foreign country. There was no Edinburgh Parliament or Cardiff Assembly, no London elected mayor or the promise of more mayors to come in towns and cities. Hereditary peers held the balance of power in the House of Lords. Proportional representation was something they did on the Continent, like the European Convention on Human Rights. Most of the heavyweight constitutional changes figured in the first Queen’s Speech, but many voters failed to understand why the first Labour Government for 20 years took up so much parliamentary time on reforms when there were far more pressing problems such as the NHS.
Tony Blair boasts that 100 years after the creation of the Labour Party, he has delivered three of Keir Hardie’s historic benchmarks for a Labour Government: the minimum wage, devolution and abolition of the hereditary peers. It was what Labour wanted - but the way the constitutional settlement has been handed has almost torn the party apart, earned Blair the title of ‘control freak’ and at times come at a heavy cost to his standing in the Labour ranks.