Britain’s historic record on constitutional reform has not been good. Throughout the C20th in Britain, constitutional reform was patchy at best and delayed by the ‘Establishment’ as any changes brought in had to undermine the position held by the ‘Establishment’. Historians argue that the last great pieces of constitutional reform were the 1911 Parliament Act which went some way to decreasing the power of the House of Lords and the 1918 Representation of the People Act which nearly trebled the electorate and allowed women over the age of 30 the right to vote. With some minor changes, there has been no major constitutional reform in 80 years.
Despite its undoubted achievements in other areas, the last Conservative government 1992-1997 ignored calls for constitutional reform and put forward no coherent suggestions of its own. It can be seen from the Tory 1992 manifesto that they were clearly against devolution, though had considered the need for parliamentary reform. Extracts taken from their manifesto show their views on such issues:
|‘We will propose appropriate Parliamentary reforms to ensure that the House of Commons conducts its business more efficiently and effectively, taking into account the benefits of modern technology, the increasing constituency demands upon Members of Parliament and the need to attract more women to stand for election.”Nationalist plans for independence are a recipe for weakness and isolation. The costly Labour and Liberal devolution proposals for Scotland and Wales do not intend to bring about separation, but run that risk. They could feed, but not resolve, grievances that arise in different parts of Britain. The plans for devolution put forward by the other parties would have a grave impact not just on Scotland and Wales, but also on England. They propose new and costly regional assemblies in England, for which there is no demand. We will oppose all such unnecessary layers of government. The Union has brought us strength both economically and politically. Our constitution is flexible, fair and tolerant. We will fight to preserve the Union, a promise which only the Conservatives can give at this election.’
In the Tory Party’s 1997 manifesto such devolution plans for Scotland and Wales are still strongly opposed. Plans to resist moves to a European federal state, to safeguard national interests by staying out of the single European currency and to adopt a wait-and-see approach are also expressed.
In a speech to the Labour Party Conference on 4th October 1994, Tony Blair stated that the party’s programme of constitutional reform was ‘the biggest programme of change to democracy ever proposed’. In keeping with this claim, the new government introduced 12 constitutional bills in the first parliamentary session after its election victory in 1997, which in itself was an extraordinary achievement. New Labour’s programme of constitutional reforms developed during the 1990’s and formed a central part of the 1997 manifesto commitments. There were four main themes:
1.The modernisation of political institutions – the main candidates have been both Houses of Parliament, the civil service and local government.
2. Greater democratisation of the political system – in particular, this has been directed at increased popular participation in institutions and the decision-making process. The acceptance of the use of referendums and other forms of direct democracy are the principal initiatives, but there has also been some movement towards electoral reform and a number of other, less heralded, proposals.
3. The decentralisation of powers from Westminster and Whitehall – naturally devolution was at the forefront of this process, but there has also been talk of greater powers for local government and even the introduction of regional government in England.
4. Improving and safeguarding individual and minority rights – the flagship for this has been the Human Rights Act, which came into force on 2nd October 2000.
Constitutional reforms that have been introduced
The ratifying of the Maastricht Treaty raised questions about Britain’s sovereignty. What many saw as an erosion of civil liberties suggested the advantages of a Bill of Rights. The centralisation of power (the reduction of the powers of local government, for example) and the increasing use of un-elected quangos led to calls for greater democracy and accountability. The uncovering of miscarriages of justice led to calls for judicial reform. Corruption in the House of Commons and criticisms of its unrepresentative make-up led to calls for the modernisation of parliamentary procedures.
Government of Wales Act 1998.
Scotland Act 1998.
Northern Ireland (Elections) Act 1998.
Northern Ireland Act 1998.
Regional Development Agencies Act 1998.
Incorporation of European Convention on Human Rights: Human Rights Act 1998.
Electoral reform: Registration of Political Parties Act 1998.
Elected Mayors: Greater London Authority Referendum Act 1998.
Lords reform: House of Lords Act 1999.
Electoral reform: European Parliamentary Elections Act 1999.
Elected Mayor for London: Greater London Authority Act 1999.
Local government reform: Local Government Act 2000.
Freedom of Information: Freedom of Information Act.
Controls on Party Funding: Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill.
Northern Ireland: Disqualification Bill.