August 23, 2006

Does the UK need a written constitution? (Or a Minister for Fitness!?!)

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The news today that the government has appointed a Minister for Fitness (why not John Prescott, I hear you scream) has got me thinking about the never ending knee–jerk, headline grabbing policies proposed by the current government that, for at least the last four years, have appeared with no apparent integration nor strategy. Not that I'm saying that the opposition are any better, but then, it's always been something of a fallacy that oppositions should have policies; the clue is in the title, they're their to oppose. You could say that the current administration have simply run out of ideas, are losing momentum or have lost all of their competent spin doctors. I think all three are probably true but what interested me was that these policies seem to be designed to draw attention from the most political crisis of the current era. One that none of the parties appear to be engaging at all with what I think has been exacerbated by successive regimes; the collapse of faith in politicians and the apparent breakdown of the traditional constitutional operation of government.

I think the breakdown of trust and the perversion of the political system are intertwined problems. Politicians are so intent on being elected that they must occupy the middle ground therefore ideology goes out of the window. Saying what you know you must say and not what you believe is lying, which with the addition of spin, press intrusion into private lives and the village mentality of Westminster leads to endemic lying. I agree that this is a simplification but this is a blog not an essay. My point is that in trying to control the message the parties have had to centralise as much power into the hands of the executive as possible. Initially, this simply meant a more robust whip system and the appointment of central candidates with little real world experience but lots of party kudos. Once this had been accomplished (New Labour being the flag carrier) this centralisation of power has spread into every other area of politic; reform of the House of Lords and appointments, party discipline (love him or hate him, Ken Livingstone was treated abominably), civil liberties (ID cards, stop and search etc.), the war on terror and all the abuses implicit in that (dodgy dossiers, camp x–ray, extraordinary rendition)... Almost all of these things have been condemned by the public but there appears to be no accountability other than at the general election and the executive appear free to act as they please without constraint or real, robust interrogation from the Commons, no limitations from a real second chamber and, crucially, no central moral core. Charles Clarke (a good Minister) was thrown to the dogs for something that was not his fault and relatively minor compared to the things that Tony's wormed his way out of and every other Ministerial resignation has been due to a largely non political press witch hunt. The one shining light of decency is Robin Cook.

The United Kingdom has, we are told, historically operated on the basis of an 'unwritten constitution' based on tradition, institutions and the common weal. It's fairly clear that this had a lot to do in the past with class relationships and everyone knowing their place. Without getting into partisan politics, it's pretty clear that since WWII (and possibly the original Parliament Act before WWI) that balanced system has come unstuck. Some of this is good, some bad (and as a caveat, I think much of what has appeared bad in the last decade has merely been made transparent by a far more aggressive press rather than being new phenomena). Nevertheless, I think I would vote for a party who promised to seriously engage with these issues and produce some kind of written constitution that we, the people, could hold the government to task on and that would allow politicians to stand by their convictions and not just try to appeal to the middle ground. The US obviously has huge failings, but at least the Bush administration has been constrained at times (as now with the phone tapping issue) by the US Constitution and I can see air between the stances of the Republicans and Democrats; Tony and David could be interchangeable as party leaders.

If the UK had a constitution, what should it look like? Should it be a straightforward Bill of Rights (like the US one – short and easy to understand, studied in school) that sets out the very clear rights and responsibilities of every member of our society or should it be a rule book on the operation of the state i.e. defining the powers of the PM and the relationship with Parliament (I think the French have something like this – could someone who knows more clarify?).

Does anyone else have views on this?

- 16 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

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  1. Who would be the Ppople's choice (since the government likes "People's" this or "People's" that so much) for Minister for Fitness be?

    Charles Clarke, perhaps?

    23 Aug 2006, 12:36

  2. "The one shining light of decency is Robin Cook"

    The one shining light WAS Robin Cook, surely (sadly).

    23 Aug 2006, 12:51

  3. Keith

    Anna sent me over here.

    Was she appointed as minister for "fitness" or "fit minister" :)

    Sorry, seriously, good points raised. Not sure French system works too well. They seem to need a good riot to get dissatisfaction noticed. If you want to find out more about the French Constitution, this: link page seems to have some good background.

    23 Aug 2006, 14:28

  4. Martin

    Someone under 30, hot and bothered about the breath–taking duplicity and insincerity of today's Government. Good on you Tom. Unfortunately I'm almost as bothered by the public's apparent blindness (or is it indifference?) to what's been going on politically for over a decade. With just how much can Blair and co get away? I loathed Thatcher's government but somehow at least there was more transparency; it was more blatantly Right Wing… and strangely, little different to New Labour.
    Incidentally I think you're spot on with Robin Cook but way too charitable to Charles Clarke (who, I think, was one big fat slime–ball….no, he was a liar!). And finally it may be a good idea to ask Nana to give your (excellent) essays the once over just to check for spelling, tenses etc?
    More rants, please. Best regards.

    24 Aug 2006, 07:41

  5. way too charitable to Charles Clarke (who, I think, was one big fat slime–ball

    That's why I put him up for Minister for fitness!!

    24 Aug 2006, 09:34

  6. Lol – spelling never a strong point! Slightly concerned about tenses – must re–read.

    24 Aug 2006, 11:28

  7. Good article.

    I don't feel that a written constitution is necessary, although I would struggle to provide legal or other arguments to back up my claim strongly enough! Certainly, though, any UK constitution written by this Government would be hundreds of pages long and full of ideologically–driven statements extraneous to anything one would normally describe as a constitution (cf. the EU constitution). The US has grown up around its constitution; the UK introducing one after hundreds of years of democracy and legal precedent can only introduce confusion.

    24 Aug 2006, 14:07

  8. I agree that the introduction of a constitution could/would introduce confusion but I'm struggling to see an alternative path through the current political vicissitudes. It's not that I think politicians today are any less competent or more corrupt than they were historically (as ever there are good ones and bad ones) but I do think that society has changed around them. When the political class was closed it was also controlled the expectations of the class system (honour – or at least the appearance of honour) and suffered fewer attempts to pervert it. Today it is more a question of what they can get away with without being forced to resign – and with an increasingly disinterested electorate they have a lot of leeway.

    In short universal suffrage and political access to all = good. However, it creates a whole new set of problems that the old traditions can't police.

    My wish (I have a dream…) is that a conviction politician driven by ideology will seek to place an ethical framework (in the classical sense) around the political institutions that could prevent the worse excesses of post 60s governments.

    24 Aug 2006, 14:55

  9. James

    "a straightforward Bill of Rights (like the US one – short and easy to understand, studied in school) that sets out the very clear rights and responsibilities of every member of our society "

    This displays, I'm sorry to say, complete ignorance of the US constitution. There is about one provision that is 'very clear' – the one that says that the President shall be at least 35 years of age. Beyond that, you have statements such as "Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech" – which cannot mean what it says on its face, or we'd have no copyright/intellectual property laws, no military secrets and no censorship for a start. The meaning of just about every provision in the Constitution is furiously fought over and has been since its inception. Apparently clear provisions like the statement that all men are equal were not seen as an impediment to Jim Crow laws or other forms of segregation (justified at the time by the slippery phrase "separate but equal").

    Any written constitution you care to mention consists of short paragaraphs with extremely wide scope for interpretation – just like the free speech clause I mentioned. The UK is already a signatory to just such a document – the European Convention on Human Rights. With such documents, enormous power is handed to the unelected judiciary to interpret it as it chooses, which effects a fundamental alteration in the balance of power between the different branches of government, or would do so in the case of the United Kingdom (it has to an extent with the ECHR, though not to the same extent as the US, because the judges cannot simply strike down Acts of Parliament for incompatibility with the ECHR, they have to declare an incompatibility and it is then up to Parliament to alter the Act or its offending provision).

    That said, I agree that under Blair's government the executive has gotten away from the control of Parliament – though Tony would also argue that he introduced the Human Rights Act, which curbed his powers. I think reform of the House of Lords is one step that could be taken, but I don't think it should be elected or at least not wholly elected. If it were, then it would immediately vie for supremacy with the Commons, and you'd end up with the type of impass that other countries such as Australia during the Whitlam affair encountered. The genius of the British Constitution after the Parliament Acts but before the vandal Blair got hold of it was that the elected Commons always had the final say, as it should be in a democracy. At the same time, I don't support the hereditary principle. I think the solution is to have at least half of the seats in the Lords ex officio, in other words held as of right by various of the great and the good. I am referring to the likes of Vice Chancellors of Universities, heads of industry and trade unions, retired judges, senior ranks in the armed forces, heads of professional bodies like the General Medical and Dental Councils, Law Society, Architects etc. Few people, if any, would seek such positions in the hope of also getting a seat in the Lords. They would thus be devoid of the career–building self interest that blights professional politicians, and would not be beholden to any party whips. They would also bring expertise from a broad range of public life, which would assist in one of the upper house's secondary functions – a forum for expert public debate.

    24 Aug 2006, 17:29

  10. James

    I might add that you say "there appears to be no accountability other than at the general election" – that isn't bad accountability by any means, just ask people from the many, many countries overseas with no general election to speak of. You conclude that paragraph with the alarming statement: "The one shining light of decency is Robin Cook". First of all, he needs to be referred to in the past tense, and secondly, aside from asking his wife about the decency of his behaviour, you might also want to refer to his arms–to–Africa "ethical foreign policy" or his enthusisasm for the war in Kosovo, which in my view whetted Tony's appetite for all the subsequent foreign adventures, to very little gain.

    24 Aug 2006, 17:30

  11. James

    I'm happy to admit that "a straightforward Bill of Rights" is a complete simplification but it was used in the context of presenting an example differentiated from alternatives like those suggested in the EU constitution. Equally, I'll admit I'm no expert on the US constitution but I think 'complete ignorance' is a tad stung; I reduced a concept that was subsidiary to my main point in order to posit a question. If anything, the kind of debate that you suggest has stemmed from the many ambiguities within the US Bill of Rights is exactly what I'm suggesting might be healthy for the UK – it provides a frameworks for such debate that is distinct from the current UK system of Crown Privileges and would, I believe, strengthen British democracy.

    I'm in absolute agreement about the reformation of the House of Lords. There would be tremendous benefit from seeding it with the great and the good (and from beyond the usual Whitehall/London sphere). The difficulty is – and I don't think that there is a solution for this – a second chamber would be as time consuming as the first (possibly more so given the Lords tend to attend more reliably than the MPs!). The people you suggest would have to minimise the time they spent in their professional capacities in order to serve and, after sufficient exposure to the political world, lose a little of what made them such attractive candidates in the first place. You could seek only the retired from each profession. Another solution could be to have paid Lords who are elected by their peers/institutions. I presume Oxford and Cambridge used to elect their representatives when they had seats (does anyone know offhand?) – the other Universities could do the same. Equally the other groups you mentioned have strong corporate identities which could become electoral collages. It may create a very odd, specialised political class but I suspect it would be very different from that currently in situ. It also raises the question of how do you decide on the groups to be given this privilege and where do you stop; the National Trust; the RSPB; major landowners?

    Raising the spectre that 'other people have it worse' is, to my mind, a difficult argument. It is used by many regimes to justify oppressive activities and employing it to argue that the current system is good enough introduces a tricky element of moral relativism. The point about Robin Cook is fair (my grammatical slip not with standing), however, I would maintain that his resignation over the war with Iraq was – at the time – both unusual and one of the most laudable by a Minister under the current regime. Taking one action in isolation is always a risk, however, I can't think of many other Ministers who have exhibited conviction of the sort Cook took on that occasion.

    24 Aug 2006, 21:09

  12. James

    Fair enough, in my defence it was the end of the day, I was being held up by someone annoying me, so I felt like a rant.

    Re Cook – I'll grant you he was more honorable than Clare Short, who said she was resigning but could she keep a decent job Cabinet–related anyway …

    25 Aug 2006, 09:37

  13. Hamid Sirhan

    Absolutely not. Our current constitution is perfectly acceptable and has the added advantage of being flexible.

    25 Aug 2006, 19:38

  14. Michael Jones

    Magna Carta, anyone? That had been working fine for centuries until PT&C took a bulldozer to it with their attempts to allow (possibly indefinitely) extended periods of imprisonment without trial.

    I think any Minister for Fitness should lead by example. I hereby solemnly promise that if John Prescott runs the London Marathon I will donate £1000 to a charity of his choice, and double that if he and Clarke do it together as a pantomime horse.

    27 Aug 2006, 14:56

  15. uksuk


    09 Nov 2006, 01:53

  16. Stacey Robinson

    I believe that it would be a good idea for their to be a written constitution in this country as maybe the current electoral system would be sorted out.
    Surely it is not fair for the Whips to go into each political party and influence the MP’s votes with threats of being dismissed from their electorate???????

    07 Oct 2007, 09:50

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