Vernon Bogdanor is Research Professor at the Institute of Contemporary British History, King’s College London. His books include The New British Constitution (2009) and The Coalition and the Constitution (2011).
The years since 1997 have seen a veritable cornucopia of constitutional reforms. The Blair/Brown governments placed on the statute book measures providing for devolution, a Human Rights Act, a Freedom of Information Act, a directly elected mayor of London, and the removal of the vast majority of hereditary peers from the House of Lords. In a book I published in 2009, I suggested that these reforms were so wide-ranging that they had created A New British Constitution.
How is this era of reform to be explained? The ideological origins of the reform movement lie, I believe, in the radical liberalism of the late-19th century, which, with universal suffrage nearly achieved, sought to improve the quality of democracy by widening the scope of popular participation. The movement was revived by the generation of 1968, and it is no accident that many in the vanguard of Labour’s constitutional reform programme belonged to that generation. Admittedly, the rhetoric of 1968 was neo-Marxist, but its main catchword was ‘participation’. It sought a more participatory democracy, not a more humane collectivism.
Yet the reforms of the Blair/Brown era have not brought about a more participatory democracy. What they have done is replace a system based on the sovereignty of parliament, the unitary state and an uncodified constitution with one based on the separation of powers, a quasi-federal state and a constitution that is gradually coming to be codified. (Nb. A codified constitution is one in which no single, formal document delineates the powers of a government, and the limits thereof.)
Political forms versus ideological forces
The Labour government managed to disperse power away from Whitehall. As a result, Britain is no longer the “elective dictatorship” that Lord Hailsham famously described in the 1970s. Instead, Britain is becoming a constitutional state. But it is far from being a popular constitutional state. If one asked someone living in England, who does not want devolution and who may favour the Human Rights Act but hopes never to have to use it, whether the constitutional reforms of the Blair/Brown era had made a difference to his or her life, they would find it difficult to give a positive answer. The reforms dispersed power sideways to members of the officer class – new political elites in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London and to the judges – but not to the people.
But the era of constitutional reform did not come to an end with Labour’s defeat in 2010. The coalition has its own programme of reform. This was characterised by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg as “the most significant programme of empowerment by a British government since the great enfranchisement of the 19th century” and “the biggest shake-up of our democracy since 1832, when the Great Reform Act redrew the boundaries of British democracy”. Already on the statute book are reforms providing for fixed-term parliaments, for the extension of devolution in Scotland and Wales, and for referendums on directly elected mayors in the great conurbations of the midlands and the north, a measure that, by encouraging local patriotism, may help to assuage English resentment at devolution.
Two constitutional issues are likely to dominate the second half of this Parliament. The first is the referendum on Scottish independence, which will probably be held in autumn 2014. David Cameron has indicated that if, as he hopes, the Scots reject independence, there will be a further extension of devolution. The second is House of Lords reform, providing for a wholly or partially elected upper house. If, as is likely, reform is rejected by the Lords, the government will have to bring into play the Parliament Act. This means that reform might not be on the statue book until 2014. Much parliamentary time will be taken up on an issue that is probably around 357th on most voters’ list of priorities.
The coalition itself raises an important constitutional issue. For it was constructed after the votes were counted; the people had no say in its formation. In addition, the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act could allow an unpopular government to remain in office, or – admittedly a remote possibility – for an alternative, Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition to be formed without popular endorsement in an election. Provision for early dissolution is not necessarily a threat to good government. It can instead be a safeguard for the voters. The danger is that the coalition, far from extending democracy, could lead to government becoming even more insulated from the people.
There is a deep-seated conflict between our inherited top-down political forms, and the ideological forces of liberal constitutionalism. This conflict will be resolved only when the forms come to be congruent with the forces, when our political system reflects the public philosophy of what David Cameron has called a “post-bureaucratic age”, whose leitmotif should be the sovereignty of the people, the only sure foundation for a new British constitution.