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Martin Meenagh © 1998


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This is a time when the government of Britain is keen to proclaim its wish to transform the political landscape, to create a new coalition on the left to dominate the twenty-first century, and to reform and modernise the British State. It has set in motion things which may indeed do so. The people of Wales and of Scotland, for example, have already voted, in referenda, to create national legislatures. In Scotland, a parliament with tax raising powers presiding over a system of law which is very distinct from that of England already, will be set up. The government intends to reform the House of Lords, with a view to the ultimate abolition and replacement of that body. It intends to pass a Bill of Rights, a Freedom of Information Act, and an Act allowing the direct election of executive mayors in London and, eventually, in other major metropolitan areas.

But with every step, the Blair administration moves closer to a constitutional crisis which threatens the way everything is done in the United Kingdom. As long as Britain retains a Parliament in Westminster which thinks of itself as sovereign, and passes laws justified by the supreme authority of the Crown in Parliament, he cannot claim to have achieved a democratic renewal of Britain. How can a country where the Parliament and not the people are sovereign be democratic? How can people elect mayors and legislatures, or engage in referenda, or claim the protection of a Bill of Rights if all these things are a consequence of the present, and therefore changeable, opinion of the House of Commons in Westminster? If they rest upon the whim of 650 whipped legislators in London, very few of whom enjoy the support of more than 50% of the voters in their constituencies?

The power of the Crown in Parliament is the distorting mirror at the heart of the British Constitution. We are encouraged to believe that it was ever thus--that Parliament was always Sovereign, and that it represents in some mystical way the settled will of the People of the United Kingdom. That Parliament was once a bicameral institution subject to the division of powers which functioned subject to the Common Law and a royal executive, often goes unmentioned. That that executive was aided and advised by Ministers who had to reelected as Ministerial MPs upon their acceptance of the Seals of Office, in a way analogous to the way the Speaker still stands as the Speaker rather than a Party candidate at General elections, is also generally, and conveniently, forgotten. Like the Papacy, the House of Commons has simply lived long enough to be able to make up its own history.

But the Blair administration's projected reforms, and the growing and mostly benificent power of the European Union, threaten the Commons. This is a very good thing. The solution to the inadequacies of a body which can do anything, and the absurd remit of which extends from council guttering to world politics, is not to question the other centres of power which will grow up after Blair's reforms, or which are there already--the solution is democracy.

Democracy, like federalism, suffers in Britain as a term from years of selective interpretation. It means that the people are sovereign and that power ought to be exercised at a level and in a way which makes it accountable to the people it affects. The government seems to want to put that principle into effect after years of Conservative abuse of Westminster's centralising power.

Putting that principle into effect, however, will entail changes in the way things are done which will require a new sort of Labour Party and a new sort of socialism. When elected local mayors can raise money via local taxes and not government subvention, as they may in time do, local issues of spending and prioritisation might result in a new sort of dynamic local politics. When referenda become an accepted part of the constitution, it will not seem so short a step toward the principle of public initiatives--that is, petitions signed by a sizeable proportion of the local or national people--which lead to changes in policy or the calling of a new election. When House of Commons committees gain the power of subpoena, or when a new second chamber gains the legitimacy of election, however indirect, at a national level, a fulfilling and successful career in government might become something that never has to involve executive office at all, bringing more people into the system and making the atmosphere less heated. Moreover, the explosion of democracy, and the idea that no authority can exist outside of rules--leading to judges overriding some laws as contrary to fair principles--might create a model for the limitation of private enterprise by employees beyond the existing law on employment, dismissal, and discrimination.

The new politics which will emerge from the creation of bodies which directly challenge the absolutist supremacy of Westminster will also, undoubtedly, affect relations with the European Union. Contrary to what the Conservatives would have people believe, most people in this country are actually in favour of or ambivalent towards the present Union. Few are actively hostile. Most believe that further integration will happen--indeed, many of those who claim to be skeptics, who tend to be older than the other groups, acknowledge that their opposition to further integration is only one which extends to their own lifetime. A democratic, decentralised Britain whose identity was not confused with the arrogant fears of a threatened House of Commons might embrace the European project if only to democratise it, recognising that certain things can only be done on a European level and seeking to make them democratically accountable.

So New Labour's reforms might lead to democracy in Britain, and the European Union--but only if New Labour eventually realises that the principle by which Parliament has done everything for nearly two hundred years, that of Parliamentary supremacy, needs to be replaced with an older tradition of popular sovereignity and a limited Parliament. It isn't as though anything radically new is being proposed. As far back as November, 1608, the great jurist Edward Coke summed up what he believed to be the essence of what was then an English and what subsequently remained for a time a British "principle of government"--

"...the King in his own person cannot adjudge any case...but that this ought to be determined and adjudged in some Court of Justice, according to the law and custom of England..."

British history has subsequently been motivated by the same engine that drives other systems; the antagonistic relationship of power and law. Power has ranged economic wealth, the class system, royalism, and until recently an Imperial mindset against a culture of economic association in trade unions, a high-minded legalism, and a system of public education and social security which sought no wars with anyone except exploiters. But New Labour has to appreciate, if it's project of modernisation and democratic renewal is to succeed, that in Britain, power took control of law; the King was not overthrown, but incorporated into Parliament, so Parliament is now absolute. Parliament has tolerated the construction of the NHS--until recently a model of social provision run by local health authorities and the doctors and nurses who put so much effort into it for the benefit of the people, rather than parliamentary placemen, because of massive public support for that institution. But did public support matter when the Thatcher government, that exemplar of what is wrong with the British system, took an axe made out of its Commons majority to the NHS? Historically, M.P.s in Westminster have not been supportive of local libraries, a stable educational system, or local councils directly responsible to the people. Parliament has, on balance, been actively hostile to Trade Unions, and to extra-parliamentary movements in general. Before the Blair administration, no government other than that of Ted Heath, which actively lied to itself about the political dimensions of the European Community, has taken action to limit itself irrevocably, or to transfer power from the private institutions of state formation, the City of London, the banks, the multinationals, and the rule of the absolute authority of the businessman (or manager)-in-charge.

Parliament's dominance means that the national media, seeing the lie of the land, ignores or downgrades extra-paliamentary movements. Animal Rights protestors don't get a fair hearing, for example, and organisations such as Greenpeace, Amnesty International, disabled rights campaigners and pensioners' associations, let alone gulf-war veterans committees, have to do things which are either illegal or disproportionately attention-seeking to get any coverage. In a Britain with elected mayors, regional assemblies, and multiple centres of authority situated near the people they affect, such organisations would get a fair say. Right now, they have to influence those vast and deceptive coalitions, the Party of Government and the Party of Opposition, or just engage in lobbying, both of which forms of behaviour tend to lead to an unhealthy cynicism. If power is concentrated, it becomes unfeeling and harsh because people in power don't face opposition; if it is diluted with the scrutiny of ordinary people at a local level, the fairness and decency of ordinary people tempers it. That's one of the things that any member of the Labour Party can agree with any other about.

Political structures influence private corporations and private behaviour; look at how comfortable British industry is with the idea of Chairmen, rather than Presidents, and how hostile it is to the idea that works councils, or responsible trade unionism, or a social wage to give everyone a reason to be productive, could be a good thing. A powerful part of this hostility, which is gradually, and happily, being overcome, is the idea that, to band together in an association of individuals to form a collective that maximises opportunity is somehow to do something un-British. It is un-British if the only power allowed in the State is that of the Crown in Parliament, which makes all of us individual subjects and any countervailing association of individuals a usurpation. Managers in Britain have failed British industry for a long time because they have felt that they are in a position of power, and if you are in power in Britain, your model of power in the Commons and politics generally is of one which is trammelled not by any clear rules but by what you are able to get away with.

To make managers in general and industry in particular realise that any economic formation can only exist as a social institution, upheld by local cooperation and law within a system governed by cultural rules, and that the best way of maximising productivity is in fact to live subject to a discipline that recognises the individual worth and talents of all in a system of social regulation, is to associate oneself with a British and a European social democratic tradition. It is only in the minds of those businessmen most ardently convinced of the ideology of free trade, and of their centralising, nationalist conservative spokesmen, that that tradition is somehow alien.

In the eighteenth century, the governing classes of Britain sat down and, over a period of years, produced a model of Britishness. To be a Briton was to be a Protestant, liberal, free-trading white royalist in a class-divided society who looked to the Atlantic and the East rather than to the European continent. But this sort of Britishness has outlived its usefulness. It is hostile, in it's way, to what Labour, as a party which seeks by collective effort to maximise individual opportunity, seeks to do. Why are some in the Labour movement scared of sketching out a new sort of Britishness and putting that into constitutional effect? Why not have a Britishness which is about democracy, the limitation of power, be it economic, social or political, collective provision for individual fulfillment, multicultural Europeanism and an egalitarian philosophy of merit rather than one of deference? That Britain could be dynamic. It could at once both escape the civil war in Northern Ireland, change Europe, and become more united by being less centralised. But for that to happen, the House of Commons must be taken away and changed fundamentally. The Blair government has put this country on a course when it will have to face this consequence of its policies and the forces of change on the left should start planning now for life after the birth of a truly modernised New Britain. It could do worse than listen to the echo down the centuries of that old radical Tom Paine. When asked what he would do with the Crown, Paine was quite categoric--

"...I would take the Crown...and place it upon the Book of Law...then, I would shatter it into a million pieces of dust, and scatter it over the People, the true and only sovereign of a Free government"

It's time for New Labour to learn the value of creative destruction.




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