5th January 2001
With the election approaching and the manifesto about to be written, the prime minister and his advisers, such as yourself, will be coming to a view about how to present the record of the government’s first term and prepare for the second. I am writing to ask that you press for the inclusion in the manifesto of a strong commitment to a new “citizens’ constitution.” The phrase is taken from Charter 88’s document Unlocking Democracy-which reassesses the case for reform after the huge number of disparate yet far-reaching constitutional measures which Labour has carried out since 1997. Without a citizens constitution, there will not be a new Britain.
I am not a member of any political party. But I found myself actively supporting, and in a small way even helping to create, what became New Labour. Perhaps most of all in the period when John Smith was leader; but also, like many who are not party members, I applauded the break from the past which Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s “New” Labour offered. But the promised “New Britain” didn’t happen. It may not be too late to make it happen. But it surely will be too late if it does not happen in the second term.
Labour needs a more coherent constitutional story if it is to break from its own past failure in government. I am aware that this is not the view held by Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell and, I suspect, the prime minister. Early on, after he won the party leadership, Tony Blair set himself the target of winning two full successive terms in office. No Labour government has ever done this. This, he claimed, would be the measure of his historic superiority.
It won’t be. Labour always wins its second elections. Since 1945 Labour has won all its second elections, in 1950, 1966 and 1974, and in the latter two it won four and five years in office respectively. But in all cases it soon lost its way and clung to office without a strategic passion or sense of direction. It was this failure which delivered the country back into the hands of a rejuvenated right.
Clearly, Labour is going to add 2001 to its list of second election victories. That will give it eight or nine consecutive years in power rather than six. But what is done with those years will decide whether the 21st will be a Labour century.
To become the dominant party, which is New Labour’s aim, you have to tell a coherent national story-or in the British case, a multi-national one. We all know what the old British story was and very successful it was, too. We also know that Britain has changed. It has become a modern country. Its economy was brutally modernised by Thatcherism. But the old corporatist economy and its mental norms have gone for good and this is a huge and welcome change, one which has also helped to release popular energy and vitality, especially in the cities-most especially London, which has become a multi-racial, open place with the spirit to elect (thanks to your inspired reform) an independent as its first mayor. From Scotland to Brixton, a spirit of citizenship is on the move and it is inspiring people in the countryside too. This means that there is a militant hunger for social and environmental improvement and better standards, hence the political imperative of delivering high-quality health and education systems.
But we are not going to get them through you and your colleagues delivering from the centre. Too often, it seems as if the government thinks itself the only force for modernisation in the country as it seeks to update the authority of Whitehall. Despite the freeing of the British economy and British society from central control, our political system remains stuck in its old secretive, centralist ways. In this respect Thatcher’s negative legacy is being preserved. It was one of the paradoxes of her approach that even while she hollowed out the old consensus politics, she lauded the traditional regime of Crown and Commons.
The reason why the catchphrase “New Labour, New Britain” caught the spirit of the time was that the public sensed that a Blair government could help the state catch up with the rest of us. This is what delivering a New Britain means.
What does it mean specifically? A credible and principled Freedom of Information Act, a democratic second chamber, a House of Commons which commands respect, the chance to elect it in a fair manner, a British bill of rights, the appointment of judges in a clear and principled fashion, decentralisation to regions so that they can dynamise their economies free of the centre. A contemporary democracy which builds on positive British traditions and creates a new framework for them.
You have pushed through a big programme of reforms. Separately and together they spell the end of the absolute sovereignty of parliament, the keystone of the old constitution. None the less, like one of those cartoon caricatures who walks off a cliff and only starts to fall when he looks down, you are proceeding as if the authority of the old order is still in place. I know that some of your colleagues think that Labour has been too radical, and moved “too far ahead” of the people. In fact, an honest and explicit constitutional reform programme of the kind I am urging would be widely welcomed and greeted with an “about time.”
Instead of trying to update the old regime and write a new software programme for Whitehall, you should initiate a real decentralisation of power to match the growing economic and social independence which people feel. This should be secured with a citizens’ constitution which makes sense for today. Do that and you will put Labour in pole position for the election that matters-in five years’ time. Even more important, only by securing our own democracy in this fashion will it be possible to win with the necessary pride and self-esteem the referendum which will permit Britain to join the euro.
8th January 2001
As you say, Tony Blair’s government has enacted a series of far-reaching constitutional reforms. In fact, no government has done so much of such importance since the Reform Act of 1832. A parliament for Scotland, an assembly for Wales, a mayor of London with other cities allowed to follow, independence for the Bank of England, the Human Rights and Freedom of Information Acts, removal of the hereditary peers from the Lords and the creation of a commission to appoint new cross-benchers, statutory regulation of political parties and party funding, new voting systems for elections to Edinburgh, Cardiff, Brussels and the London assembly, three referendums fought and won-this is an outstanding record, all in less than four years.
It would not have happened without the radicalisation of progressive opinion during the 1980s, in which Charter 88 played a prominent part. But there was nothing inevitable about this support translating into early (or any) implementation. From Gladstone to Wilson/Callaghan, virtually every progressive government came to grief in attempting major constitutional reforms opposed by the Tories (which was nearly all of them). They failed because they lacked unity, conviction, resolution and popular support. This government has exhibited all four.
In time, these reforms will greatly improve the quality of British democracy. This is already apparent in the House of Lords, which is less of a Tory poodle; in independence for the Bank of England, which has removed interest rate changes from the charge of political opportunism; and in Scotland and Wales, where devolution has boosted accountability and strengthened the UK.
In looking to the future it is important to keep a sense of proportion, and to remember the essential argument for democratic modernisation-emphasised by reformers in the 1980s-which is its role in fostering social and economic renewal. Yet by the end of your letter we have heard from two very different Anthony Barnetts. Barnett Mark I recognises the “huge and welcome change” in our “modern country,” and notes the “popular energy” and “spirit of citizenship” which are helping to tackle our national problems.
Then along comes Barnett Mark II, who claims that we are not a modern country after all-and that even if Labour did pass all those great reforms, we may not have meant to do so and somehow are governing in defiance of them. Instead, Britain must aspire to a new utopia, in order-somewhat bathetically-to break free of Labour’s “traditional failure in government.”
Actually, I thought we were doing quite well at breaking free of “Labour’s traditional failure,” and doing so in no small part because of our commitment to democratic renewal. But leaving that aside, what is Barnett II’s prescription for utopia? A few further reforms are mentioned, such as PR for the Commons, a new regime for the appointment of judges, and regional government in England. These all deserve to be argued on their merits. But your big utopian idea turns out to be something else-a “citizens’ constitution that makes sense in today’s world.” What does this mean? I assume you mean a written constitution-or, more precisely, a single, codified constitutional document, since most of our constitution is of course already written in statute. But what reason is there, from historical and international experience, to believe that such a document will make a blind bit of difference to the quality of our democracy? It sounds to me like a pointless diversion from the task of mobilising our reformed political system to deliver the practical results-including better education, health and environment-which the electorate (and Barnett I) rightly want.
I admire your certainty that the British people are in a state of breathless excitement for such a “citizens’ constitution” and see it as the means to secure their “pride and self-esteem.” Could you offer evidence?
I also found it hard to follow your point about centralisation. A proper balance between national, local and personal responsibility is an important facet of democracy. Unless you have moved to the outer fringes of the neo-liberal right, you won’t believe that better health and education for the great majority appear spontaneously through a “hidden hand”: they require strong support from national government, including investment, regulation and an effective framework to guarantee standards. In education, for example, the primary school literacy and numeracy strategies are providing significant new investment and a strong lead in disseminating best teaching practice nationwide. The result is higher standards for pupils, and much greater teacher confidence and dynamism school by school. What’s wrong with that? Would you rather that we declared school standards to be no concern of national government, despite the fact that voters manifestly think otherwise? They elected us to do a job and expect us to do it. I have never seen constitutional reform as a manifesto for dismantling central government.
Oh, and I didn’t follow that last bit about a “citizens’ constitution” making it easier to win a referendum on the euro. The EU-from the Treaty of Rome onwards-has been pretty good at written constitutions. That hasn’t made it the toast of the town.
9th January 2001
Your letter is a reminder of how the good and bad sides of this government are bundled together. I’ll start with what you seem to regard as a killer question. You ask why I think a modern constitution, “will make a blind bit of difference to the quality of our democracy? It sounds to me like a pointless diversion from the task of delivering the practical results… the electorate rightly want… I admire your certainty that the British people are in a state of breathless excitement for such a ‘citizens constitution’ and see it as the means to secure their ‘pride and self-esteem.’ Could you offer evidence?”
It is hard to believe that the Andrew Adonis I knew as an active Liberal Democrat could write this. It expresses exactly the attitude which Old Labour and its right-wing trade union supporters used to adopt. They despised working men and women, scorned the idea that they might want more democracy and interpreted their own role as being to deliver what they decided was best and most practical for the masses.
And yes, I can offer you some evidence. The Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust “state of the nation” polls which have been taken for over a decade, show strong support for rights and reform. The year 2000 poll, to take just one example, shows net support for the right to silence rising from plus 3 per cent in 1995 to plus 46 per cent last year. Support for a written constitution has always been much higher than support for the Labour party. Last year, 71 per cent agreed that Britain needs a written constitution, against only 5 per cent who thinks it does not.
On the constitution, most people are well ahead of the government. You caricature my call for a normal constitution as “utopian” (twice) and claim that I think that people are in a state of “breathless excitement” over the matter. In fact I wrote that a new constitution would be “widely welcomed and greeted with ‘about time.'” I developed this argument at some length in my recent book This Time, which you kindly reviewed. It argues that we need to “normalise” the UK’s hyper-centralised, dangerously prerogative-driven state.
From the fastness of No 10, perhaps you cannot understand that you are the ones who are abnormal and out of step with the rest of the world. Allow me then to remind you of the pathological response to Ken Livingstone. Almost the entire political class and the whole of the media and its pundocracy went into paroxysms of red-alert denunciation when he stood. You were all wrong. The people of London elected Ken as mayor because we thought he was a frank and modern politician who could stand up for himself and save the London underground. We didn’t think he was a revolutionary. Those in No 10 behaved like headless chickens. It is the same with a written constitution. The political class and its editorial outriders run around frothing about “utopian demands.” Meanwhile, the rest of us wonder what the problem is. Can’t you see that a modern constitution which we can claim as our own will improve democracy?
If anything, I understate how much people care. I believe that the big majorities in favour of “keeping the pound” are an indirect expression of a desire for our own democracy whatever the narrow economic arguments for and against the euro. To defeat the opposition to the euro, the government will have to confront our constitutional status within the EU. To win a “yes” in the referendum “with the necessary pride and self-esteem” we need to be able to go into the euro flying our own constitution, entrenched and protected.
Especially now, for the recent reforms are much more radical than the first Reform Act. The architects of 1832 were explicit opponents of democracy. They sought to renew the old regime by eliminating rotten boroughs so as to gain consent for the legitimacy of old Westminster. By contrast, far from reinforcing traditional sovereignty, Labour has broken it-abolished the monopoly of parliament, given judges constitutional power and committed itself to end the pound. That goes beyond democratisation of the existing order.
What it comes down to is this. Old Labour was about getting into office and using the old regime to deliver social reform. This method is intrinsically conservative. New Labour could and should have been about getting into office and reforming the constitution so that public energy can be released in a modern framework which encourages citizens to participate in improvement. That hardly means dismantling central government. Has it been discarded in Berlin? No, it means democracy.
10th January 2001
What’s all this about my opposing a “modern constitution”? Modernising the constitution is one of the passions of this government, as its record demonstrates. The point at issue is your “citizens’ constitution” and what it brings to the party.
On this we are not much the wiser. You say it will be “written,” “normal,” and one “we can claim as our own.” This doesn’t help because everything depends on what is written and what one regards as normal. We already have the luxury-as an independent, democratic country-of being able to claim our constitution as our own, unless you think someone stole it during the night. Many Tories think the Eurocrats stole it one night in 1988, just before Margaret Thatcher announced the theft at Bruges. Given your support for the euro, you don’t share that particular paranoia. But you go on to ascribe the current anti-euro majority to “an expression of a desire for our own democracy.” Either this means that most people rather like the current state of our democracy, which doesn’t support your argument, or that you don’t think we are a democracy at all, which is absurd.
As every 20th-century dictator knew, a single printed constitutional document does nothing to enhance or protect democracy. It all depends on how it changes the status quo. You give a few clues about the changes you want, but they are hard to turn into a “normal” constitution. In the first place, you describe as “pathological” the support the leader of the Labour party gave to his party’s candidate to be mayor of London. It is not clear to me how your citizens’ constitution will ensure that party leaders always express views with which you agree. But, in any case, it is not a further dose of democracy or decentralisation which is at issue-since, as you say, Ken won, in an election which would not have taken place at all but for the creation of the post by this government.
This leaves two half sentences about Britain being a “hyper-centralised, dangerously prerogative-driven state” needing to become a country which “encourages citizens to participate in improvement.” What does this mean? We have already introduced significant acts of devolution and through the Human Rights and Freedom of Information Acts, and reforms to the appointments and honours systems, ministerial prerogatives have been regulated or abolished in unprecedented fashion. Let’s see what impact these reforms have and debate further changes on their merits. But don’t pretend that nothing fundamental has changed.
As for the notion that a written constitution is required for citizens to participate in “improvement,” this only further exhibits the lack of balance and proportion at the heart of your analysis. Modern Britain is not the Soviet Union circa 1970. It is a largely open and democratic society which, yes, requires continuous improvement to make it more so.
11th January 2001
Talk about the dialogue of the deaf. I describe a chasm between the political culture of ordinary people and our political class and you interpret this as my objecting to “the leader’s” personal opinion!
It is clear that you still do not grasp the difference between “modernising the constitution” and adopting a new, modern constitution. These are two distinct exercises.
The point is fundamental. Since 1688, the British constitution has always been a machine for modernisation. This is why it has lasted so well. This is what 1832 was about, and the 1945 welfare state, and Thatcherism. The British regime is dedicated to modernising the country. That is to say, to modernising its own rule so as to preserve its central power and prerogatives. The formula has ensured its survival. It also helped save Europe from fascism. But, famously, after 1945 it has prevented the kind of growth rates enjoyed by our European partners.
The time has come to abandon this incremental updating of the old state. You want it to “carry on.” You want to continue to preserve the regime by modernising it. I want us to have a citizens’ constitution. Such a settlement is essential in terms of answering the UK’s national questions, resolving our relationship with the EU and ensuring soundly based economic growth and decentralised government. It is also essential to making a political success of Labour’s second term.
You believe that it is your job, in No 10, to “deliver” a parliament to Scotland, to improve our schools, to update hospital wards. And that voters expect this “of you.” You don’t see that this centralist mentality of yours is old-fashioned and backward and undemocratic. People now want democracy as well as good schools and hospitals.
This Labour government has two great socio-economic ambitions: to end the specifically British “stop-go” boom and bust economy, and to reverse the Thatcher-Major creation of an underclass in our big cities. Gordon Brown, the main architect of both, argued for a new constitutional settlement in his Charter 88 sovereignty lecture back in 1992. I doubt if he has changed his mind. Perhaps, if you can’t hear it from me, you could try listening to him.
12th January 2001
Yes, you are absolutely right, I do fail to see any inherent difference between a “modernised” and a “modern” constitution. The only meaningful differences you have offered are that the latter involves more decentralisation than in the UK at present and is codified in one document enforceable by judges. What a pity that almost every democracy possessing both of these blessings also engages in perpetual argument about… how to modernise its constitution. This is Ronald Dworkin on the recent US election (in the New York Review of Books): “We now have the best chance ever to junk this anachronistic and dangerous 18th-century system. The public should demand that Congress begin a process of constitutional amendment that would eliminate that system root and branch.”
It is all of a piece with your bizarre suggestions that a written constitution would give us higher economic growth, extirpate Euroscepticism from the land, and excuse us-or at any rate the prime minister-from needing to worry any longer about the state of our schools and hospitals. If you don’t mind I would rather call in Harry Potter.