Identifying the contradiction at the heart of constitutional reformby Vernon Bogdanor / February 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2001 issue of Prospect Magazine
In no area of policy has the Blair effect been more far-reaching than in that of the constitution. Between 1997 and 2001, the reforms of the Blair government provided for devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; new proportional election systems for the devolved bodies, for the European parliament and for the new London assembly and mayor; the removal of all but 92 of the hereditary peers from the House of Lords; a Human Rights Act; a Freedom of Information Act; reform of the law governing the funding of political parties; and widespread use of the referendum. The Blair government has thus set in train the most radical programme of constitutional reform since 1911 or 1832-indeed its sweep is greater, for the latter two cases were concerned with single, albeit big reforms: reform of the Lords and the franchise.
For anyone acquainted with Labour’s history, this is a remarkable list. Since becoming a national party in 1918, Labour has shown little interest in the constitution-its purpose was to transform society. Unlike many continental socialist parties, Labour never regarded the state as irredeemably hostile to its aspirations. It sought to capture the institutions of the state, not to transform them or break them up. The Liberal party had achieved a political democracy; Labour’s task was to transform it into a social democracy. That changed with Labour’s long period in the political wilderness after 1979-driven by Scotland’s growing political divergence from England.
But, as we shall see, there is a tension between social democracy and constitutional change, in particular the devolution of power. Indeed, it is this tension, combined with a belief that there is little mass interest in the constitution (outside Scotland), which may have prompted the government to downplay its reforms. “The British,” the historian Peter Hennessy told the Nolan Committee on Standards in Public Life, “like to live in a series of half-way houses.” Perhaps the only way to persuade British voters to accept radical change is to tell them that the change is evolutionary in nature, flowing from principles that have been happily accepted in the past.