It's time for an end to piecemeal reform—Britain now needs a proper written constitutionby David Marquand / July 28, 2007 / Leave a comment
Robert Hazell has got himself into a terrible muddle in his last article for Prospect. He says, rightly, that it is time for a second wave of constitutional reform to follow the first wave that was one of the great achievements of Blair’s first term. He lists a series of radical reforms which ought to be included, ranging from further refinement of the devolution settlements in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to Lords reform, parliamentary reform, electoral reform and a British bill of rights. He is right about these as well. He says that Lords reform and a British bill of rights should be referred to a convention of some kind, or at least to public consultation. I applaud that too. But then, for no good reason, Hazell the radical reformer suddenly gives way to Hazell the timorous establishment whig.
Jack Straw, Gordon Brown’s campaign manager, has come out for a written constitution—albeit rather gingerly. Four of the six candidates for Labour’s deputy leadership have done the same. But for reasons I cannot grasp, this is too rich a stew for Hazell. A written constitution, he says, would be a “huge project” with little public support. What, he asks fearfully, should it say about the House of Lords, the monarchy and the established church? Would it be the constitution as it is, or as it ought to be? Would it be entrenched, and if so how? These are valid questions, but they are not impenetrably difficult. And they all apply, equally strongly, to Hazell’s own proposals. The combination of Lords reform, electoral reform, refinement of devolution and a bill of rights would be a huge project. So would a convention on Lords and electoral reform and public consultation on a bill of rights.
At least two of Hazell’s proposed reforms—refinement of the devolution settlement and a British bill of rights—also raise the question of entrenchment. The Human Rights Act was not properly entrenched, and this failure has led to a series of bitter disputes between the executive and the judiciary. Without entrenchment, how can we be sure that a British bill of rights will not produce a repetition of that sorry tale?
But the real question goes deeper, and Hazell has not addressed it. Constitutions—even unwritten ones—are not mere collections of institutional nuts and bolts, to be tinkered with at the whim of the government of the day. They…