What's happening to stage two of Labour's constitutional reforms? How is stage one working? Is there a crisis of political engagement? Lord Falconer and five leading commentators discussby Robert Hazell / May 20, 2004 / Leave a comment
Robert Hazell (chair) How do you rate Labour’s constitutional reforms so far, and what remains to be done?
Anthony Barnett The good news is that a magnificently ambitious programme of reform has been put in place, across everything from the Human Rights Act, to the independence of the Bank of England, to varying degrees of devolution to Scotland, Wales, London and so on. This has dismantled the old order, institutionally and culturally. The bad news is that the government has done it in a high-handed manner, failing to put in place the new settlement that John Smith called for when he committed Labour to this programme.
Geoffrey Howe I think that summarises exactly what is wrong. Magnificently ambitious equals grotesquely ambitious, not least, as you say, because of the manner in which it has been undertaken. It is symptomatic of a process that has been running for some time, not only under Labour governments. Indeed, the pace was set by the way the Thatcher government reformed local government finance. As a result of the folly of the poll tax and its subsequent repeal, and of nationalising the business rates, we reduced the proportion of locally raised money from 60 per cent to as little as 20 per cent. Governments feel driven to make changes far too rapidly. It leaves people bewildered. People now don’t even know what the speed limit is. Nigel Lawson recently offered that as a plea in mitigation in a magistrates court when he was charged for speeding. Confidence in government fell sharply under the last Conservative government, Labour’s constitutional reforms do not seem to have helped.
Ferdinand Mount I think one has to look back, as Vernon Bogdanor does in his recent volume on the British constitution, over an extraordinary 20th century in which the first 20 years were teeming with proposals for reform. There was then a long period of suspended animation in which nothing much happened. Indeed, from the point of view of dispersing power the constitution went into reverse, thanks to the collectivist mood of politics and the centralising effects of two world wars. But in the past decade or so we have revived the concern with dispersing powerÑand I would include privatisation in that. It has been rather helter-skelter and some wrong turns have been taken. The emasculation of local government is the greatest blot. The reforms of…