Tuesday, March 23, 2010

How do we transform the need for Constitutional Reform from haute couture to prêt a porter?

Richard Gordon’s new book REPAIRING BRITISH POLITICS – A BLUEPRINT FOR CONSTITUTIONAL CHANGE published by Hart Publishing formed the focal point last night for a forum discussion at the British Academy on whether the UK should have a written Constitution and, if so, what its content might be. The nub of last night’s discussion was ‘Our political system is broken. It needs fixing. How do we fix it?’

I felt like I was attending a fashion show by Britain’s top Constitutional Reform Designers. The summary of the debates was, ‘How do we transform the need for Constitutional Reform from haute couture to prêt a porter or even better prêt a manger? How do we make Constitutional Reform as fashionable as Climate Change?‘

Richard Gordon writes, “I have already accepted that the simple replacement of one constitutional norm (parliamentary sovereignty) by another (constitutional sovereignty) will not, at a stroke, change the nature of the institutions by which we are governed. However, what I argue it will do, by engendering a proper separation of powers and much greater citizen participation in politics, is to promote greater trust in the democratic process and to create a number of policing mechanisms which will make each of the organs of government (including the citizenry itself) more responsible and more accountable.”

As I am Vice President of the Electoral Reform Society and a long-time campaigner for more women in Parliament I was very pleased when Colloquium Chair Lord Steyn gave me the opportunity to welcome Richard Gordon’s proposal for electoral reform to Proportional Representation and a Parliament with an equal number of women and men. I pointed out that a PR electoral system would make it easier than with First-Past-the-Post to ensure Gender Equality. With a PR voting voting system you can introduce a gender balance by zipping alternate women and men’s names on the candidate lists. This system is used in modern democracies such as the Nordic countries.

Professor Antony King said, ”The question should be how can we improve the quality of British Government rather than how can we make Government more democratic?” King favours
a Proportional Voting system for elections to the House of Commons, “because I think it would lead to good government.” But opposes moving towards a codified constitution or an elected House of Lords, on the grounds the UK is already governed by 943 elected politicians in legislatures in Europe Scotland, Wales Northern Ireland and Westminster.

Founder of openDemocracy.net Anthony Barnett said, “Our current Constitution is broken beyond repair. Patriotic acquiescence of the people was broken with the expenses scandal. The basis of an un-codified system was trust. There is now a sense of a grasping political class who have lost the trust of the people.”

Andreas Whittam-Smith founder of the Independent Newspaper said contrary to popular headlines “It is not Britain that is broken it is Government and politicians who are broken.” He is concerned about the impotence of Government to carry out what it says it will do. Whittam-Smith asked, ”How do we translate talk into action? The Politicians don’t get it.” His analysis is that as political parties go out of power for very long periods these days, from the moment they are elected they feel compelled to feed the 24 hour news cycle rather than to provide good government. He gave as an example “There has been a new criminal offence put on the statute book every day since Labour came to power.” He stressed the importance of working from the bottom up and referred to the discussion on his web-site http://brokengovernment.ning.com/

Professor Vernon Bogdanor, author of The New British Constitution’ said we need a written Bill of Rights with rights updated from those in the European Bill of Rights 60 years ago. What about rights to health care and environmental rights?” He said Constitutional Reform is a revolution that’s long overdue and asked,” How do you get a revolution if you don’t have revolutionaries?”

Former Lib Dem Leader Paddy Ashdown said “It is preposterous to have an elected system that is acceptable to politicians rather than to the people.” Lord Ashdown attacked the unelected House of Lords, “You get there by knowing someone in power or your Grandmother slept with the King.” Lest we be in doubt, Paddy assured the audience he got there by knowing someone in power. Lord Carlisle said, “We need less legislation, but better legislation, “I also got into the Upper Chamber by knowing someone in power – the person in power I knew was Paddy Ashdown!” Not to be outdone PM Tony Blair’s mentor Lord (Charlie) Faulkner said “I think you all know who my friend in power was!” “Faulkener would support a Human Rights Act but not a written Constitution.

Columnist Yasmin Alibi Brown said in some countries a written Bill of Rights or Constitution allows a nation to become arrogant about principles. She cited France and said people of colour have more freedoms in UK.

Professor Francesca Klug felt justice should be at the heart of a Constitution and incorporate international Human Rights frameworks. She said, “On its own a Constitution is architecture , it’s a house not a home.”

Professor Colin Kidd highlighted complications of the US Constitution.” He said 200 years ago people in the US were more concerned about standing armies than sexual privacy issues. now it’s the other way round. He compared the abortion debate in UK and US. In the US it takes just 5 Justices to overrule the people. “In the UK we reached the decision on abortion through parliamentary debate.”

Whitehall Mandarin Sir Christopher Foster Chair of the Good Government Initiative recommended The charity's study, Good Government: Reforming Parliament and the Executive.

I came away feeling a sense of renewal at being once more among people genuinely trying to build a better world. It was an antidote to my months of anger, disappointment, disgust at sleazy behaviour among British politicians. I felt an extra deep sense of betrayal and being let down after the many occasions in workshops in young democracies in the Balkans, Africa, South Asia and Central and Eastern Europe when I said I firmly believed that on the whole the British Parliament was clean not corrupt.


Keshav P. Koirala said...

A nice read.

Unknown said...

Good read Lesley.

Wouldn't it be nice-blue sky thinking of course!-if the oi polloi were invited into these debates or get togethers.

I love experts as much as anybody but what makes someone an expert? What they have to say or who they are?

Anyway, something's got to give so this is a positive step in right direction!

Lesley Abdela said...

Totally agree Irene - one way is to circulate ideas on the internet. Do you have any practical suggestions for how to take discussions from "haute couture to pret a porter?"