An iron chancellor’s constitution

25 May 07
PETER RIDDELL | In all the torrent of words that Gordon Brown has unleashed since launching his leadership campaign on May 11, his one specific pledge has been to introduce what he called a first draft constitutional reform Bill later this year.

In all the torrent of words that Gordon Brown has unleashed since launching his leadership campaign on May 11, his one specific pledge has been to introduce what he called a first draft constitutional reform Bill later this year.

The implications are potentially great for the balance between the executive and Parliament, between the centre and the local, and between the state and the citizen.

By background, temperament and intellect, Brown is very interested in constitutional issues. For most of his formative years as a young man and MP, political debate north of the border was dominated by devolution. So he thinks in constitutional terms, unlike Tony Blair who was uninterested in such issues, and regarded the package of reforms he inherited from John Smith as a list that gradually had to be ticked off.

By contrast, Brown not only believes there are still loose ends but that the decline in political trust, symbolised by the controversy over the Iraq war, requires changes in the way we are governed. Some of this has been presented in empathetic terms: ‘I feel your disillusionment.’ Hence, he is spending much of his time until June 27 going round the country listening to doctors, patients, teachers, parents, pensioners and so on.

In his acceptance speech as uncontested leader on May 17, he talked about building ‘a shared national consensus for a programme of constitutional reform that strengthens the accountability of all who hold power; that is clear about the rights and responsibilities of being a citizen in Britain today’.

What does this mean in practice? The first half of the Brown package looks straightforward in theory, but will be quite complicated in practice. He has defined restoring power to Parliament in terms of openness and accountability: giving MPs a say in decisions about peace and war, in public appointments and in a new ministerial code of conduct.

This has been sufficient to stir the sinews of the constitutional reform lobby. For instance, on war powers, is Brown talking about a formal statute limiting the government’s ability to deploy troops, or a convention, as proposed last summer by the Constitution Committee of the Lords?

The latter would require ministers to seek the approval of Parliament without compromising operational flexibility and secrecy. After the precedent of the Commons votes on the Iraq war in spring 2003, it would be very hard for any government to engage in major military operations without the approval of MPs, although Blair has been reluctant to commit himself to future votes.

On public appointments, Brown has talked of pre-confirmation hearings by Commons select committees for people holding major posts to find out about their intentions. This would not apply to ministers, and Brown seems to be thinking about the heads of the main regulatory authorities. But he has glided over the question of whether select committees would have the power to vote on - and block - such appointments.

The ministerial code of conduct is revised after every change of prime minister and every election. So far, it has been the PM’s responsibility and Blair has opposed involving MPs or establishing an independent investigator into ethical issues.

The second half of the package is even less certain. Brown has been signalling sympathy with demands for greater public involvement, such as those put forward by the Power inquiry. He has suggested new citizens’ powers along the lines of schemes piloted in parts of the country. These include requiring senior police officers to report to the community and granting citizens the right to petition and to be consulted on local budgets.

The underlying problem with all Brown’s constitutional talk is the memory of his centralist practice at the Treasury over the past decade. In 1997, he blocked MPs’ attempts to secure a say in the appointment of members of the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee. And his Treasury has hardly allowed central government departments, let alone local authorities, flexibility over their budgets.

The real tests of whether Brown is genuinely a constitutional reformer will come in his day-to-day decisions. How much freedom of manoeuvre will Scotland have now that Alex Salmond of the Scottish Nationalists is first minister? And how much difference will talk of a new style of listening/responsive government make, in practice, when budgets are being squeezed tightly?

Brown's uncomfortable manoeuvring over the Private Member’s Bill exempting MPs from Freedom of Information legislation - first distancing himself and then intervening to head off public pressure - suggests that he hasn’t yet quite got the feel of the ‘new politics’.

Constitutional changes could be important in the long term. But what matters more in the short term is the Comprehensive Spending Review. Money always trumps procedure.

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