“Our dysfunctional constitution is not simply an academic anomaly; it leaves working people unprotected within the Parliamentary system and must be changed.”
By Pauline Bryan
Who would have thought that nearly a quarter of the way through the 21st century, the population of Great Britain and Northern Ireland would be asked to make an oath of allegiance to a hereditary monarch. If anything serves to reinforce the fact that we are subjects rather than citizens, this does.
Constitutional issues can easily be dismissed as less relevant or urgent than the things that impact on our everyday lives. Clearly, the cost-of-living crisis, housing, health, education and energy dominate most people’s concerns.
The UK’s constitution, however, is as relevant to voters concerns as it was at the time of the suffrage movements in the 19th and 20th centuries. As a nation we have drifted, or been driven, into a highly centralised state on top of which is a monarch. The potential constitutional moments that did occur, such as the civil war in the 17th century and the union of Scotland and England in the early 18th century, happened before written constitutions were commonly adopted.
The UK is one of the most centralised states in the world. In theory we are a Parliamentary democracy, but in effect the Prime Minister with the cabinet can usually enforce executive power. The raft of despicable legislation that has gone through and continues to go through Parliament have barely been challenged in the House of Commons. The level of scrutiny is minimal, and the use of ‘Skeleton Bills’ allows legislation to be passed based on a bare framework with the important details added later by secondary legislation. The Strikes (Minimum Service Level) Bill is an example. Nobody knows what the minimum service levels will be; only that they will be set by the government minister concerned. For most of the services covered the minister is only responsible for England, but it will apply in Scotland and Wales.
The House of Lords ought to serve as a check and balance on the excessive power of the Prime Minister and the Executive, but an unelected second chamber that includes 92 hereditary peers, 26 Church of England Bishops, any number of ex MPs, retired judges, senior hospital consultants, academics, captains of industry, retired media moguls – in other words the British (mainly English) establishment – has no right to perform that role. I must, however, record the work of those Labour, Lib Dem and Cross Bench peers who argue valiantly for human rights, defend trade unions, expose the impact of government policies and some who campaign for its abolition.
Our dysfunctional constitution is not simply an academic anomaly; it leaves working people unprotected within the Parliamentary system and must be changed.
Last December, Gordon Brown’s Commission on the UK’s Future was unveiled. Labour Party members, including MPs, were not given an opportunity to contribute to it and many were probably unaware that it was happening. At the report’s launch Keir Starmer stated that there would be consultations in advance of the next General Election, so that it could be in Labour’s manifesto and its recommendations could be ready to be implemented in the first term. Unfortunately, there has been no mention of such consultation since.
The central flaw in the document is the failure to recognise that there is a fundamental conflict of interest between those who have power, wealth and privilege and those who do not. So when it aspires to a new Britain that should “be grounded in shared values and aspirations that unite people across our country and make it possible to build new constitutional foundations” it is starting from a false premise.
That said some of the recommendations made in the Brown report could form the basis for a serious discussion about how four nations and disparate regions can share power without being dominated by the over-centralisation of Westminster and the City of London.
We should have a Second Chamber that is representative of the Nations and Regions of the United Kingdom and responsible for ensuring that power is shared rather than hierarchical. Part of the Second Chamber’s role should be to safeguard common minimum standards across the UK on human rights, employment rights, consumer protection and environmental protection. Nations and regions should have the power to enhance but never lower these minimum standards.
There are many aspects of our constitutional arrangements that need to be challenged: the voting system, the role of elected mayors, the relationship between the devolved administrations and Westminster, the role of the Bank of England, the limited role of English regions, the role, indeed the existence, of an unelected head of state.
I would argue that any proposals for change should to be judged against three important criteria. Would they help make our economy democratically accountable; enable the redistribution of wealth and power within and across the UK; sustain and strengthen the Labour and trade Union Movement and class solidarity across the UK? If the answer is yes than such change is worth.
- Pauline Bryan (Baroness Bryan of Partick) is a Labour Peer in the House of Lords, writer and socialist campaigner.
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