Wednesday 26 January 2011

Is now the time?

Events in recent months provide good arguments for the adoption of a written constitution - for Britain. The UK has traditionally relied upon "conventions" (legally unenforceable rules - but which all actors in the constitutional system regard as binding.) to check the abuse of power. In other words - and it has been surprisingly effective - 'good' behaviour is maintained because 'Englishmen don't do THAT sort of thing'. There are many theories why this, in effect social pressure, has worked. [warning to my students - in forthcoming tutorials I'll be discussing this in detail!]

But the weakness of this approach is becoming increasingly obvious. Social sanctions may not be enforced, or be effective in the face of someone determined to ignore the conventions. This is highlighted by the Coalition's approach to Parliament. {Now, I'm not saying that the previous Labour Government was virtuous in this respect, it too pushed legislation through too fast and without adequate scrutiny} - but the actions of the Coalition have become worrying.

This is best illustrated (though this is an example - it illustrates a pattern of behaviour) with the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. There was no pre-legislative scrutiny (understandable, as the Coalition was only created and entered power last May), but that should have meant a more measured approach for the bill in Parliament. Instead two very important constitutional measures were welded together . Both measures merit detailed scrutiny. Instead the bill was rammed through the Commons. I recommend reading the 1st and 3rd reports of the all-party Select Committee on Political & Constitutional Reform. There is now a serious crisis in the House of Lords as Peers seek to give the proposals the scrutiny they were denied in the Commons.

At issue are proposals to
(1) reduce the number of seats in the House of Commons by almost 10%
(2) major changes in the rules for redrawing constituency (distric) boundaries - an issue many British people have not yet appreciated the significance of
(3) the abolition of public inquiries as part of the redistricting process
(4) the speed at which the next Review must be completed - before the next election. It had previously been a more measured process - allowing for consultation and debate.
The term "gerrymandering" has ben raised many times - something the Brits have tried to avoid.

The Coalition's response to demands for more than cursory scrutiny has been to pack the Lords with new Coalition-supporting peers - so it will be nigh on impossible for it to be defeated (a break with the understanding between 1999 and 2010 that a Government should NOT have a working majority); to ignore the usual intervals between the stages of a bill - steamrolling debate - and moving closure motions - something not done for over 20 years, then twice in one week.

We can only rely on an "unwritten constitution" where the Government of the day respects the conventions and practices which protect against the bulldozing of controversial legislation (and to be honest that system hasn't been very effective for the last 40 years). Perhaps we now need to consider written, legally enforceable rules - because our trust in fair play and respect for the unwritten rules has been destroyed.