Wednesday 11 July 2007

A cautious welcome for Brown's constitutional plans

Even if it was inspired more by party politics than by republican sentiment, Gordon Brown's decision to 'pre-announce' the contents of the Queen's Speech to Parliament today at least showed that he is serious about constitutional reform. It followed in the wake of the shopping list of constitutional changes that he delivered to Parliament a few days after becoming PM, which included plans for a bill of rights and a written constitution.

I'm cautiously optimistic about all of this, especially as it appears that Jack Straw will have a major role in implementing the plans. As I've mentioned before, Straw's ideas about 'Britishness' seem more rooted in our radical and liberal traditions, and less obsessed with monarchy and flummery, than those of some other leading politicians. However, any attempt to draw up a charter of basic rights for the UK may run up against the problem identified by Jonathan Freedland in relation to the Britishness debate: the absence of a 'republican moment' in our history that transferred power unequivocally from the monarchy to the people.

Charters of rights and written constitutions tend to emerge from these key moments of political change, and are usually inspired by a tide of enthusiasm for new and radical ideas. Since we're certainly not living through such a moment in our history, one does have a slight concern about the kind of ideas and values that might get reflected in Brown's planned bill of rights. There's a danger that it will simply reflect the concerns of the moment (my hackles rose when the PM talked about a charter of 'rights and responsibilities', for example), rather than values rooted in the long history of struggles for freedom. What counts as 'British values' is bound to be contested and there's a worry that the government might indulge in a process of consultation in which (for example) unrepresentative 'faith' and 'community' leaders have to be given a voice and seek to water down commitments to rights such as freedom of expression.

One idea that I wouldn't like to see implemented is the plan for more 'citizen's juries' to debate key issues. Although the idea sounds nice and empowering, it's actually the opposite. As with other experiments in 'direct democracy', it's not really democratic, but populist: government by focus group. Members of citizens' juries speak for no one but themselves, so politicians are able to listen earnestly and then ignore the results. As with government attempts to appeal 'over the heads' of the unions to individual members, it undermines the whole notion of representative democracy.

People who volunteer for things like citizen's juries tend to have an unusually wonkish interest in political meetings, or have an axe to grind, or have a lot of time on their hands: in other words, they tend to be unrepresentative of the majority of the population. That's why representative democracy works: it enables the busy majority to elect others to represent their collective interests. Of course, Brown's proposals are a response to a sense that people are disillusioned with representative politics. But the answer isn't to abandon it in favour of 'government by consultation' that treats people as disaggregated individuals and therefore actually entrenches the power of politicians, but to find ways to reinvigorate it: that's the challenge.

There's more on all of this at Shuggy's blog

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