Let me state at the outset that this evening I want to put my view that constitutional change - and I mean that in the broadest sense - is at the heart of the debate about the future for our country. Not incidental but integral to our future as a community.
All over Europe, in response to environmental as well as economic and social challenges, there is a growing recognition of the need for a change in the relationship between individuals, community and the state.
And I believe that in Britain constitutional change is essential for two quite fundamental reasons. It is vital because it is our responsibility to ensure the individual is protected against what can be called the vested interests of the state. And it is vital too because constitutional change is also a necessary means of advancing the potential of the individual in our community. In other words we have twin responsibilities to individual citizens as democrats: we must never fail to attack the evil wherever the individual is at risk from the encroachment of the state, and we must never lose sight of the good whenever the individual is empowered by the community.
I want to argue that what in truth we require is an entirely new settlement between the individual, community and government. Indeed, in my view a modern view of socialism must retrieve the broad idea of community from the narrow notion of the state and ensure that the community becomes a means by which individuals can realise their potential, not at the expense of individual liberty but in advancing it.
In other words I will be making the case this evening for constitutional change from Labour values, for I have always believed it is the historic role of the Labour Party to stand up for individual citizens against all vested interests that frustrate their potential. After thirteen years of a Conservative erosion of liberties we now need guaranteed rights: the right to know, the right to be consulted, the right to participate, the right of communities to run their own affairs.
I will argue not just for acts of Parliament enshrining in statute the long held demand for a Bill of Rights, but also that we must now take seriously the case for a European Bill of Rights so that we can protect the citizen from the potential abuse of power by any major public institution that touches our lives.
I will argue not just for immediate implementation of a Freedom of Information Act to ensure the flow of information from government to citizen and the right to know - and I believe we could do so in months - but argue also that there should be precise duties guaranteeing the right of individuals to information where it is in the public interest to do so, in the dark and secret corners of the private sector.
I will argue not just for reform of the judiciary but for reform of the security services and for a reformed second chamber in place of the anachronism which is the House of Lords.
And I will argue the case not just for home rule for Scotland within the United Kingdom and for the importance of the fresh look now taking place into electoral reform, but also for the principle of devolution applied all round throughout the country.
This lecture comes shortly before an election. Originally it was planned to come shortly after an election when calmer seas prevailed. My purpose is not to catch the next day's morning headlines but to reflect on questions that are rather more enduring. I will not list a set of constitutional changes, but will propose what I believe a constitutional agenda must include, not as detailed policy but as parameters for a debate that will continue long after the election.
My main purpose is to set a course for constitutional change. To make it more than just a shopping list of attractive ideas. To place it within a framework of belief about Britain as a community that can reach and touch all our people. To make constitutional change central, to make it popular and thus to make it attainable.
Let me start from Scotland to demonstrate what I mean. Scotland has just seen a unique all-party Constitutional Convention in which I have had the privilege to play a part: a Convention that has included not just one but a number of political parties and also enjoyed broad representation from the churches, local authorities, voluntary organisations, trades unions, and others throughout Scottish society from what might be called civil society.
The Convention rightly demands a Scottish parliament with entrenched powers. An aspiration first developed in its modern form a century ago, a widely held demand for change which has occasioned 20 Home Rule bills throughout this century already. An insistent demand for change which has brought administrative devolution as an inadequate substitute for legislative devolution. And now a popular demand that is so pressing and urgent that I believe that in the coming years we shall see the creation of a parliament which will not just be an inspiration to those seeking fundamental democratic change for the constitution in Scotland but throughout the United Kingdom as well.
For against old fashioned and unacceptable ideas of Crown sovereignty, the Convention asserts the sovereignty of the people, with legitimacy and authority flowing upwards and not downwards. It demands, and I believe will secure, the entrenchment of rights including a right to know. It demands more equal representation for women, rightly beginning to tackle the unacceptable under- representation of women at all levels of our political system. It demands a reformed electoral system, reflecting the widespread concern about the current system.
In Scotland the status quo is now so discredited that it is no longer an option. And it is because the Scottish parliament is the precursor for one in Wales and regional devolution throughout Britain that the West Lothian question - essentially that different M.P.s will have differing roles at Westminster - is not a genuine problem in proceeding with change.
Now I understand that the Prime Minister's view of the best solution is that instead of 7,000 civil servants running Scotland immune from Scottish democratic control, we should have 7,000 civil servants running Scotland immune from Scottish democratic control but wearing name tags.
But the Convention is in fact a response to two deep and widely felt concerns neither of which I feel he understands. First, that individual rights have been ignored because of the remoteness and the insensitivity of centralised government and, second, that the exercise of power has been separated from the democratic control.
But it is more than that. The demand for change is not just because London is far away but because Scotland is nearer ... indeed home, because the Scottish nation sees itself as a community whose interests cannot be properly advanced by the British state alone without the participation of the Scottish community through its own democratic parliament.
Indeed Scotland is a community that, in recognition of its interdependence, has a sense of what must be done by government to ensure individuals can achieve their potential. So there is a demand not just for accountable government but for government used effectively on behalf of the community.
And in transforming the government of Scotland I would argue that instead of retreating towards the old nineteenth century idea and trappings of an exclusive nation state with army, navy and defence forces and a separate currency - a nation state defined in relation to other nations and mainly in antithesis to its largest neighbour - what Scotland is demanding is a modern national identity, with autonomy on vital social and many economic matters within Britain and Europe. Recognising we are interdependent communities we want to link up across nations, not turn our backs on each other. Achieving, in short, the dream of Home Rule without the retreat into separation.
But the tumultuous events in Scotland are not the only calls for a new settlement in the United Kingdom. From Clive Ponting to GCHQ, from judicial error to excessive secrecy, we have become more centralised, less sensitive to individual rights and less free than we were.
And I have to say that the Citizen's Charters are no compensation for the failure of government and no substitute for the essential reform of government. The problem is much deeper than this. It is about the relationship between individual, community and the state, and I want to put the problem in a historical context.
There have been two attempts at a new settlement of the relationship between individuals, the community and the state in recent years. The boldest was the post-1945 settlement.
In 1945 individual freedom was to be guaranteed by social security rather than charity, with the state as provider ensuring for each citizen welfare, health care, education, social security and work. At the time, and for the time, it was the most ambitious programme of social and economic reform, one utterly necessary for many of the improvements we now take for granted today, not least our National Health Service.
Individual well-being was to be advanced by the active state delivering entitlements for the individual. But inevitably, as time passed and aspirations grew, individuals saw themselves less as passive recipients of benefits delivered by government and more as active participants seeking to shape their destiny. And the settlement did not in the end stand the test of time because it often seemed to many that the state and the community were one and the same thing.
Nationalised industries acted without the direct involvement of workforce or community. Scotland, Wales and the regions were granted benevolent administration without democratic rights to run their own affairs.
So, despite all the great achievements in health care, social security and education, there was not just an underdeveloped sense of community, but often an assumption that state and community interests were synonymous. Instead of government being an extension of community, it often looked to many like a substitute for it.
The response came in 1979 when Mrs Thatcher encouraged popular resentment against taxation, collectivism, bureaucracy and the local and national state, and attempted a new settlement between individual, community and government. The problem was identified by the new right Thatcherites as too much government and too little individual freedom. Individual well-being was to be guaranteed by less government even at the expense of social security.
But the new right did not recognise the individual as part of an interdependent community, quite the opposite. The individual was to make his or her own way in the marketplace unaided by government and set apart from any idea of society or community. There was - in Mrs Thatcher's own words - no such thing as society.
The result was that responsibilities conventionally accepted by the community that most of us had assumed would be discharged by government were abandoned or at least substantially eroded and reduced. Not just in social affairs (the responsibilities for public services of reasonable quality and the duty of the community to those in poverty) but also in the responsibility previously accepted by governments of all parties to stabilise the economy. Hence the extremes of boom and bust in the stop-go economics of the 1980's and 1990's. Hence the inability to improve research and innovation and training and education. Hence the now widening training and education gap.
The 1979 settlement abandoned responsibilities for individual well-being that government had discharged on behalf of the community, because it was now assumed that these could be left to the individual in the marketplace. The debate was wrongly identified as one between government and no government, when the real issue was better government. The result is that thirteen wasted years for the British constitution have directly contributed to thirteen wasted years for the British economy and for Britain as a community.
Let me say therefore where the heart of the difference in this debate lies. The new right believe individuals fulfil themselves best with no need for society and less need for government. I believe that in a modern interdependent society individual well-being is best advanced by a strong community backed up by active and accountable government.
And even those who now try to rescue the Conservative Party from the mistakes of crude free-market individualism have a similar problem. Unable to come to terms with a modern view of the constitution or society, their social market economy - dependent on the idea at best of compassion rather than rights - merely heralds a return to nineteenth-century paternalism.
But neither nineteenth-century paternalism nor eighteenth-century free market liberalism can answer questions of the relationship between individual community and government that now require a modern twentieth-century democratic settlement. A settlement that recognises first that the state may become a vested interest and that the individual needs the proper and guaranteed protection of a modern constitution so that government is accountable. And second, a settlement that recognises that individual potential is best developed in a community and that the community need not be a threat to individual liberty but can assist the fulfilment of it.
It is important for everyone, but particularly important for democratic socialists, that we recognise the need for individuals to be protected against any possible vested interests within the state.
Let me explain why democratic socialists more than anyone should be concerned in this way. Conservatives seek few if any additional responsibilities for government, and many suggest much less. They see well-being advanced primarily by the individual acting unaided on his or her own; while when I talk of individuals flourishing as part of a community where common needs are met through sharing responsibility, I assume an active role for government. But where I invoke the need for government I have a special responsibility to ensure its accountability. Indeed, those who argue for us to take seriously the responsibilities of government must always be more vigilant in arguing that in the exercise of these responsibilities there must be the maximum openness and accountability.
Holding the state accountable to the citizen is important for another reason. Socialists have long recognised that all societies tend to produce accumulated reservoirs of power. They entrench themselves, threatening to become vested interests - either in the private or public sector - hostile to any kind of reform or change. We have always identified such vested interests as our fundamental target.
Nineteenth-century socialism developed as a protest against the power of the main vested interests that then denied opportunity - the power of private capital. Twentieth-century socialists often were slow to realise that vested interests can operate throughout society. Indeed when socialism began as an attack on the vested interests of private wealth it used the state as the instrument of that attack. Yet the state was capable of becoming a vested interest in itself, capable of denying individuals opportunity and frustrating their potential to fulfil themselves.
I see the historic role of the Labour Party as nothing less than to stand up for the individual against any and every concentration of power that denies opportunity to individuals in British society whether cartels or cliques, whether in the public or private sector. And that is why socialists must demand that individuals have entrenched rights to protect them from the modern state.
But in our concern about the encroachment of the state on the individual we must never forget that community is still necessary as a means for individuals fulfilling themselves. Indeed I believe that the greatest failure of the last decade - and a loss that diminishes us all - has been the denial of the importance of community. Libertarians have been so afraid of the power that society can exercise over the individual they have sought to detach the individual from the very society of which he or she is part. Yet community is vital for the safety, health and development of individuals. Individuals on their own cannot make the streets safe at night. When disease strikes there is no such thing as a one- man health service. And almost all of us here today owe much that we have to the opportunities that have come from the collective provision of education. And take the environment today. Not only is it the case that individuals, no matter how rich, cannot buy themselves out of countryside pollution or urban decay - it is also true that private affluence loses its savour amidst public squalor, a recognition that we are dependent each upon one another.
So no-one can be in any doubt that there is a public interest in the community not just protecting the individual against pollution but positively acting to demand and ensure the highest standards: a common interest, not only in any one nation but also across the world.
So individuals need community and individuals depend on each other in a community. It is as wrong to see ourselves merely as Robinson Crusoes with no concerns beyond the immediate family, no bonds beyond the front door, no responsibilities beyond the garden gate, as it is to see ourselves as merely the repositories of society's values, somehow subsumed in the social order.
Etzioni has written that individuals stick to each other if they get too close but freeze if they get too far apart. It is time to see the crude dichotomy between community and individuals, that has frustrated political discussion in recent years, as both unrealistic and damaging. People do not live in isolation. People do not live in markets. People live in communities.
I think of Britain as a community of citizens with common needs, mutual interests, shared objectives, related goals and most of all linked destinies. A Britain not of strangers who only compete but a Britain of neighbours who recognise each other and recognise we depend upon each other. A Britain that is a society of individuals whose interactions are determined not by the invisible hand of the free market beloved of right wing economists, but a society where individuals depend freely and willingly upon what Dr James Stockinger has described as the hands of others. It is, he says, the hands of others who grow the food we eat, sew the clothes we wear, and build the homes we inhabit. It is the hands of others who tend us when we are sick, and who raise us up when we fall. And it is the hands of others who lift us first into the cradle and lower us finally into the grave.
We must rescue and restore the idea of community and do more than that, assert how individuals benefit from strong communities, not as a threat to their individual liberties but as an assistance to their fulfilment.
Community is not merely the aggregate of individuals joined together temporarily out of convenience - the community, in Bentham's words, as a fictitious body. Nor is it merely the source of authority seeking, in the name of duty, to impose standards of behaviour on warring individuals, because anarchy is seen as a greater danger than authoritarianism.
We must break away from the extreme views of the individual struggling for advantage against a community holding him back and that of the community struggling to hold the anti-social individual down. So I neither support Locke when he says rights are vested in individuals who do nothing more than delegate these rights to a community and I reject Hobbes when he argues for individuals subordinating all their rights for security. Community arises because we depend on each other.
It is said that the pressure for citizenship in Britain comes from the compassion of the fortunate towards the least fortunate. But modern citizenship is built on the recognition of interdependence. It is distinct from individualism including such paternalism. It recognises the citizen as part of a wider and interdependent community.
Indeed I believe that democratic socialism was founded on this belief in the value of community and society; that its main inspiration is the ethic of community rather than a theory of economy; and that the idea that individuals realise their potential to the full as part of the society in which they live leads us to embrace the idea that the community should stand up on behalf of individuals against the vested interests that hold them back. It is, let us be clear, community assisting the individual not the individual subsumed in community or subordinated to it.
But it is partly because the community has succeeded in the past in creating new opportunities that people have become more assertive, with a broader view of what they can achieve, less inclined to be passive recipients of welfare, more inclined to demand the right to realise their diversity of talents, interests and desires to the full. It is significant that all constitutions that have stood the test of time have had an implicit if not explicit view of society and human nature that recognises such aspirations.
The French constitution says that: 'The community shall be based on the equality and the solidarity of the peoples composing it'. The Italian constitution 'recognises and guarantees the inviolable rights of man both as an individual and as a member of the social groups in which his personality finds expression...' The American constitution starts with the words 'We the people...'
But anyone studying our unwritten British constitution will find implicit in it the idea of leaders and led, the Hobbesian view that the role of government is to empower leaders, unbounded by any limitations, to deal with the threat to security posed by those who must be led.
It is time to escape from that bleak Hobbesian view. A view which, if I may say so, now seems after 300 years and the experience of many other nations to be: nasty, poor, British and short. It is now time to think about the liberation of potential and the empowerment of the citizen.
We can see it reflected every day in the permanent influence of the women's movement demanding genuine liberation in place of what has invariably been second class citizenship. When women say - for example - that they should not be faced with the unfair choice between the jobs they need and the children they love they are expressing the legitimate desire to have the right to fulfil their potential.
When we think of the rights of children, we think of them growing, through parental support, child care, nursery education, a stimulating environment, the love of friends and neighbours: developing their potential to the full. But the argument for the fulfilment of potential does not apply only to children. Adults too should enjoy the right that we should become the best that we have it in us to become, and not just the best that other people have decided we may be allowed to be.
So the growing demand of individuals is that they should be in a position to realise their potential, to bridge the gap between what they are and what they have it in them to become. And the aspirations of the individual within the community and the means whereby the community responds become a central question to be addressed when we look at how we are to be governed.
Rightly any programme for a modern society and modern economy and the policies that arise from it must encompass a debate about how markets can work in the public interest, how individuals at work - employees and managers - can cooperate effectively to use capital in the public interest, how we can ensure the highest quality public services that are both accountable and open, and how poverty can be tackled not just in the interests of advancing social and economic opportunities and rights of individuals themselves but in securing social cohesion.
But a modern constitution is essential to protect individuals against the state and to empower them within an interdependent community. In this way the agenda for constitutional change becomes essential to the task of establishing a modern view of society and in my view a modern view of democratic socialism. That agenda will be familiar to supporters of Charter 88 but I want briefly and in conclusion to address certain aspects of it.
First, from the belief that socialism must take on the vested interests of government as well as those of capital and wealth, springs the clear need for the rights of the individual to be protected in law in the constitution and to be exercisable against executive power.
The method of achieving this can be debated. It could of course be done through an entrenched Bill of Rights possibly through incorporation of the European Convention of Human Rights. Alternatively individual rights could be defined through specific items of legislation which are then made subject to a special legislative procedure which in effect entrenches them. On this basis then, this debate can continue but a Bill of Rights in one form or another there will be.
And this must be accompanied by the affirmative action essential not just to outlaw sexual, racial and other discrimination - for example by genuinely achieving equal access to the law - but also to positively promote greater equality ensuring that in a modern society, as I have indicated, civil rights are matched by economic and social opportunities in the workplace and elsewhere.
And as the power of European institutions threatens to grow, especially that of the Commission, so does the need for accountability and protection for individual rights. For that reason the European Commission too must be subject to the European Convention of Human Rights. In the longer term I have no doubt we will have to consider a new European Bill of Rights, protecting the rights of European citizens from any abuse of power by European institutions.
We must make freedom of information a priority and in my view there is now an opportunity as well as the demand to act rapidly. It is clear that to make our community more efficient and to protect individual liberty we should have a free flow of information between government and governed. That is why, as Roy Hattersley has outlined, we need a Freedom of Information Act that ensures not only a presumption in favour of disclosure, but also that public interest defence must be available where there is a question-mark over the illegitimate disclosure of information by civil servants.
But because of what I say about vested interests as a whole I want to extend this concept in two ways. First, freedom of information should apply not just to the apparatus of the state but to those dark and secret corners of private power. There should be specific obligations on companies to inform employees, shareholders and the public where it is in the public interest to do so or where it is clearly legitimate for individuals to require such information.
Secondly, freedom of information should be seen not just as a brake upon the natural tendency towards secrecy of powerful institutions. It should be an attempt to actively provide information to the community that needs it.
For example, how can we debate seriously the environment, the economy, unemployment, or the state of our public services if we are denied the vital information - the true, not politically doctored facts and figures - which must necessarily form the basis for such a debate? I believe, for example, that what we call official statistics should come from a central statistical office; not subject to government interference as it is at the moment but independent of government.
In this way the constitutional debate is about content as well as about form, about how to make rights effective in practice as well as in theory.
Thus, there is a duty in the modern constitution to ensure the best possible consultation throughout our society. Public consultation is a mark of a mature democracy, not only when government seeks to make major legislative changes - for example over local taxation - but also at a smaller scale where new developments are planned. We must also ensure the fullest democratic participation in decisions.
Crucial, obviously, to any debate about the rules governing our society is the method of deciding its government. The debate about electoral reform is now proceeding apace and I welcome it. In Scotland we have already adopted the principles for change in a Scottish parliament reflecting a growing recognition that the present system is outdated. Indeed I believe there is now a majority in the Labour Party for an open and comprehensive debate on electoral reform.
It should proceed on the basis of fairness not electoral advantage. It should be because of its intrinsic worth - not as an alternative to winning elections under the present system. Then, in the detail of different systems of voting, the crucial questions arise. Systems are widely varied and have had quite different consequences when they have been tried. The debate, in other words, must concentrate on mechanisms as well as ideals. In particular, I and many others would want to ensure whatever system is adopted maintains the close link between the constituency as a community and its representative.
We must also widen our notion of what we mean by participation. Throughout the community encouragement should be given to individuals to participate in the major decisions that affect their lives.
There must also be proper accountability for all those who exercise power in the public's name. I favour certain public appointments made subject to the scrutiny of a House of Commons committee, so reducing the prime ministerial power of patronage. But I also favour placing the security services under public scrutiny through Parliament, a reform that is long overdue.
We must ensure that those who exercise power, whether in the executive or judiciary as well as the legislature, are able to reflect the public interest. Measures have been spelt out for increasing the representation of women but it will also be equally important that those who administer the law themselves be more representative. What is fascinating now is that real and profound concern about our legal system can no longer be dismissed as confined to fringe or minority groups. Recent cases have seriously undermined public confidence in our legal system. There must be a thorough reform of judicial appointment.
I believe that there must be a wholesale devolution of power. I have made the case for a Scottish parliament now and for the reform of government in Wales and the regions pointing towards a written constitution. In replacing the indefensible House of Lords on a democratic basis, consideration should be given to introducing a regional element to the second chamber. But the devolution of power that I favour is far more widespread. I believe that more generally communities should be in a position to take more control over their own decisions.
That is why we must begin a radical discussion of how the community can work to organise its affairs, breaking out of the one-dimensional view of government that has dominated too much of our thinking. Where there is a public interest there need not be a centralised public-sector bureaucracy always directly involved in provision. Sometimes the best role for government is merely to enable or encourage, or to act as a catalyst or coordinator. At other times government can be partner or simply financier, helping communities to organise themselves.
Indeed the constitution fit for the 21st century should be one of the servant state, the state serving the community and the individual, placed beneath a sovereign people and not above it.
And finally, part of a new settlement between individual community and government is to reinvigorate the notion of public service. For thirteen years we have heard much about the evils of the public sector, as it has been denigrated. It is time to talk about the value of our public services as a reflection of the shared concerns of a British society that educates the young, cares for its sick and disabled, shares responsibilities for the elderly and frail. Teachers and all those who work in the education service, doctors, nurses, orderlies, assistants and all those who work in the health service, the police service and of course the civil service itself.
With young people it is time to harness idealism and energy in the meeting of needs by public service. In the 1960's, from America, there was launched the Peace Corps, an international commitment to harness the idealism of young people to break out of the impotence many felt in the face of the threat to world peace. Now in the 1990's, from Britain, it may be that we should be considering a new corps, a world environment corps, to harness the idealism of young people to break out of the impotence many feel in the face of the threat to the world environment.
We need a British initiated but world-wide organisation through which young people can be trained to meet the environmental challenges of our time: whether helping environmental improvement in Britain, or tackling reclamation or pollution in other parts of the world. This is one of many proposals that we could discuss that will over time reinvigorate the idea, central to the notion of community, that public service is a noble aspiration.
In conclusion, the current movement for constitutional reform is of historic importance. It signals the demand for a decisive shift in the balance of power in Britain, a long overdue transfer of sovereignty from those who govern to those who are governed, from an ancient and indefensible Crown sovereignty to a modern popular sovereignty, not just tidying up our constitution but transforming it.
What I have tried to do is to set the movement for constitutional change within the framework of democratic socialism and I make no apology for doing that.
I have put forward the idea of a new settlement, based on two requirements: the first, that the individual is protected against the state, and the second, that the individual is empowered to develop his or her potential as part of our community. I believe that the Labour Party is the natural party of reform in government and that when I argue that the historic role is to stand up for the individual citizen against vested interests I also mean that the community should open doors for the individual, break down barriers that frustrate choice and chances, empower people with new opportunities, using the power of all to advance the good of each.
I have said that central to this is the notion that Britain needs a new view of community, and that this requires in turn a modern constitution to give it effect. I believe that we can break out of the discredited alternatives of old style state power and new style individualism. Instead I believe that the challenge of the 1990's is to create, as we move towards a new century, a new settlement between individual and community. One that recognises both our rights and aspirations as individuals and our needs and shared values as a community. Not so much the end of history, as one academic put it, but the opening of a new chapter.
This Charter88 Sovereignty lecture was given at 11 May 1992
Let me start with a confession. I am not an expert on the British Constitution. I am not, for example, in the same league as John Stuart Mill who started learning Greek at the age of three and was on to proportional representation by the time he reached his teens. At a rough estimate, I should guess I started taking an interest in the British Constitution at the age of forty-two and a half.
I can only console myself with the thought that most of us are in the same boat. The general standard of Constitutional argument in this country would barely scrape a GCSE pass in a poor year. We most of us rub along on a few inherited patches of wisdom. The greater part of the estate has been set aside; the traditional machinery lies, still visible to the gaze, but neglected and rusting in a corner of the field. As Nevil Johnson put it 15 years ago, we suffer from "atrophy of any language in which we can talk of constitutional issues, of rules, or of the principles of public law". It requires only a brief acquaintance with the vigour, the ferocity, the scholarship of debate on constitutional questions in the U.S. to come to the conclusion that we, to put it kindly, are a bit out of practice. What seems to me worrying about our Constitution is not so much that it is unwritten as that it is so often inarticulate. If you think this too sweeping a judgment, I'd like to offer a couple of recent examples.
You will recall the appearance of the Maxwell brothers, Kevin and Ian before the House of Commons Select Committee on Social Security. And you will also recall the great fuss there was when they refused to answer questions. Grave constitutional principles were said to be at stake. But what principles precisely? After a good deal of head scratching and foot-shuffling, nobody seemed very sure - was it the right to silence? But then for the life of us we could find nothing about the right to silence in Erskine May. Was it something like the American Fifth Amendment, some protection against self- incrimination? Unfortunately, we don't have a single written Constitution for there to be a fifth amendment to. I read the newspapers pretty carefully, but nowhere could I find any mention of the ancient principle involved, one which would have been familiar to Montesquieu and Burke, namely that it isn't parliament's job to try cases which may conceivably be brought before the courts. A principle better known as the Separation of Powers.
Or to take another fairly recent example. You will remember the outcry after the release of the Birmingham Six last year. More than 140 MPs - over a fifth of the House of Commons - petitioned for the removal of the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Lane. So did many great newspapers -the Independent did it twice - and many leading commentators such as Bernard Levin and Ludovic Kennedy. Even those who defended Lord Lane, such as Mr. Louis Blom- Cooper, defended him on his conduct of the case (conduct which I happen to agree was disastrous). Nobody, but nobody, defended him on the strict constitutional grounds that High Court judges enjoy security of tenure during good behaviour - and bad behaviour is not the same as a bad judgment. Yet this principle is the foundation of the independence of the judiciary, the undoubted bed-rock of our liberty. It was surely worth a mention.
As we go along, I shall refer to one or two other interpretations of our constitutional arrangements. All I wish to add at this point is that correct interpretation is not always easy; it's often more of an art than a science. Consider a problem which looked very pressing a few weeks ago. Suppose the General Election had resulted in a hung parliament, with Labour having won a handful of seats more than the Conservatives. What would Mr. Major's position have been? Well, the obvious parallel was Mr Heath's position after the results were declared in February 1974. And the Grand Soothsayers of our Constitution, Lord St. John of Fawsley and Mr. Peter Kellner, both agreed that Mr. Heath had been well "within his rights", in seeking to remain in office, and patch up some deal with the Liberals.
Well, those of us who were around at the time remember a strong feeling compounded of embarrassment and distaste. It seemed to us that, in a first- past-the-post system, Mr. Heath had finished second, a close second, but second none the less, and that he therefore ought to step down. Indeed, even the argument advanced on his behalf, that the Conservatives had totted up more of the popular vote than Labour, was more appropriate to a plebiscite than a strictly parliamentary system.
It seemed to me that Mr. Heath's behaviour had in fact crystallised, somewhat involuntarily, a new constitutional convention: namely, that the winner of the largest number of seats has the right to try and form a government. Now you still won't find this convention in any of the textbooks; you won't find it, for example, in the latest edition of Rodney Brazier's invaluable Constitutional Practice. But I believe it to be the case. If Mr. Major had finished a few seats behind Labour, I am convinced that he would have resigned instantly.
Stanley Baldwin put his finger on the difficulty:
"The historian can tell you probably perfectly clearly what the constitutional practice was at any given period in the past, but it would be very difficult for a living writer to tell you at any given period in his lifetime what the Constitution of the country is in all respects, and for this reason, that at almost any given moment ... there may be one practice called 'constitutional' which is falling into desuetude and there may be another practice which is creeping into use but is not yet constitutional."
Such difficulties are notoriously peculiar to the British. Until recently, there were two other civilised countries which didn't possess some kind of single special entrenched document setting out the rules of the game - Israel and New Zealand; in recent years, though, the passing of a constitutional semi- entrenched law in New Zealand has given that country something resembling a single written constitution. In Israel, similar basic laws have been passed in recent years. So we are now more or less on our own. Nothing wrong with standing alone, but it does help to know where you are standing and I'm not convinced that we do.
But our exceptionalism is odder than that. Not merely are we an exception to the rest of the world; our constitutional arrangements are also an exception to the general run of arrangements in other great British institutions: sporting clubs and federations, college bodies, learned and professional institutions, political parties, trade unions. Almost all of them have a code of rules written down in a single document and special procedures for changing those rules - procedures which tend to be elaborate, to require extra-large majorities for approval, and to require that approval to be spread over an unusually large number of meetings or conferences. So the British parliamentary system is unusual in that way too, that exactly the same procedure is gone through, regardless of whether the measure is some profound constitutional alteration or the Hairdressing (Scotland) Amendment Bill.
Defenders of the status quo will argue that this system has served us well over the centuries, that our parliamentary traditions have combined stability and flexibility and that we should not cast away in a minute what has taken generations to build.
I am not insensible to the charms of this line of argument. But it has to be said that the status quo is not what it was. Advocates of "rolling constitutional change", like the present Education Secretary, Mr. John Patten, have to reckon with the fact that this is a rolling stone which actually sheds moss. It shed, first of all, the Church and the heritage of natural law which placed the monarch firmly under the Almighty and hence prevented power from being wholly arbitrary; then it shed the power of the monarchy, although Queen Victoria was extremely reluctant to admit it; then it shed the effective power of the Second Chamber, in two steps, in 1911 and 1949. More recently, the independence of local government went for a burton.
This thinning of our constitutional texture was described by Lord Hailsham as amounting to "elective dictatorship". Forty years earlier, Harold Laski claimed that "our Government has become an executive dictatorship tempered by the fear of parliamentary revolt." In earlier years still, even those principal justifiers of our constitution, Sir Ivor Jennings, and A. V. Dicey, now and then uneasily let slip their anxieties that the party majority - what Dick Crossman called "the battering ram" - could now force through any measure which took the passing fancy of the Prime Minister of the day, without fear of modification or delay. These fears that our democracy is now too unmediated and too centralised are neither novel nor confined to one party or another. After all, we have together endured a pretty consistent stream of ill-considered, short-sighted, partisan legislation: from the Trade Disputes Act of 1906 to the Poll Tax legislation of the 1980s. The supremacy of our elected parliament is our most precious constitutional inheritance, but is that all we are to inherit?
There are certainly differences in the way political parties approach the dilemma. The Left tends to be indignant, the Right tends to be apprehensive; the Left tends to talk of incipient fascism, the Right foresees the end of civilisation as we know it; the Left worries about human rights, the Right about sound money. But there is a common ground, and it is the purpose of these Sovereignty Lectures to explore, and, if possible, enlarge this common ground. I ought to repeat, by the way, that I'm not a signatory or a paid-up supporter of Charter 88. But we do travel along the same line for quite a part of the way, even if as Iain Macleod said of Enoch Powell, I prefer to get off several stations before the terminus.
I'll start the exploring by stating what I take to be the principal shared belief about the present state of things, the single piece of common ground which we all have at least one foot planted on.
I mean the belief that two World Wars and the various ideological shocks of the past century have left our system too centralised; and that accordingly we need to disperse, devolve and pluralise power and responsibility. Power in the U.K. has been clenched too tightly; sensitivity to the interests and aspirations of individuals and localities - what might be called fingertip feeling - is possible only if we unclench the fist. That broad general assumption would, I imagine, unite most people in this Hall. The belief, I'm sure, is common to the four people delivering these Sovereignty Lectures. Certainly Mr. Gordon Brown's absorbing address in this Hall a couple of months ago repays re-reading, because it embodies an approach very different from the battering-ram Labour Party of my youth, which not only believed, in Douglas Jay's immortal words, that "the man in Whitehall knows best" - about nutrition, about education, about how to run a steel mill, but also that socialism could be effectively delivered only by the concentrated clout of central government. Not only was the man in the Whitehall omniscient, but he was omnicompetent too.
That kind of self-confidence has pretty well disappeared from British politics, and we, most of us, kiss it goodbye without regret. We have, over the past decade-and-a-bit, witnessed quite a dispersal of the Whitehall estate. One elegant bystander saw it as selling off the family silver, but a large quantity of the goods on offer on closer inspection turned out to be car boot sale stuff. The really valuable lots were those sold off to existing tenants - the council houses, above all. Despite the widespread grumbles at the time, the logic of such privatisation has now become generally accepted.
But I regard that dispersal of property rights as only the first of three stages in the process of unclenching the fist. The second stage is what I would call the dispersal of institutional responsibility; I mean here such things as the local management of schools, better still in my view, grant-maintained schools or self-governing hospitals. To those who are still unreconciled to the latter and regard them as some kind of below-the-belt blow to the National Health Service, I would only say that even within the 1945 Labour government there was a strong body of opinion, led by Herbert Morrison, which opposed the nationalisation of those hospitals which were owned by local authorities and charitable bodies, believing that Nye Bevan's total takeover would injure local pride and enthusiasm and was anyway unnecessary to the central purpose - the provision of first-class free treatment.
But I don't want to become embroiled in an argument about the specifics of these reforms. My purpose is simply to mention the first two stages in the dispersal campaign - property rights and institutional responsibility - only to set them alongside the third stage, the one we have scarcely started on, constitutional reform. From my own perspective, I regard this third stage as unfinished business in the process of reinvigorating self-government in this country.
I do not expect everyone here tonight to agree, but far from this quest for decentralisation representing a retreat from Thatcherism, I regard it as the completing and securing of the two projects of individual responsibility and limited government which modern conservatism has adopted as its mission. And I think complacency about the present state of our constitutional arrangements is just as much of an abdication from true Conservatism as complacency about the State education system or nationalised industries was in 1979.
And that, I promise you, is the last whiff of party politics for this evening.
Now if you see our essential purpose as a decentralising one, if you keep your eye on that goal, then I believe honesty compels us to be a little sceptical about some reforms.
For example, some eminently respectable bodies have put forward the suggestions that the remaining constitutional prerogatives of the Crown - the right to dissolve Parliament and so on - should be removed and granted to some other public official, the Speaker of the House of Commons, for example. Now this sounds an impeccably democratic and modern-minded suggestion; there is no need to accuse all those who make it of the peevish republicanism which does lurk in the breasts of some would-be reformers.
Yet I cannot see that the proposal would do much to assist the dispersal of power or even the cause of making its exercise more transparent. The Speaker is, for all his or her inestimable virtues, only a nicely laundered politician; he or she lives like other politicians in a web of gratitudes and resentments; if his or her arm is in fact untwistable, there is no way of preventing an old comrade from trying to twist it, or of stopping old opponents from accusing him or her of having had it twisted. Which sounds to you better evidence of an effective separation of powers: the relationship between President Hillery and Mr. Charles Haughey, or the relationship between the Queen and Mrs. Thatcher?
Or let us take a more central preoccupation of constitutional reformers, Proportional Representation. Now it is said on behalf of Proportional Representation that it produces fairer, more representative, more balanced parliament and hence more stable, consistent governments. And it is said against PR that it gives an easy leg-up into Parliament to demagogic racists who might otherwise fade away, that it gives unrepresentative minorities - the Free Democrats in Germany, for example - undue influence over the policy of governments in which they are coalition partners, and that it makes stable, consistent government less rather than more likely. I happily concede that for a chamber which does not have to sustain a government, a Senate or the House of Lords, PR seems to me ideal; and in any case, in the right political circumstances, PR, like the first-past-the-post or election by drawing lots, for that matter, can produce perfectly decent government for longish stretches of time.
But what I don't think anyone can deny is that PR does have an inherent centralising tendency. It centralises political power at party headquarters. In any seriously proportional system, that is, a party-list or multimember system, the party label is essentially the currency in which the votes are counted and the seats allocated. I would like to refer here again to Mr. Nevil Johnson of Nuffield College, a former believer in PR, who in his recent recantation was much impressed by the overweening power - and consequent tendency to corruption - within the major parties in West Germany. There is, I believe, genuine virtue in the relative poverty of our political parties and the relative independence of their constituency associations. I cannot help believing that both the poverty and the independence would wither under most systems of PR.
At the same time, the management of government under a PR system also has an introverted quality, which amounts to a further kind of centralisation. It is not simply that the electors cannot foresee and have no control over the policy trading between the parties which negotiate the virtually inevitable coalition after the election. If the coalition is to prosper, the eyes of its leaders must be constantly on the mood of their junior coalition partners, rather than on the mood of the nation; by contrast, a British Prime Minister or an American President in their simpler systems will be paying close attention to what the voters as a whole are saying. The conversation between governors and governed is more straightforward, more transparent.
Many of you may wish to dispute this argument, and in a way I am sorry to have spent this much time on it. But I do so, not so much to bury PR, as to try to clear it out of the way in order to concentrate on what seem to me the real architectural questions about our constitutional arrangements.
I think it's a pity that in many people's minds constitutional reform and PR have come to mean much the same thing. To me, PR looks like an ingenious and expensive scheme of interior decoration which we might get fed up with all too quickly; I don't see it as a load-bearing part of the structure.
Well, what should that architecture look like? I'll jot down five general principles which I think ought to guide us, and then like a good jobbing architect I'll give you a prompt and, I hope, alluring blueprint.
I make no apology for pausing to consider the qualities we are aiming for. It has always seemed to me rather odd that constitutional reformers should take less trouble to consider the aesthetic and functional qualities of their proposals than a team designing a new can-opener or garden spray.
First of all we want simplicity. We don't wish to add to the burden of government on the citizens, either through extra taxes or extra administrative complications. Every additional tier of government must increase the possibilities of further public expense and more maladministration. So, for example, if we want to set up some sort of representative body for Scotland, then the Scots, whether pro- or anti-devolution, would be glad to see a layer of Scottish local government removed in compensation. Conversely, since the demand for a corresponding network of English regional assemblies is faint if not invisible, then we should feel no compulsion to invent one.
Second, stability. We want a system that will improve consistency and steadiness in the quality of government. Voters will not thank us if, in our quest for mathematical fairness, we end up with a set of arrangements which produces more see-sawing of the type which has been so justly complained of over the post-war era in British politics.
Then it follows from what we have already said about unclenching the governmental fist, that separation is a highly desirable quality. Any reforms which help to entrench, clarify or widen the present separations between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary should be favourably considered, in the interests of improving both the protection of liberty and the transparency of government. Conversely, any proposal which would tend further to glue together our already over-fused branches of government should be looked at with a sceptical eye.
That is linked to my next desirable quality for which I will meekly use that unlovely term, subsidiarity (devolution is not much better). Functions should be exercised at the lowest practicable level of government and, wherever possible, not by government at all but by private individuals and independent institutions. This rule applies pre-eminently to our dealings within the European Community, but not to them alone.
And mention of the European Community brings me to my final desirable quality, what I call patriation. While subsidiarity is a constitutional expression of democracy - people-power - patriation gives constitutional expression to national pride and independence -nation-power, if you like. It is English and Scottish judges who ought to be the prime protectors of our legal rights and liberties; it is British MPs who ought to remain the prime exponents of our anxieties and grievances. It is the best defence against the outbreak of neo- fascism which Euro-sceptics like Mr. Norman Tebbit fear, and not without reason. I say 'prime'; I do not say 'sole'. I do believe that the European Parliament and the European Courts do have a considerable role to play in the resolution of disputes and grievances. But we need to think much more carefully than we have so far about their relationship with national courts and parliaments.
Well now, let us get down to specifics. What kind of reforms fit the bill we have drawn up?
I want to start, briskly and symbolically, at the bottom, with local government at its most local. One of the unsung disasters of the Heath-Walker reforms was their lack of interest in the lowest tier of government - the parish. I suppose that is not so surprising when you consider that some of the historic counties - older than the Westminster Parliament - were being shovelled into the dustbin of history - or so they thought at the time.
I remember, as a rather timid leader-writer, going to see Mr. Peter Walker in his cubbyhole in the House of Commons, and summoning up the courage to ask him if he didn't think these new super-counties were a bit large and remote and if there wasn't something to be said for keeping the intimate historic scale (although I don't think I put it so coherently). He looked at me, not unkindly, for he is an amiable man, but with amazement. The doctrine that bigger was better was such an indelible part of the conventional wisdom of government that anyone who couldn't see it must himself be an antique survival like a beadle or a remembrancer.
I want to revive the bottom-most tier - well, tier is too grand a term, ledge would be nearer the mark - as an earnest of our basic intention, which is to revive self-government. At present, village or ward governance is mostly agitation and supplication; there is very little decision-making power. Entitle every parish council to 5% of the proceeds of the council tax to spend as they thought fit - rather on the lines of the old penny - now two-penny rate - and then you might see things begin to hum; environmental self-improvement on a modest scale might replace futile lamentation.
Moving from the little platoon to the battalion level, we have a double purpose: to restore the historic counties and boroughs, in the interests of civic pride and to simplify the over-elaboration of tiers and functions. It is nice to hear from Mr. Michael Howard that there is no money to spare for a grand reform; we don't want a grand reform; we want a careful county-by-county and borough-by-borough reconsideration, of the sort that seems to have met with general approval in Wales. I don't mind if Sir John Banham's rural rides take years rather than months. It was hurry that undid us last time.
A simplification of local government then leaves room for representative bodies in the non-English bits of the United Kingdom. As their names suggest - the principality, the province and the kingdom - the three regions are different in themselves and different in their historic relationship to the British Crown Parliament. It would accordingly be wrong to aim for a tidy-minded symmetry in devising representative bodies. No constitution is or can be perfectly symmetrical, what it can and must be is generally accepted as both fair and usable.
As in Gladstone's day, opponents of anything which looks faintly like Home Rule like to ask what is now known as the West Lothian question: how can Scottish MPs at Westminster continue to vote on English domestic affairs when, if we had a Scottish Assembly, English MPs would no longer be allowed to vote on Scottish domestic affairs? This is the sort of question which is asked by people who don't want an answer. After all, for half a century, nobody minded Northern Irish MPs voting at Westminster on mainland business, while mainland MPs took no part in the increasing activities of the Stormont Parliament.
We can perfectly well devise a system like the one suggested by Sir Alec Douglas-Home's committee back in the 1970s: that a directly elected Scottish Assembly would form a third chamber of the Westminster Parliament to take the Second Reading and Committee stages of Scottish Bills. Should it have revenue-raising powers? Why not? After all, until recently local authorities in this country had unlimited revenue-raising powers. But suppose a Labour dominated Scottish Assembly wanted to raise more revenue than the UK Treasury approved of? My answer is simply: let them. If the Scots wished to be more heavily taxed than the English, that would be up to them; and if they didn't, the Assembly wouldn't be dominated by Labour for very much longer.
I must, in fact, confess to a more general insouciance: I really don't mind very much if there is an occasional dust-up between one part of the political system and another. I think we have too often sacrificed clear and honest argument in the interests of smoothness of administration. I believe - and I think anyone who believes in the revival of the Second Chamber, let alone the creation of a Third Chamber, must also believe - that public, intra-governmental conflict is not necessarily an unhealthy symptom. That is why I want to strengthen the constitutional authority of the House of Lords, so that it can disagree uninhibitedly with the Commons and the Commons will have to take its disagreement seriously. That is why some element of election - by PR, if you fancy - is an essential ingredient in a reformed Upper House. Once again, I refer you to a report of a committee chaired by that indefatigable radical, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, back in the 1970s. His recipe was a mixed House, part- elected, part-nominated from among existing life and hereditary peers.
But any reform of the Second Chamber must lead us one stage further back: to a reinvigoration of the Lower House and a determination to make its scrutiny of legislation a reality rather than a wearisome formality.
It is here in the House of Commons that one experiences the rustiness of our system at its most painful and embarrassing. It is not simply the habitual emptiness of the Chamber, now crowded only for the hollow mummery of Prime Minister's question time, it is the emptiness of the speeches; the listless drone of the Minister reading out his brief, the unconvincing chuckles of the doughnut ring around him, the unconvincing jeers of the Opposition, the members who have been persuaded to stay on for the debate on the promise of unspecified favours from the Whips. True, much of all this would be familiar to observers of the House of Commons in its supposed heyday; in fact, I have often thought that the most shocking sight to the novice - the backbenchers who have been pressed to serve on committees, and who appear to spend most of their time on answering their letters - needs only a few stove-pipe hats and brocade waistcoats to recall the Parliaments of the Regency.
More serious, I think, is the way in which attention and influence has imperceptibly drained away from the House. This may come as news to some of those innocent entrepreneurs who still pay handsome consultancy fees to backbenchers, but they would be better occupied in wooing the much derided members of the European Parliament who actually have some prospect of securing the passage of a useful amendment. It is from the Upper House that the more memorable and damaging criticisms of government policy seem to come these days. While if we turn to the other branches of government, we find that the views of even minor members of the Royal family are listened to with the closest attention and often acted on quite assiduously by Ministers. Far from the Royal family receding in importance, it seems more plausible that we are coming to the end of an era of silent monarchy and returning to the less fettered behaviour of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The informality of modern monarchs may, indeed, be accompanied by a willingness to speak one's mind € la Juan Carlos.
But more dramatic even than the end to the silence of the monarchy is the revival of the judiciary as a constitutional actor. For the first half of this century, High Court judges have been cautious to the point of timidity in expressing any criticism of governmental action; the independence of the judiciary has been of a decidedly subordinate character. But over recent decades, a greater willingness not only to criticise Ministers but to grant relief against them has become visible. Not merely have many of the remaining immunities of the Crown been stripped away by statute and case law, but an increasing number of High Court judges have followed Lord Denning's lead in taking a decidedly broad view of their powers. Accordingly, aggrieved parties have piled into the courts. Lord Chief Justice Lane reported last year that applications for judicial review had risen from 491 in 1980 to over 2,000 in 1990 - with the same percentage rise of applications granted. This extraordinary upsurge in judicial boldness came upon us without much forethought or warning, and I can assure you that it has left government departments in a state of shocked apprehension. Even ten years ago, it would have been unthinkable for the Court of Appeal to find the Home Secretary guilty of contempt, as Mr. Kenneth Baker was last year in a deportation case (although the judgement was later overruled).
I have called this talk the Recovery of the Constitution. I intended a hint of double-entendre. On the one hand, I wanted to urge us to think about the sort of actions we might need to consider in order to "get our Constitution back"; but I also wanted to invoke the other sense of recovery - the sense of a patient recovering from an illness. And I do believe that in several respects we are recovering our constitutional spirits.
A majority in all parties do, I think, want to see local government recover its old vigour and independence. Equally, I think a majority in all parties are happy to see judges recover their voices and muster some of the stentorian criticism of the executive that we associate with Coke and Holt and more recently with Salmon and Radcliffe, and Denning and Scarman.
And in this renewed ability to challenge the executive, we should not undervalue the contribution made by the European connection. I do not speak merely of the pressure applied in the Community to clean up our rivers and our beaches, but of the reinforcement offered by the European Convention on Human Rights. As you know, we are signatories to that Convention, but it is not part of English or Scottish law. Yet even in this undignified position, half in, half out, it provides valuable ammunition for judges who wish to press home a point which is not sufficiently supported by English common statute law. There was a beautiful example recently in the High Court's use of Article Ten of the Convention to defend the principle of freedom of expression in the case of Derbyshire County Council versus Times Newspapers. I believe that, sooner or later, we might as well formally incorporate the European Convention in our law; but even if we don't bestir ourselves to take that step, it is in practice already a part of our legal inheritance and will come to seem as immovable as the Act of Settlement or the Bill of Rights.
It is not surprising perhaps that the House of Commons, jealous of its ancient pre-eminence, should seem on occasion the stiffest limb of government and the slowest to wake up, as though determined to reverse Bagehot's distinction and show itself the dignified rather than the efficient branch of government. Yet here too the pressure of European institutions is making itself inexorably felt. The timetable of the Community is slowly but surely affecting the timetable of the House; that old prickliness which refused to recognise the existence of MEPs is beginning to yield - they are already allowed in the canteen, soon no doubt they will be using the lavatories.
But there is a long way to go before the House of Commons has learnt the art of shaping British policy in Europe rather than reacting in peevish and baffled fashion to unwelcome faits accompli. But then we are still a long way from reconciling the government's need to get its business through with the careful and informed scrutiny of legislation. The use of the guillotine continues to increase rather than diminish, reaching an acme of absurdity as recently as June 10th last year, when it was applied to the Dangerous Dogs Bill.
I have further gleams in my eye: I'd like to reinforce the independence of standing committees by appointing them for the duration of a parliament and on a free vote; I'd like to minimise the debilitating pre-election manoeuvrering by instituting four-year fixed parliaments - with provision for early dissolution in cases where a government has genuinely lost its majority, and ultimately I'd like to entrench certain constitutional fundamentals by having a special procedure for altering them: two-thirds majorities in both Houses of Parliament or a majority in a referendum. Call that a written constitution if you like, I call it a collected and protected constitution.
But these are distant gleams. Unlike many of you here tonight, I do not believe that an effective campaign demands a once-and-for-all New Constitutional Settlement. I fancy that if we attempted such a thing, we would be unlikely to achieve it; and if we did get it, I suspect we should find that we were unhappy with a good deal of what we landed up with.
What I think we need is a sustained dedication to the subject: a dedication assisted perhaps by a standing Constitutional Commission as they have in Australia - or on the lines of our own Law Commission. That, I think, would induce all political parties to keep their own eyes focussed more steadily on the subject, instead of those jerky and intermittent glances which betray allegiance to the main chance; I want British politicians to look at constitutional matters more like enquiriers after truth and less like cocktail-partygoers gazing over one another's shoulders. In other words, I say to politicians: ask not what your Constitution can do for you, but what you can do for your Constitution.
You may think that is a lot to ask, but I can only say that if we don't knock and knock hard, the door will not be opened.
Many moons ago (before the Witanagemot Club, before this blog, before even, I think, I joined the CEP) I emailed Charter88 to ask for their thoughts on an English Parliament. It was explained to me, in no uncertain terms, that although Charter88 recognised the 'constitutional imbalance' they believed that an English Parliament was undesirable because it would leave England as one of the most centralised countries in the world; to put it simply, England was too big. It was further explained that 'national identity does not have to be matched with governmental structures' (unless you live in Scotland or Wales, they might have added).
Nothing really tangible came of Charter88, not really; their seemingly irresistible force was no match for the immovable Westminster Self-Preservation Society. New Labour threw a few scraps their way. There was the Freedom of Information Act, the only good thing to come from Labour's constitutional reforms if you were English; there was a promise of electoral reform, broken, and; there was reform of the Lords based on class prejudice rather than democratic ideals. The New Labour years did not deliver in the way that Charter88 thought it might. The Government benches changed from Tory blue to Labour red but the same sovereign attitudes prevailed. If anything things got far worse: Tony's Cronies; cash for questions, and peerages; supplicant MPs and an enfeebled Parliament; an authoritarian executive; sofa government; a massive unaccountable quangocracy, which included regional government, to the detriment of English local government; police raids on parliament; civil liberties cast aside; referendums not delivered; going to war on a lie, and, let us not forget; fraud and profiteering on expenses on an unimaginable scale.
Charter88 has now transmuted into Unlock Democracy, and the Charter88 spirit - along with many of its lights - has flowed through into related projects such as Reform the Lords, The Power Inquiry, The Convention on Modern Liberty and now Power2010.
The people behind Power2010, it seems to me, sense a mood for change. The Self-Preservation Society really is weakened right now because the denizens of the Palace of Westminster are held in contempt and subject to ridicule by the people that elected them like never before. But can that mood be translated into a demand for democratic constitutional change, or will a change of personnel at the next election - a large fresh influx - be enough to restore our faith in democracy? Is that all democracy is to us; is democracy only the ability to change the faces that govern us whilst having no say in the manner and method of our governance? Or for that matter the territory of that governance.
They - those politicians, those parties, those Self-Preservationists - want to limit your choices in order to maintain their Westminster privileges and retain their Westminster powers. They want to deny you the option of an English Parliament.
For all their good intentions, for all their democratic radicalism, for all their liberalism, Charter88 also wanted to deny you that choice. They supported national government to Scotland and Wales - why yes, of course - but to England? No, it didn't sit well with their left-wing credentials. After-all there's something a bit...you know?...about English nationalism. Something a bit too...Well, too English.
That left-wing fright at the very mention of England is something that I've seen decline over the past few years. I've even witnessed the emergence of a small but increasingly vocal left-wing English nationalism, a phenomenon that was completely unimaginable in the wonder years of New Labour, while the strains of 'Things Can Only Get Better' were still ringing in our ears. Just like the Labour Party that thwarted them Charter88, Unlock Democracy and the Power Inquiry were all anti-English in the sense that they were dismissive of English claims to national government. The Convention on Modern Liberty, however, welcomed the Campaign for an English Parliament on board as a partner. And Power2010 have welcomed contributions from English nationalists and will include an English referendum in their pledge if there is demand.
So why the change? There is an element of wanting to build a 'big tent' which includes English nationalists, but I think English nationalists have been welcomed in from the cold by other constitutional reformers for more idealistic reasons. There is a dawning reality that maybe the Campaign for an English Parliament does actually have a point, maybe England has been hard done by. Maybe the Government was wrong to try and impose its unwanted regional solution to the English Question on the English, and maybe - definitely, more likely - the Conservatives will be wrong if they impose their solution to the West Lothian Question on an already fragile Parliament and United Kingdom (leaving the English Question unanswered as they do so). It is also beginning to dawn on them that if the antidote to the Self-Preservation Society (and top-down constitutional reform) is popular sovereignty, then we can't very well have popular sovereignty unless we ask the people how they wish to be governed; and unfortunately, and inescapably, this requires a consultation of the English, who might understandably decide that they want to be governed as England.
Power2010 needs a big idea that can galvanise the population into demanding real democratic change, not just a change of personnel. Could a referendum on an English Parliament be that big idea and could an English Parliament be the 'game changer' that opens the door for a multitude of other constitutional reforms. I honestly think that an English Parliament can be the catalyst for far wider constitutional reform, not just for England but for the whole of Britain, and it was this very point that I made to Charter88 all those years ago. The question is, what do they think now?
In a sense it doesn't matter what they think because if enough of you have demanded a referendum on an English Parliament by submitting that idea to Power2010, then that idea is something that they will have to take into consideration. And when they do that they will realise that an English Parliament throws all the other ideas for constitutional reform into a new light and new arena. The very act of asking the English - the majority of the UK population - how they wish to be governed is radical in itself because the sovereign parliament - the sovereign state - will have bent its knee to the sovereign people. For once the Westminster Self-Preservation Society will have put the democratic interests of the people before its own self-interest. From that point on anything is possible within the new constitutional framework.
You have until midnight on Thursday 5th November to submit your idea.
In reply to Tom.