By Kampfner, John
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 133, No. 4687
It can't be easy being Charlie Falconer. He is Scottish. He is unelected. And he is a close friend of Tony Blair's. Still, he wears his burdens lightly: "The way I have been judged in the past and will be judged in the future has not been on the basis of my nationality or my former flatmates," he says. As for being an appointed peer: "I accept it would be different if I were elected. But the job I am doing could not be done as an MP."
That job, of Lord Chancellor, he is determined to abolish. Despite a series of setbacks in recent months, Falconer insists constitutional reforms are proceeding, just at a slower pace. Abolition of the right to sit in parliament for the remaining 92 hereditary peers has been shelved while the government finally works on a coherent plan for the House of Lords. That is likely to revolve around an indirectly but wholly elected chamber.
The proposals will feature in Labour's next manifesto and will be given an early slot in the next parliamentary timetable. "The history of Lords reform is that it has always taken longer than people thought. You can rarely do major reform of a second chamber unless you do it at the beginning of a parliament." He appears less exercised about its composition than about the need to circumscribe its powers. No longer should a government's legislative programme "be determined by the amount of time it takes matters to get through the Lords".
Still, Falconer says lessons have been learned by the way ministers have tried to introduce change. Similar mistakes were made as he and Blair, almost overnight, hatched their plot to abolish the 1,400-year-old post of Lord Chancellor. Now that the Lords has forced him to lay out his plans in a special select committee, Falconer is doing his best to co-operate. He turns up dutifully twice a week to negotiate the details. The deal is that they reach an agreement by 24 June, and Falconer says he wants the legislation to have passed both houses by next February. A few months later the Lord Chancellor will be no more, a Judicial Appointments Commission will appoint a new Supreme Court, and the separation of executive and judiciary will be complete. Falconer himself will be plain old Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, with no wigs and no silly hats and eventually no woolsacks to sit on.
One of the concessions he is being forced to make is to give the commission more discretion and the government less in appointing judges. But he is adamant that all sides are now signed up to the principle of the changes, including Lord Woolf, the Lord Chief Justice, who disparaged the "cheerful chappie" for trying to steamroller the changes.
He deploys a classic Falconerism, a piece of linguistic jocularity to acknowledge a serious problem. "You can easily identify more seamless ways in which the original announcement could have been made." Since then, he says, he and Woolf have kissed and made up. Both, he says, are agreed on the need to increase the independence of judges. "We both believe it is not remotely defensible any more that you have a judge in the cabinet. We both agree it is not remotely defensible any more that a cabinet minister ought to be head of the judiciary."
The day job dealt with, I turn to Falconer's other purpose--presenting Blair's case. What, I wonder, is the current condition of the government? "Strong. Compare it with other governments seven years on. We are in a good condition. There will inevitably be people complaining about the decisions made, particularly [with] a government that is prepared to be bold and reformist, which we have been."
Bold and reformist might not be the adjectives that spring to everyone's mind, but--with comparisons with Margaret Thatcher in vogue--Falconer insists Blair has changed Britain more fundamentally than he is given credit for. "Put aside the myths, look at the overall texture of the country. It is now much, much more a country where people are saying, 'Yes, I now accept that the economy is doing well; yes, now I accept that the government is seeking to make the public services provide a reasonable standard for all. …