Blair to Brown: Something New under the Sun?

Article excerpt

Just over three weeks into the new regime of Gordon Brown, there is a new bounce and a sense of renewed optimism about these islands.

Although his legislative program will not be formally announced until a Queen's Speech on November 6, Gordon Brown has already broken with tradition by setting out his legislative plans in a Commons statement on July 11, paving the way for regional public consultations before the program is finalized. The new approach is also intended to show that a decisive break has been made with the Blair era.

While much of the focus of this Commons statement was on education, health, and housing plans (among a total of 23 new bills), in his first ever Commons statement as prime minister on July 3, Gordon Brown unveiled an even more wide-ranging set of proposals for "a new British constitutional settlement that entrusts more power to parliament and the British people." Currently Britain has a largely unwritten constitution, and a consultative Green Paper, The Governance of Britain, published alongside Brown's statement, includes proposals for a Bill of Rights and Duties, which would set out the rights and responsibilities of citizens and government.

Some of the ideas are still at the formative stage, while others to reduce centuries-old powers of the executive and the prime minister are more concrete. The latter include surrendering or limiting the executive's powers over the right to declare war, ratify international treaties, grant pardons and make key public appointments. According to Brown's proposal, the Commons would formally approve "significant, non-routine deployments of the armed forces." But consultation would be needed to ensure that a means could be found to do this "without prejudicing the government's ability to take swift action to protect our national security, or undermining operational security or effectiveness." The proposal to limit executive war powers is less of a surprise to the British people than America might think. In the wake of the Iraq debacle, there is almost universal acceptance in Britain of the principle that parliament should henceforth have the final say in a decision to go to war. Of course, the House of Commons held such a vote on Iraq in 2003, but all the political parties are now committed to making this a standard principle that is embodied in law.

How all this will turn out is not clear. The biggest constitutional changes are now going to be put out for public and parliamentary consultation, with new Minister for Justice Jack Straw leading the effort. But supporters and critics alike have acknowledged that if most of these plans are realized it would amount to a significant redrawing of the relationship between citizen and state. As Gordon Brown made clear in his speech to MPs: "We will only meet the new challenges of security, of economic change, of communities under pressure--and forge a stronger shared national purpose--by building a new relationship between citizens and government that ensures the government is a better servant of the people."

Gordon Brown: Who is he?

Admirers describe him as intellectually awesome, physically impressive, morally impeccable, and seriously committed. Critics call him dour, and a "control freak" possessed of "Stalinist ruthlessness." Certainly Brown is on record as eschewing the kind of celebrity culture that surrounded Tony Blair, especially in the early days of "Cool Britannica." (One of his few celebrity acquaintances, a close friend of his wife, is author J. K. Rowling.) But as the longest-serving chancellor in modern British history he is undeniably a political heavyweight, and as the PM of Britain Inc. he can hardly avoid celebrity status himself (irrespective of the number of wizards and witches that trail in his wake). However, even after more than a decade of scrutiny, his nature remains enigmatic and his depths not fully fathomed: the "great puzzle" according to The New York Times. …