Don't Be Afraid of Change, Tony

By Haseler, Stephen | New Statesman (1996), March 7, 1997 | Go to article overview

Don't Be Afraid of Change, Tony


Haseler, Stephen, New Statesman (1996)


Like it or not, Labour must embrace constitutional reform

In a break with the Tory tradition of careful reform John Major is set to make stasis a positive virtue, campaigning for "the British Constitution" amid an orgy of self-congratulation about our institutions. Labour, though, shows no such zest for a fight. Blair's strategists realise that constitutional reform, even overhaul, is the best kind of modern electoral radicalism - representing cost-free change - but laying the party open to a charge of being unpatriotic is still seen by some as a great danger.

This debilitating ambivalence is illustrated by Labour's approach to the monarchy. As the royal yacht fiasco revealed, the public overwhelmingly resents the royals living at public expense. And with polls suggesting two-thirds of the population want the monarchy abolished or reformed, Blair could reap electoral reward by campaigning for a slimmer, more responsive monarchy. So does Labour's timidity reflect a deeper reticence by the party about constitutional (and political and economic) change?

The early signs are mixed. Labour does appear committed to a Scottish Assembly, to abolishing hereditary peers' voting rights, and to incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law. It is also taking proportional representation seriously. But this is piecemeal - there is no blueprint for systematic constitutional change. Britain would still have no written constitution, no Bill of Rights, no federal structure with entrenched local or regional government, and no elected upper house.

In short, the basic constitutional template - of a centralised UK state with its over-mighty executive dripping with prerogative powers and ceremony - will remain. Worse, the party appears to justify the changes it proposes not by virtue of their democratic potential, but because they shore up this system.

Labour's handling of the Scottish question is a case in point. Blair's proposed Scottish parliament is part of a devolution strategy the heart of whose rationale is not to democratise Britain but to "save the union". Too many members of Labour's hierarchy still view Scotland as a troublesome province to be appeased, not a nation to be recognised.

Blair could meet the break-up argument head on. He could talk about the need to reflect Britain's diversity in its government, and could join the Liberal Democrats in campaigning for a federal British state and against centralised Westminster power. It's a fair bet the public's disdain for Westminster is greater than any worries about Scottish independence and the English regions.

As the European Union takes hold of ever more areas of British life, Labour could point out that the Westminster state is increasingly redundant: too small to deal with the geopolitical and geo-economic issues of the 21 st century, too large to deal sensitively with what remains. …

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