Babar Brown and the "new politics"

If we needed to know that Britain's political system is a wreck, Gordon Brown's speech yesterday was confirmation. Chaired by Liza Harker of ippr, who retained a steady Mona Lisa smile through his performance, the Prime Minister declared the time had come for ‘New Politics’.

If we needed to know that Britain's political system is a wreck, Gordon Brown's speech yesterday was confirmation . Chaired by Liza Harker of ippr, who retained a steady Mona Lisa smile through his performance, the Prime Minister declared the time had come for ‘New Politics’ (see the ippr website for footage of the speech).  He surveyed the institutions, Lords, Commons, Cabinet and local government, now shattered by the aftershocks of twelve New Labour years. None were too insecure for him not to give them a further poke and declare them in need of his modernisation. Indeed, he has a plan. Like a strange version of Babar the Elephant about to construct Celesteville, Brown foresees a written constitution to house us all arising by 2015 to mark the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta.

There is what he said.

And then there is what is really going on.

In his peroration Brown said

The current movement for constitutional change and new politics 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power in Britain, a long overdue transfer of sovereignty from those who govern to those who are governed, from the old outdated sovereignty to a modern popular sovereignty, not just tidying up our constitution but transforming it.

Hurray! At last! Surely the audience would be cheering, the TV studios buzzing, the people lifting their heads, as the Prime Minister calls for peaceful revolution and popular sovereignty.

No one believes a word of it.

Except perhaps Peter Facey director of Unlock Democracy who bravely crossed his fingers in a sign of hopeful defiance, and hailed the speech in glowing terms:

"This was the most radical speech on democratic reform given by any serving government minister since Lloyd George.  We welcome his target date of the octcentennial of the Magna Carta in 2015 for the UK to adopt a written constitution and his confirmation that this process will have to involve ordinary people.

"A written constitution would mark a radical shift in the relationship between citizen and state.  It would mean that our rights and hard-won liberties are enshrined in law, not at the mercy of the whims of Parliament.  It would make people stakeholders in the society they live in.

"Unlock Democracy and its predecessor organisation Charter 88 has spent more than 20 years making the case for a written constitution and the importance of popular sovereignty.  

Twenty years ago, for me at least, the main point of Charter 88 was to put a written constitution onto the agenda, with all the implications for overall reform as opposed to traditional British nip and tuck. We were told then it was impossible and that it was not the British way, etc. Today everyone can see we were onto something. They may still disagree about the need, but Brown’s speech means that we have succeeded in at least one minimal yet significant respect: the case for a democratic transformation of the British system as a whole, and the recasting of its constitutional principles, is now recognized as a legitimate part of our political life and thus as something that could happen.

A taboo has been broken that prevented ever getting past first base on what a new settlement should be like. This took many forms, perhaps the most personable was the Peter Hennessey type of dismissal. This consists of a friendly sigh, a patronizing acknowledgement that outriders, mavericks and political perverts (don’t you love em!) should persist in demanding a “new system”. But that, “It just isn’t the British way”, “It is not how we do things”. No argument is needed because what’s the point of arguing with fate? It is in our nature to be piecemeal. Therefore a new settlement however noble the aspiration, just ain’t gonna happen. This crushing, stifling hegemony of tradition now also finds itself amongst the wreckage, trampled flat by the Prime Minister.

For this I am grateful, even delighted.

It does not follow that there will indeed be a new constitution by 2015. But now the argument about what kind of new settlement we need and how to go about it can begin. For a new constitution was never going to be an uncontested outcome of a benign consensus. Should it be federal, for example, and include an English parliament? Should the second chamber really be elected thus ensuring a party monopoly of parliament, or can something more original be achieved? How far should powers go that directly permit popular sovereignty, such as referendums and right to recall? What role should the Church of England play, can it remain the country’s established church if the new constitution is designed for everyone? That’s enough - without even getting to the civil service or the role of Europe - to sense that plenty of serpents have secured vested interest within the wreckage.

And I’m looking forward to whacking as many of them as I can. The point I’m welcoming here is that up until now while Brown has made his predilection for a written constitution clear, it has remained just that, a personal admission of a preference. As if he’d like to write down what we have personally, just so that everyone knows who is in charge.

This is slightly different from a Prime Minister in the run-up to an election declaring the country needs popular, constitutional sovereignty and a new settlement. It may be that we won’t get this in five years, but we won’t forget it either in 2015. It may be that the Conservatives will seek to re-secure the traditional constitution, but now they won’t be able to do so without a fight including in their own ranks. If Labour goes into opposition it will inherit a commitment not just to reforming this or that but to ploughing up the ancient principles of 1688. Or take the view from Edinburgh, if Scotland’s constitution is to be re-written for the anniversary of Runnymede, a very English event, then maybe the SNPs hand should be strengthened in advance.

These are great arguments to be had. But I have to say that I feel angry that it has taken so long, and that so many opportunities have been lost, to get to this point and that when, finally, our leader calls for our so-called ‘Sovereignty of Parliament’ to be replaced, it is done in a frankly disgraceful way.

What should you make of Brown’s move, if like myself, you want a new democratic constitution that protects our liberties and is based on the sovereignty of the people, but have no desire to live in Celesteville with Barbar-Brown as King?

This question has special significance for OurKingdom. We launched in 2007, as a section of openDemocracy specifically to engage with Brown’s promise of constitutional reform, when he became Prime Minister. Then, there was a chance, however slim, of a democratic process being unlocked. I argued strongly (risking friendships and respect for my judgment) that any such chance should be taken seriously not cynically. A key test for me was Brown telling parliament that there would be an attempt to arouse the public views outside the routines of Westminster. This is what he said as he ended his speech to the Commons on the renewal of politics nearly three years ago,

In Britain we have a largely unwritten constitution. To change that would represent a fundamental and historic shift in our constitutional arrangements. So it is right to involve the public in a sustained debate whether there is a case for the United Kingdom developing a full British Bill of Rights and Duties, or for moving towards a written constitution.

And because such fundamental changes should happen only where there is a settled consensus on whether to proceed, I have asked my Right Honourable Friend the Secretary for Justice to lead a dialogue within Parliament and with people across the United Kingdom by holding a series of hearings, starting in the autumn, in all regions and nations of this country - and he will consult with the other parties on this process.

Mr Speaker, the changes we propose today and the national debate we now begin are founded upon the conviction that the best answer to disengagement from our democracy is to strengthen our democracy.

Hello? What “national debate” was that then? The Minister directly charged with making it happen was Michael Wills. (We carried out a lengthy debate on how the internet could assist such a process called Networking Democracy here.) The whole exercise was subjected to Chinese torture and sliced away.

I put this point directly to the Prime Minister yesterday. Wasn’t it all “too late”? He’d had his chance in July 2007. Now, it just looks like pre-election maneuvers.

We have run his answer in full. It’s impossible looking back now not to think that what was presented then as the audacious spirit of a new premier differentiating himself from his predecessor was in fact the gambit of a man who then too had his eye on a quick election and wanted to differentiate himself from the Tories. Only it turns out it was an election he decided not to call. In a Liberal Conspiracy comment Sunny Hundal says, “if Brown clearly wanted to do this – why didn’t he do it when he published the original paper on Governance of Britain? That was 2 years ago! I think it’s now too late”. It makes more sense to conclude that he doesn’t want to do it: all he wants is to be seen as a reformer in a pre-election period.

This matters especially because how you undertake constitutional reform determines its nature.

The headline proposal of Brown’s speech concerned the voting system. He wants to push through legislation that will commit the country to a referendum on whether we should have the Alternative Vote, numbering our preferences rather than just having a tick. This will be done to “restore trust”. I leave to others the arguments about how bad AV on its own is (see Democratic Audit's re-run of the 1997 election on AV). The simple, drawing of breath in disbelief is sound judgment in this case. Come off it!

If the principle is that the people should be sovereign and the crisis that needs to be addressed is a collapse in trust as voters flee the polling stations in disgust, then give the voters the right to decide on the voting system. This means setting out the choice, informed by deliberation, and letting them decide. This is how New Zealand did it when they moved away from First Past the Post. Pam Giddy makes the point on the Power 2010 site. Instead, what we are being asked to take seriously in the spirit of citizens learning to trust our political class, is the result of a closed debate in Cabinet after a whole series of postponements which abandons without any reason the only actual commission process the Government provided, headed by Roy Jenkins that rejected AV. It provides a ridiculously restricted choice. It will be pushed through to entirely justified cries of “fix!” from the Tories.

The device of a referendum is itself, as Stuart Weir has written, an awesome machine that should be handled with respect. Referendums need rules and a context and they need to be preceded by a well-founded debate. That leads to democracy. Otherwise they become populist tools in the hands of manipulative neo-dictators seeking pseudo-legitimacy for prolonging themselves in power.

Chris Huhne was wrong to back AV for the Lib Dems as a “baby” step. They should have denounced the entire gimmick as further evidence of the corruption of British politics. As it is they run the danger of being seen as just part of the Westminster game.

This is not to say that the choice of AV should not be put to voters along with other possibilities. Instead, a kind of auto-humiliation is being carried out on otherwise intelligent Labour supporters. Sunder Katwala exceeds even his propensity to spell out his learning with a lengthy post on five reasons to be cheerful about AV, whilst also on Next Left Stuart White says he doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry let alone cheer. The answer is “cry”, Stuart. It’s not about the limited advantages or not of the AV system. It is that this is not an acceptable, democratic, transparent, accountable, principled or honest way to go about reform.

Why it has even left Meg Russell fuming. The devastating and contained rage of the most patient, experienced gradualist of the Constitution Unit (which is saying something) at Brown’s shenanigans is a delight to read. Is Gordon Brown really serious about constitutional reform? She asks. Her answer, he is playing games with the parliament he pretends to want to strengthen.

As Helena Kennedy puts it on the Power 2010 blog,

Brown correctly identifies the lack of trust in politicians and the outrage caused by the expenses scandal. He says he wants people to know it is "their parliament, not ours".

So, if this is so right, why does it feel so wrong? Because of its timing and the way it was announced, it doesn't add up to a new politics at all.

It smacks of the usual scheming and calculation - just what political reform should be designed to end.

We can also allow ourselves a laugh. The Prime Minister said this:

There is a wider issue - the question of a written constitution - an issue on which I hope all parties can work together in a spirit of partnership and patriotism.

I can announce today that I have asked the Cabinet Secretary to lead work "to consolidate the existing unwritten, piecemeal conventions that govern much of the way central government operates under our existing constitution into a single written document."

It has already been done. Even Brown’s wording seems to have been taken verbatim from the spoof introduction to The Unspoken Constitution recently published by The Democratic Audit (in conjunction with OK and Unlock Democracy). It's open words are "We, the elite."

But it is also time to get serious. It is not intellectually plausible or democratically credible to engage with a reform program put forward in this way, at this time, as such a blatant exercise in electioneering, as if it is being proposed in an honest fashion. Yet, at the same time, it makes the urgency of developing a strategy for change all the greater, especially as it highlights the weakness of the opposition parties. The Lib Dems have been permissive, saying the right things but acting as part of the discredited political class. The Conservatives have simply left the door open to Brown to play his games, by being as indifferent to the constitution as Tony Blair (failing even to make a stand on liberty now that David Davis has retired to the back benches).

We can take up Gordon Brown the five-year target of working through what a democratic constitution should be like. And we can mean it, ensuring there is a movement demanding it, by 2015. But we are going to have to do this by keeping a distance from the political parties and their pathological fixations. I hope that this will become the new OurKingdom project as we swing into the election period.

There was a revealing sentence in the Prime Minister’s speech. As if talking to himself and his closest colleagues and advisors he said,

The test of our commitment to democracy is not merely the changes we make to the institutions at the centre: it is how far we are prepared to give power away; to give citizens themselves greater control over their lives.

The tone is chilling. Just as when Brown talks about managing our identities, you can hear the despotism.  Who is the “we” that is being referred to here? It barely extends to the Cabinet let alone MPs.

No Gordon, it is not a question of how far you and your “we” are prepared to “give” power away to us, so we can have greater control over our lives. It is a matter of how far we are prepared to go to take control of our lives away from you and your central institutions.

You have no right to speak about us in this way.

I’ll admit that the public’s fear and servility may have allowed you to think that you can.

This is what we now need to change.

About the author

Anthony Barnett (@AnthonyBarnett) is the founder of openDemocracy