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Gordon Brown moves on the constitution

30 April 2005
I was thinking to write this blog every working day until Britain (or England) has a democratic written constitution. It would be a form of penance and protest. Protest at the backwardness and low level of the election and even its most thoughtful commentators like Polly Toynbee and Peter Oborne who try to set a larger agenda. Penance because reformers like myself could have done more. Nothing seems to have been learnt from the last twenty years, since Thatcherism disposed of the crumbling, post-war consensus and it was clear that the old regime of the United Kingdom had entered terminal decline. Then, this morning, I thought maybe it would not be so long before we got a new constitution: a matter of years rather than decades. I have been this optimistic before! But the Daily Telegraph leads with a story by two of its sharpest reporters, Rachel Sylvester and Alice Thomas. Chancellor Gordon Brown, the smiling dark man who has saved Tony Blair and Labour’s campaign, and is now likely to become the next Prime Minister after Blair gains only a broken mandate on 5 May, says that henceforth only Parliament should have the power to declare war “except in the most exceptional circumstances”. Foreigners might scratch their heads in puzzlement. Isn’t Britain a parliamentary democracy where war is anyway decided upon by the House of Commons? Well, no. The vote that preceded the Iraq war was without precedent. The power to commit British troops to battle is a ‘royal prerogative’ exercised by the Prime Minister. Thomas and Sylvester report that Brown believes “changes to the constitution are needed to restore trust in politics”, and that he would consider abolishing the royal prerogative, a change which would “represent a dramatic shift in the balance of power between Parliament and the prime minister”. It is an example of the despised politicians being well ahead of the commentators, in calling for a change in the system. And I don’t believe you can abolish the royal prerogative without a full-scale constitutional transformation. There is a tactical aspect to Brown’s move as well as a strategic one. Last week the attorney general’s advice on whether the Iraq war was legal was leaked, first in parts to the Mail on Sunday, then more widely. Finally it had to be released in full by Downing Street. It showed, of course, that the war was probably not legal and that Blair winged it by not circulating the opinion. He’d long taken the decision to go with Bush. His aim was to cajole, bully, deceive and soft-talk his colleagues into supporting him when the self-delusion that he could do the same to the UN was finally punctured (see my earlier blog). Immediately, the TV studios filled with another round of predictable debate about whether Blair ‘lied’ or not. It was as if the entire diagnosis of the manipulation of ‘truth’, of the Campbell Code, and the nature of political bullshit had never taken place. Oh well, at least it was poetic justice for Blair, who was forced publicly to sweat with discomfort. It also meant that the question was put to Brown whose body-language had distanced himself on Iraq. Disciplined, he followed his chosen strategy of demonstrating the unity of the Labour leadership and said he ‘yes’ to the question as to whether he would have gone to war in the same way as the Prime Minister. Tactically, he had to distance himself from the consequences of this disgraceful judgement and the Telegraph interview immediately did so. But that this angle, this shifting of the framework over Iraq to trust in the system and the need for Downing Street to ‘let go’ if it is to rebuild trust, was a considered not a sudden judgement. Real name comments welcome please email [email protected]

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