Brown's 'National Council for Democratic Renewal'

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
1 June 2009
In an extraordinary interview on the Today programme this morning the Prime Minister single-handedly announced the formation of a National Council for Democratic Renewal.

He did so in the way that it takes a magician only one hand to produce a rabbit from the hat. Only his legerdemain is showing.

"I advocated freedom of information twenty years ago and have been advocating the case for a written constitution for some time," he said. Well, no. As perhaps the person who did the most to persuade Brown to embrace the case for constitutional change twenty years ago, in his Charter 88 Sovereignty lecture, and who has talked with him on the topic since and followed his announcements carefully, I know of no instance when he publicly and unequivocally advocated a written constitution, or even ‘the case for one’ (that magician’s positioning again). He often showed a codified ankle to attract the following of those us who found it attractive. But it was flirt.

I always suspected that what he himself found most attractive about the idea was that he might sit down and write it, to be hailed as the father of Britain.

"With the record I've had in the past I'm the best person to clean up the political system," he told Today’s listeners. "The clean up of the political system is best done by someone who's got a clear idea of what needs to be done and I have".

This is not how constitutions are democratically reformed.
To justify himself, Brown told us, “What I wanted to do for some time, I actually set it out in 2007, that major constitutional change is now necessary.”

This is a reference to the first speech he made to the Commons as Prime Minister. This is its conclusion:

“I propose that we start the debate and consult on empowering citizens and communities in four areas….  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 about 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. Because such fundamental change should happen only when there is a settled consensus on whether to proceed, I have asked my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State 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 the country, and we will consult with all the other parties on this process.

So the changes that we propose today and the national debate we now begin are founded on the conviction that the best answer to disengagement from our democracy is to strengthen our democracy. It is my hope that this dialogue of all parties and the British people will lead to a new consensus, a more effective
democracy and a stronger sense of shared national purpose.
No such debate was started, Brown bottled out of it and Straw seems to have been totally opposed. Gordon had his chance. He knew what was needed. He didn’t deliver. Furthermore, he had grasped the two points that are needed for deep reform: a) an open debate, that b) leads to some kind of consensus (it does not have to be ‘settled’ in my view, but that’s another matter). Neither are on offer today.

Of course, it is excellent that a Prime Minister is putting the pedal to the metal on constitutional reform. Even if it is a desperate measure to see off a Cabinet revolt by creating momentum for change he understands better than them.

But there are various things we need to be clear eyed about.

Historical claims to virtue on the issue. Evan Davis asked Brown about the McBride affair to try and test the PM’s claim to moral integrity that supposedly gives him the legitimacy to lead us into the promised land of constitutional democracy. It was shocking, Brown said, the man did wrong and he went. But were you surprised, Davis tried to ask, about the behaviour of someone who was among his closest aides. Brown dismissed this. McBride was “history”.

But, it seems, history is to be insisted upon when it tells the story you want people to hear - such as his own valiant attempts to reform the system that he has been struggling to persuade us to see as important.

OK, if we leave the sheer selectivity of this approach, there is the actual history of Brown’s struggle to bring us democracy. He lectured us on liberty and then smuggled in his support the management of identity, meaning the state managing our identities for us. He promised a legal approach to national security threats and then attempted to force through 42 days detention without charge.

Just take the latter example. The proposed law, which was Brown’s personal invention, was an outrage that undermined habeas corpus and a tradition of liberty that traces itself back to Magna Carta. Some constitutional reformer! To its lasting shame the House voted for it. In the debate the Labour MP Diane Abbot made a speech that signalled quite openly how Brown had undermined the Commons:

People have been offered Cuba, and no doubt governorships of Bermuda have been bandied about. Any rebel backbencher with a cause is confident - if they vote the right way of course - that the prime minister will make the statement, give the money or make the special visit. That is humorous, but is it right that our civil liberties should be traded in such a bazaar? Is it appropriate or right that we should trade votes at the United Nations on the basis of such political pandering?
The speech was widely republished. The important point is that no one with any authority rebutted her description of parliament as a bazaar. The Speaker of the House did not reprimand her for bringing the Chamber into disrepute, the Prime Minister did not issue an official denial, the whips did not demand she retract it, the Labour Party did not threaten to discipline her. No parliament or assembly that believed in itself would have permitted such a description made from its own chamber to stand so unchallenged. Instead, it became a welcome moment of truth. Now we can see that it was Abbott, not Brown, who spoke for Britain.

When he tells us that he is shocked by what he has learnt and always wanted the Commons to be reformed, we should recall he exploited it as a bazaar. No self-respecting reformer is likely to be taken in by such a poor conjuring trick.

I could go on. But just take the name, National Council for Democratic Renewal.  Britain is not a nation. It is a multi-national entity. Scottish opinion outside some narrow Labour and Tory circles is likely to be affronted by any attempt to railroad it into such a body. Brown will be aware of this, in part; it is a sign of his desperation that he will risk losing the support of his homeland to retain office.
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