I have delivered and I'm not done yet, the Minister who is doing the most to reform Britain's constitution replies to John Jackson

The UK's Justice Minister says he needs no epitaph, Britain's constitution has been reformed over the last three years and the process should continue.
Michael Wills
8 March 2010

An OurKingdom conversation: Michael Wills > John Jackson > this post > Stuart Weir

John Jackson has had a long distinguished career as a campaigner for constitutional reform and I am grateful for the kind words he has said about me but I am baffled by his epitaph for my political career published in OurKingdom.

His core thesis appears to be that I promised one thing before I became the minister for constitutional reform but delivered something different and worse. But the texts he himself quotes contradicts this. I have always been in favour of representative democracy and the quotes he deploys say just that. I have always been in favour of augmenting it with some measures of direct democracy, including deliberative events. And again the texts show this.  I have never been in favour of abolishing representative democracy in favour of the direct democracy in which elected representatives become delegates (as he appears to want) and the prisoners of referendums. That has always seemed to me to be a passport to majoritarian tyranny and the handing over of the reins of democracy to the moneyed and powerful. Despite what he claims, the texts he cites themselves show there is little to contrast between what I argued for in 2006 and my current position and if he re-reads my pamphlet, he will see that. John may take a different view from me on the merits of representative democracy but he will need to argue his case more carefully and thoroughly than he has done in this piece if he is to convince more people of its merits.

I have always been grateful for contributions to the debate, but John’s revealing description of what he describes as his attempts to help me ‘rescue something from the mess’ confuses this with what I saw as a dialogue with all interested parties. As it is, the ‘mess’ that he describes has turned out to deliver the Governance of Britain programme and much of what I argued for in my pamphlet, both of which he claims to have welcomed. A series of pioneering deliberative events held by the Ministry of Justice, have just been concluded, and we will soon be publishing the results. The Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill has gone through all its Commons stage, unopposed at Third Reading, including much of the promises outlined in the Green Paper that have not been delivered in other ways, while also including radical new proposals on electoral reform. How sad that John cannot bring himself to recognise these achievements.

It’s also sad that a constitutional reformer should base his thesis on one of the worst practices of the Westminster lobby - the anonymous quote being used to create authority for an argument. He cites ‘someone who had been close to the Blair administrations and claimed to be on good terms with the ‘new people who matter in No 10’. Who is this mystery person with such impeccable connections ? We are not told and so we can have no idea of what weight to attach to their opinions. And what did this anonymous person tell John ? ‘They do not like it.’ Who are these ‘they’ ? We are not told. So we do not know if they matter or not. And then the mystery man said, apparently: ‘If Michael persists it could be the end of his political career.’ Well, I did persist and it wasn’t and so that’s how much weight to attach to the mystery man’s opinions. And this doesn’t exactly support John’s thesis.

He’s also wrong on matters of fact. He suggests, for example,  on the basis of no evidence, that I may not have been the sole author of my ippr paper. I was.

He suggests I advanced the cause of constitutional reform to keep my ‘party in power’. I did not. I said it was particularly important for the Left for whom democratic legitimacy is crucial to negotiate through the challenges of securing equality. That is something quite different. Of course, constitutional reform need not be the prerogative of the Left but it has tended to be. And, of course there are reactionaries on the constitution in all parties. I have never suggested otherwise.

He suggests, again on the basis of no evidence that I have not sought to ‘establish their [my constituents’] views’ In fact I have held over 100 open public meetings to ascertain their views on a very wide range of local and national issues, including two on the Iraq war. And every month I am in contact by post and email with around 800 constituents. And on top of that, I meet them individually to discuss their concerns. All of these contacts have a powerful influence on my views and political behaviour but they do not dictate it, for the reasons I have set out above and not least because many of their points of view contradict each other.

I suppose I should be grateful that someone as distinguished as John Jackson thinks it worth his time writing my epitaph. But if he directed his efforts away from such misplaced and inaccurate personal attacks to continuing constitutional reform, its cause would benefit. And a good starting place would be a recognition of what this government has achieved, not least in the last three years.

  • Securing and advancing Freedom of Information
  • Pioneering deliberative ways of developing public policy
  • Placing the Civil Service on a statutory footing
  • The introduction of individual registration on the basis of tackling the scandal of the three million who should be registered to vote but who are not, denying the most basic democratic empowerment
  • Legislating to pave the way for a new electoral system
  • Giving Parliament a say over treaties and going to war
  • Introducing the next stage of House of Lords reform with a commitment to introduce a wholly elected second chamber in the next term of a Labour government

And more: this is not a bad record. I know John wants even more and so do I. But he should know constitutional reform in this country has always proceeded gradually. We have taken significant steps forward in the last three years. I hope he will join us on the next stage of the journey.

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