What Gordon Brown once believed

The British Prime Minister has announced that Labour's manifesto for the forthcoming election will include a commitment to a written constitution. Anthony Barnett, who as director of Charter 88 first persuaded Brown to apply his Scottish experience to Britain, reflects ruefully on the fate of an idea,

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
8 April 2010

The Guardian's Comment is Free ran this immediate response from me yesterday about the speech Gordan Brown had just made (and I add a further reflection below it)

"And let me say to you today, that Labour's manifesto will include our commitment to charting a course to a written constitution."

With these few words Gordon Brown today literally passed sentence on three centuries of history – but also on the democratic moment started by Charter 88 on the 300th anniversary of the Glorious Revolution back in 1988.

I think I can claim some of the credit for putting the issue of a written constitution on the agenda back then, when experts in how Britain worked – like Peter Kellner – were confident it was all very well but "was not politics". In 1991 I challenged Brown to address the issue. He did: in a pioneering Sovereignty Lecture he set out what would become the New Labour approach of calling for a "new settlement", while deliberately drawing back from a codified one.

But when I see what Brown has said today I feel a sickening sense of loss – and a revulsion at the trickery and manipulation it displays: the very opposite, in boldness and spirit, to the way a new constitution should be launched.

Take the two words "our commitment". They are a lie. They clearly mean Labour's commitment. But there is no such thing. The Labour party has never debated the issue. The leadership never put it to party conference. It has not been discussed in any organised way on the National Executive.

All we have had is Brown saying that he is personally convinced that it's a good idea. This has softened up the media. In a speech earlier this year he suggested that the civil service provide a summary of the constitution we now have so that we can write it down to make it more accountable. A more top-down idea is hard to imagine.

The central aim of a new settlement was to turn 'subjects into citizens' and replace the hierarchy of our traditional arrangements with a decentralised democracy fit for a modern country. It has to involve a process of letting go, a genuine direct involvement of the people and an open peoples' convention.

Instead, in Early February Brown came up with the wheeze of writing it down by 2015 on the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. This is a notion that bears all the hallmarks of Lord Mandelson, after talking with his alleged serf the historian Tristram Hunt, who is about to become a Labour MP. Hunt's plans to run the celebrations were codenamed "MC800".

Stand by for more of this in Labour's manifesto, then. But nothing could be more designed to turn the creation of a written constitution into a millennium dome-like fiasco than an attempt to 'run it' as a controlled PR operation.

At the same time, at least Brown recognises that the Humpty Dumpty of the old British form of rule is broken. Even if his attempt to put it together again can't work because we need an entirely different kind of egg, at least he can see that something needs mending.

The Conservatives, meanwhile, are still hoping for the best.

But they have grasped something else: that people have a pent-up desire to take more control of their lives and not be commanded from above. They have called for our 'Big State' to be replaced by a 'Big Society'. But they have yet to see that this also demands a Big Constitution that permits and protects self-government as well as liberty in a modern age, a generous constitution that inspires involvement because of the manner of its creation.

Brown's mean, narrow and top-down constitution will not convince them of the need to trump Labour's approach, of course. But we have to ask why Brown and Mandelson have taken this course.

Labour's commitments to a Scottish parliament, a human rights act and freedom of information before 1997 were vigorously debated in the party and campaigned on outside it (including a full blown convention with churches and the unions in Scotland) before they became party policy. But this manifesto proposal is the outcome of whispers and private conversations and calculations.

Perhaps the model in Brown's mind is the way he gave the Bank of England the power to set interest rates after the 1997 election. This too was a radical constitutional reform. But it was implemented with a coup-like surprise. While very successful in its way, perhaps this fed the notion that Brown could fix things with the support of a few friends – and where he led, all would follow.

Only now can we witness the downside of this lack of democracy in Brown's taking over the political shaping of the economy. It mainlined into Brown's trance-like belief in the City and its fellow fixers. If his overall economic strategy had rested on and been tested by political debate, maybe the warnings about the bubble would have been heard and acted on rather than dismissed.

As it is, Brown's commitment to highly controlled referendums reveals the way he intends a written constitution to be his legacy, the wrapping paper of his database state. He told us today that we will be allowed a referendum on whether we can enact Lord Mandelson's plan to create an elected second chamber "in stages" – one-third at a time after each four-year election – or keep things as they are. It's not a choice. It's an insult.

end of CiF article

I then re-read the Sovereignty Lecture. This was how constitutional issues should be addressed. One theme struck me very forceably. Early on the Brown of 1992 said:

...we have twin responsibilities to individual citizens as democrats: we must never fail to attack the evil wherever the individual is at risk from the encroachment of the state, and we must never lose sight of the good whenever the individual is empowered by the community.

and later:

It is important for everyone, but particularly important for democratic socialists, that we recognise the need for individuals to be protected against any possible vested interests within the state.

and also

But a modern constitution is essential to protect individuals against the state and to empower them within an interdependent community. In this way the agenda for constitutional change becomes essential to the task of establishing a modern view of society and in my view a modern view of democratic socialism. That agenda will be familiar to supporters of Charter 88 but I want briefly and in conclusion to address certain aspects of it.

First, from the belief that socialism must take on the vested interests of government as well as those of capital and wealth, springs the clear need for the rights of the individual to be protected in law in the constitution and to be exercisable against executive power.

What is striking is the way he advocated constitutional reform as something that addressed Labour's failure to understand the potentially oppressive powers of the state.

It's a pity that there is very little such argument at the moment coming from the left blogosphere, as the government builds the database state.

Oh yes - and Brown also added:

freedom of information should apply not just to the apparatus of the state but to those dark and secret corners of private power. There should be specific obligations on companies to inform employees, shareholders and the public where it is in the public interest to do so or where it is clearly legitimate for individuals to require such information.

It is well worth a read. If the references are sometimes historically obscure now, let me know and I can produce a version with footnotes and links!

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