The Power of the concordat: a reply to John Jackson and Stuart Weir

Adam Lent
16 March 2006

The Power inquiry which examined how increased participation and involvement can help remedy the flaws in Britain's democracy may have made significant democratic reform over the next few years more likely. However, a week's worth of warm political words and media hubbub following the publication of its report on 27 February 2006 does not make for heavyweight commitment to fundamental change. Only a longer-term process of hard campaigning and pressure will bring about reforms which change the relationship between people and the politicians and institutions that govern them.

The Power inquiry is an independent investigation into the condition of democracy in Britain. Commission members (chaired by Helena Kennedy) hosted meetings around Britain and heard submissions from a wide variety of interest groups, professionals, and concerned citizens. The commission published its report on 27 February 2006

For debate and dialogue on the commission's proposals, go to mySociety's new site, Commentonpower.org

It is heartening therefore to see that the inquiry, sponsored by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust (JRCT) and the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust (JRRT), has supported so much debate in the conventional and digital media. Keeping debate alive is surely a key way to maintain interest in the issues as a popular movement for change gradually builds. Thanks, therefore, to openDemocracy for publishing four thoughtful articles about the report (by John Jackson, Ferdinand Mount, Roger Scruton, and Stuart Weir) in such a short space of time.

Two of these articles, by John Jackson and Stuart Weir, are highly critical of the inquiry's recommendation that two voluntary agreements, or “concordats", be established – written agreements which would clarify the distribution of powers between the executive and parliament, and between central and local government. Importantly, the inquiry also argued that these concordats should enshrine a major redistribution of power from the centre of government to the beleaguered representatives in the House of Commons and the town hall.

John Jackson attacks the concordat idea primarily because it is not the product of a mass movement for change. But given that no movement for democratic change with a momentum behind it has existed for some years, Jackson's argument would rule out any attempt to introduce innovative thinking into the reform agenda. But if the inquiry were lucky enough to inspire a movement for change, its recommendations would inevitably be significantly modified over the course of that campaign.

Adam Lent is research director of the Power inquiry

Also by Adam Lent on openDemocracy:

"Tomorrow the world? The rocky path of social movements" (October 2002)

"The need to connect: a response to Roger Scruton"
(October 2002)

"The vision thing: a response to Cancúnblog"
(November 2003)

"Talking to power" (March 2006) – with Pam Giddy

Jackson's second criticism of the concordat idea is echoed by Stuart Weir: that the content of the agreements is to be developed solely by members of the existing political elite, with no room for public involvement. This is really a problem of clarity rather than intent. It is true that the Power report speaks only of negotiations involving politicians and specialists to establish the concordats. However, the inquiry also recommends three big shifts in political practice, including "(allowing) citizens a much more direct and focused say over political decisions". Clearly, meaningful public involvement in the development of the concordats would be a requirement if the documents were to have any legitimacy.

Weir also criticises the recommendation at some length because its inspiration – the January 2004 concordat between the lord chancellor and the lord chief justice – was developed behind closed doors and without involvement from the Commons. But clearly the Power report was inspired by the principle of the concordat rather than the process. Unless Weir can show why there is something inherent to a concordat which means it will lack transparency and the involvement of elected representatives, this is merely an easily-healed flesh wound to the concordat notion.

"An exercise in political reality"

A more fundamental criticism is that a concordat would leave parliament still governed by the vague unwritten conventions which allow the executive to escape accountability. There is no necessary reason, however, why the vague conventions of parliament should be left untouched by a concordat. It is easily conceivable that the remit of any body drawing-up the concordat should review those conventions, clarify them and then write them in to the agreement.

Again this is a process issue relating to how comprehensive is the remit for those developing the concordat just as it would be for any body drawing up a written constitution. Potentially, a written constitution, with its inherently comprehensive scope, leaves less "wiggle room" for the politicians. But, in reality, it would be almost certainly be the vigilance and weight of those campaigning for change who would ensure that the wiggling was kept to a minimum.

Moreover, Weir argues that the inquiry endorses the concordat idea because it would be flexible and easily revisited by parliament. These are the very merits, he asserts, that traditionalists assign to an unwritten constitution. In fact, the report is somewhat more nuanced than this. The offending section actually acknowledges that the rigidity and breadth of a written constitution could be regarded as "strengths in principle". Indeed, the Power report has no objections to concordats that have the force of statute. However, because objections to the often more rigid and all-encompassing aspects of a written constitution remain deep-seated and widespread, there is a need to find a solution which will achieve greater clarity and accountability and has a sporting chance of being agreed and implemented.

Also in openDemocracy on the Power inquiry:

Ferdinand Mount, "The Power inquiry: making politics breathe" (February 2006)

John Jackson, "A democracy in trouble" (March 2006)

Roger Scruton, "Power inquiry, public debate" (March 2006)

Stuart Weir, "The weakness of Power: fixing Britain's democracy"
(March 2006)

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The concordats are essentially an exercise in political reality. It is interesting that neither Weir nor Jackson address this key aspect – perhaps because they know they are on shaky ground if they argue that a written constitution is likely to be agreed any time soon.

This may be a case where the best is the enemy of the good. To keep urging a written constitution could well offer the politicians greater room for manoeuvre a concordat. It would be easy for a reluctant prime minister to accede to discussions over a written constitution knowing that the irresolvable disputes about the content would hold up reform indefinitely, or worse discredit it, and thus protect the status quo. Better to achieve something which has narrower focus rather than achieve nothing in the name of breadth.

In conclusion, a postscript – and a caution. There is a wider contextual issue here which is implicit in Jackson and Weir's pieces but only brought out explicitly in Roger Scruton's response to the Power inquiry report. No matter whether the political system is governed by a written constitution or some combination of concordats, conventions and statute, all will be ineffective unless the public are ever-vigilant and force politicians to abide by agreed limitations.

It is in part for this reason that the inquiry placed such great emphasis not solely on constitutional reform but on the creation of clear and meaningful processes by which citizens can challenge and initiate political decisions and policy. It is also for this reason that John Jackson and Stuart Weir are both correct in their assertion that democratic reform must arise from popular mobilisation and not purely the machinations of politicians.

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