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To reform our constitution, we must write it down

Andrew Blick
28 July 2008

Andrew Blick (London, Democratic Audit): Constitutional reform in this country is a fitful business. First, the people in charge know they have to respond to the need for change, but they are unwilling ever knowingly to give away power. So their proposals, like Gordon Brown's July 2007 Governance agenda, and Michael Wills's framework for "greater citizen engagement" a year later, are shot through with ambiguity and downright evasion. But there is also a problem with the uncodified, amorphous UK constitution. It is a bit like restoring an old building that has gone through a succession of additions and adaptations. If you can't pull it down, reform projects are bound to be piecemeal and their significance and effectiveness is always difficult to measure.

One example of this is devolution, which as the former Welsh Secretary Ron Davies once said, is 'a process not an event'. Tony Blair evidently assumed that this was a settlement over which Downing Street would retain control. That was never so and now Scotland threatens to pull the Union house down.

There is another way. Last week France showed us how. The French Assembly and Senate narrowly gave the required three fifths of their support for a package of reforms proposed by President Nicolas Sarkozy as part of his election manifesto. Taken together they amount to the most significant constitutional changes to have taken place in the half-century history of the Fifth Republic. Some of the measures could, suitably adapted, be considered for the UK. The President is to be limited to two five-year terms of office; and the parliament will now be able to set half of its own agenda. Parliament will be given the right to veto some presidential appointments - a firmer power than the one associated with the pre-appointment hearings proposed for Commons select committees in the UK which are only advisory.Government control over the French parliamentary committee system will be ended.

The reforms have been controversial and the socialists, greens and communists opposed them. One contentious measure has been allowing the president to address the parliament, in the manner of a US presidential State of the Union speech.

But an important lesson can be drawn. Knowing what your constitution is and having it included in a specific document - as the French do - is invaluable to attempts to try and improve it. In the UK we simply cannot precisely identify the nature of the beast we are dealing with - for instance the government has no complete list of the Royal Prerogative powers it wields. This confusion serves to vitiate reform momentum and creates diversionary arguments about whether we are better off with a vague set of arrangements that have supposedly served us so well for centuries (rather than our masters?). A codified UK constitution is held out as a possible end goal in Brown's Governance green paper, but neither he nor Jack Straw meant it. It is clear that we must write the constitution down before we can reform it - but will any government here risk it?

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