The UK's constitution is being trashed for short-term party political advantage. We need an independent review.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a government in possession of a slim majority must be in want of more power. But when that power is sought by reversing centuries of constitutional advancement, resistance is in order.
The progressive development of Britain’s constitution was once an inspiration to the world. The sealing of the Magna Carta in 1215 to limit the powers of the ruler; de Montfort’s inauguration of the parliamentary tradition in 1265; the first ever trial of a reigning monarch for treason in 1649; the Glorious Revolution that produced the Bill of Rights of 1689, which in turned inspired the American Constitution of 1789; the Great Reform Act of 1832 that opened the door to almost a century of franchise reforms that eventually secured the vote for all adult men and women in 1928; and after the Second World War, British MP and lawyer David Maxwell-Fyfe, led the deliberations and drafting of the European Convention on Human Rights (ratified 1953), which drew on the strong democratic traditions of countries like the UK to lay the foundation for protecting human rights across Europe.
Regrettably the Conservative party (in government with the support of the Liberal Democrats 2010-2015 and with its own small majority since 2015) has decided that since its hold on power is so slight, it will manipulate the British constitution to enable it to do what it cannot otherwise get away with doing. Let’s take a look at a few of the tricks being played on a largely unsuspecting citizenry.
1. Puppet Legislature
The House of Lords has always been a curious non-elected appendage of a supposedly democratic legislature. As long ago as 1649 it was abolished, only to be brought back when the monarchy was later restored in England. The current Conservative plan is for the number of elected MPs to be cut down while it puts more of its non-elected donors and supporters into the House of Lords (which has risen by 16% since 2010 ). Half of the increases in party-affiliated peers have gone to the Conservative party though that is higher than their share of support from those eligible to vote in either the 2010 or 2015 elections. Many of these donors and supporters hold shares or positions in large companies, and they are free to vote for policies that will increase the profits of those companies. Meanwhile, the government will do nothing to address this anti-democratic anomaly except to erect obstacles to stop the Lords voting against Conservative policies.
2. Political power for sale
It has long been recognised that disparity in campaign finance can remove any prospect for a level playing field in electoral contests. The Electoral Commission accordingly set out limits for how much political parties should spend on campaigning in the run-up to elections. But the Conservative party in government took no notice and exceeded that limit by 23%, and having outspent the Labour Party, they won the 2015 election with a narrow majority. In the meantime, Tory politicians readily admit to financial support they receive from companies that benefit from their policies . Far from placing restrictions on these links, Conservative politicians, such as a former Secretary of State for Health (who was funded by private healthcare firms when he was the Shadow Health Secretary), can be in office one day bringing in new policies to push more public contracts in the direction of private healthcare firms, and leave office the next to take up consultancy roles to help private healthcare firms make more profit out of government contracts. Yet the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, the regulatory body set up to prevent conflict of interest involving ex-ministers, saw no problem with approving the appointment.
3. Second class MPs
It is no secret that Scotland tends to vote for representatives on the left of the political spectrum. While the Conservative party is keen to keep Scotland in the UK (after all, it does not want to lose the oil revenue from the North Sea or the docks in Scotland for British nuclear submarines), it wants to curtail the power of Scottish MPs. So on the back of a ‘promise’ to devolve more local powers to Scotland (in return for their staying in the UK), it plans to ringfence ‘England only’ matters in parliament and deprive MPs from Scotland a vote in them. The superficial argument is that if Scotland is given certain exclusive powers to vote on ‘Scotland only’ matters without MPs from other parts of the UK having a say, then the converse should be true for ‘England only’ matters. But so long as Scotland is in the UK, and the UK is overwhelmingly dominated by the networks and capital of England, it would be obvious to any impartial observer that decisions concerning England will have a major impact on Scotland. Unless what is defined as ‘England only’ is limited to issues which genuinely do not affect the wellbeing of people in Scotland, what is being concocted is the relegation of MPs from Scotland to second class status.
4. Diminished rights
Although the UK is the inspiration and a key driving force in the development of the European Convention on Human Rights, the Conservative Party wants to rewrite constitutional history by pretending it is an alien invention that undermines the wellbeing of British people. It is so hostile to the notion of international peer scrutiny over possible violation of human rights that it wants to cut ties with the wider global community so it can reject as irrelevant any external criticism of its activities that breach human rights. Thus it plans to repeal the Human Rights Act. If its promised replacement is meant to offer more rather than less protection for human rights, there is not the slightest evidence for it. Significantly this is happening when the Conservative government policies to cut support for vulnerable people are being investigated by the UN for the “systemic and grave violations” of disabled people’s human rights. People’s rights to organise to seek better economic treatment are also under further threat as the Conservatives plan to outlaw strike actions by unions unless they are backed by at least 40% of those eligible to vote in those unions – a threshold that if applied to the government would mean that it cannot carry out any action since its manifesto is backed by far less than 40% of those eligible to vote in the country.
5. Destabilised sovereignty
The Conservative leadership, despite its party’s historical role in taking the UK into what became the European Union, has sought to undermine the electoral prospects of anti-European rivals by promising a referendum on British membership of the EU. But just as England’s sovereign power was enhanced through union with Scotland, the UK’s membership of the EU confers greater strength when the world is geopolitically dominated by continental blocks. To commit to a referendum when the terms of what would amount to a revised deal the Conservative government would support remain unclear, and when the uncertainty undermines confidence in UK’s future connections with the rest of Europe, is unwise at best, and reckless at worst. Even Margaret Thatcher, who was hardly enamoured with the EU, warned against using the crude mechanism of a referendum to decide on a major constitutional issue such as UK’s membership of the EU (see ‘Thatcher, Europe & Referendum’). Ironically, when it comes to what can seriously undermine British sovereignty, namely the Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership (TTIP) – which would give power to American corporations to sue the UK for enacting laws to protect British people if it can be argued that such laws would reduce profits – the Conservative government is happy to keep discussions secret and offer British citizens no opportunity to scrutinise the pros and cons of TTIP.
All the above threats against our democratic heritage should be opposed, and the core issues subject to an independent constitutional review. It is fair to say, in homage to Ms Austen, that we should be ever sensible of the warmest gratitude we owe towards a constitutional tradition that, by bringing justice into government, has been the means of uniting them.
Let us not allow this precious union to be put asunder.