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Artillery Row

Labour’s looming constitutional vandalism

A Labour landslide will complete the Blairite destruction of Britain’s unique constitution

If the media are to be believed, the result of the election on the 4th of July is a foregone conclusion. The Tory party has run out of steam and is drifting headlong towards the rocks. Half-hearted noises about (non-compulsory) national service and inflation figures finally falling have failed to dent the sizeable Labour lead. Democratic governments do seem to have a natural lifespan and, just as there was likely nothing they could have done to win the 1997 election, it seems that the public is simply sick of the Conservative party and has decided it’s time they had a kicking. 

Stepping back for a moment, this is rather odd. Why should the British public think it proper that Party X should govern just because it is tired of Party Y? Yet one hears this all the time. “It’s time for a change”. “They’ve been in for too long, the other lot should have a go.” They’re old. They’re tired. We need something new, fresh, different. 

This is everything that is foolish and exasperating about universal suffrage. 

Has anyone espousing this philosophy actually given it a moment’s thought? You cannot decide who governs without any reference to the platform on which they are standing, and yet this is precisely what many people seem intent to do on the day of the election. 

Partly it’s because most people (perhaps mercifully) have no political ideology and often innocently drift from one viewpoint to another. To be uncharitable, one might use Field Marshal Haig’s words (said of Lord Derby) that they seem to, like a feather pillow, bear the impression of the person who last sat on them. 

Even among those one might broadly describe as on the right, there is a widespread feeling that the Tories have proven themselves complacent and useless and need at least to be punished, at most destroyed and replaced. The Twitter hashtag “Zero Seats” has become a popular slogan for those egging on this end. Frankly, it is difficult to argue with the Party’s record: ongoing Channel crossings, the abject failure of the absurd Rwanda policy, internal factionalism and scheming, the wreckage of the country throughout the hysteria of the pandemic, and, of course, the embarrassing botch of our departure from the European Union. To name but a few highlights. 

Britain certainly faces challenges and I am sure the Tories are entirely inadequate to address them. But so are the Labour party. With huge quantities of immigration eroding social cohesion, crumbling infrastructure, an ageing population, a debased and ailing currency, and a national debt equalling the size of the British economy, there are no easy ways out. A Labour party, fresh and triumphant with its three-digit majority, simply cannot solve these problems, and so will attempt to look like it’s doing something by leaning into its favourite social and cultural preoccupations.

The report … is a nightmarish compendium of every conceivable constitutional shibboleth of the progressive left

So far ignored in the election campaign — and seemingly largely forgotten — is Keir Starmer’s 2020 commission on constitutional reform, headed by Gordon Brown. The startlingly radical set of recommendations produced by the commission in 2022 were entirely endorsed by Starmer who promised that a Labour government would bring about “a change not just in who governs, but how we are governed”. The report — eerily titled A New Britain — is a nightmarish compendium of every conceivable constitutional shibboleth of the progressive left, and its recommendations would ravage what remains of Britain’s ancient political settlement. 

Convinced that their only mistake was not going far enough, the ghosts of New Labour, like Jacob Marley, come crawling out of the past, eager to drape the country in new chains. There is all the old arrogance and twice the misunderstanding — and precisely the same attempt to force an ancient people and an ancient constitution into the rational shape they think all such entities should be. There is no thought for the particularities of history and circumstance beyond their role as an irritating obstacle to the cold, computational operation of the state.

Starmer described the commission’s proposals as “the biggest ever transfer of political power out of Westminster and into the towns, cities, and nations of the UK”. There is an explicit call to decentralise power on all fronts, to “push power closer to the people”. “The United Kingdom that built the modern world”, the report writes, “was not a trickle-down nation [but one where] growth rose up”. Indeed, it is true that for much of Britain’s history — let alone its imperial heyday — government was astonishingly light by modern standards. Someone once said that in the Edwardian era, the state was like the postman — present and reliable, but one only bumped into him every now and then. 

However, Labour promises not to cut back and streamline government, but to plaster layer upon stodgy layer of government management, over and above what already exists. 

This zombie policy has shambled straight from New Labour’s greatest hits. Straight-faced plans to extend the mayoral system and promote local legislation in England seem to ignore the total failure of the assemblies established in the 1990s for bland, Balkanised English “Regions” — the abolition of which was recommended under Brown’s own administration

Praise is heaped on devolution to the Celtic fringe of the United Kingdom, with vague promises of a sprinkling of further powers. Of all the legacies of the Blair government, the creation of the toy parliaments in Cardiff and Edinburgh — with their shiny modern buildings (now embarrassingly outdated) and modish Continental systems — is one of the most catastrophic. In style, in management, and in appearance the devolved legislatures are entirely out of keeping with the character of the country, and could have been dropped there as the administrative centre for an alien species — or an occupying power. 

As the constitutional historian David Starkey has repeatedly argued, in devolving political power from Westminster, New Labour severed the one thing that made Britain united — a single political chamber. The Act of Union of 1707 included copious provisions to preserve much of what made Scotland culturally unique, for good or ill, but reinvented the English Parliament as the single legislative house of the new United Kingdom. Dissolve that bond of shared political community and what is left of the Union? Unsurprisingly since 1997, Scottish nationalism has grown, not faded away into irrelevance. With a sense of being British weakened, of course people will begin to grasp for another, older sense of themselves. But this is unfathomable for the progressive mindset, which cannot comprehend one being unsatisfied with membership of the global, cosmopolitan blob. 

The rule of lawyers

Alongside the bleeding of government power out to provincial assemblies, there are repeated and grand promises made in the report to enshrine in law “the political, social, and economic purposes of the UK as a Union of Nations, which the overwhelming majority of people in the country already accept” (p67). That is to say: to cobble together a half-baked written constitution. 

The commission recommends “embedding in law” such vague concepts as: “a legal requirement, to require decisions to be taken as close as meaningfully and practicably possible to the people affected by them”; a “requirement to rebalance the UK’s economy so that prosperity and investment can be spread more equally”; and “new, constitutionally protected social rights” (p11). 

The urge to explicitly formalise traditional freedoms and “rights” reflects a frustrated progressive obsession with written instruments of government. The report states, for example, that “the very well understood convention in the United Kingdom that the Prime Minister must command a majority in the House of Commons is nowhere set down in law” (p142). But why does it need to be? We all know it; we all understand it. It is actually an emergent property of our parliamentary system — a prime minister who failed to command a majority would not survive a vote of no confidence. 

In the recent history of Canada, the prescriptive and Continental-style Charter of Rights and Freedoms was awkwardly overlain on their inherited English common law system; one where freedoms had traditionally been shaped iteratively, through custom, convention, and incremental legislation. But the mind of the intellectual despairs at the lack of a systematic scheme and imagines the only way to govern a society is to sit down and design it from the ground up.

Just as in Labour’s plans, the Canadian Charter purported to simply formalise concepts already taken for granted, but established in its wake a whole judicial apparatus of interpretation. And yet, in the midst of the pandemic, or the trucker protest, His Majesty’s Canadian subjects found the grand sentiments of the Charter ringing hollow, and that they could be overridden, at a whim, by the executive. 

Freedom arises from the particularities of time and place — it is not bestowed by a piece of paper. 

Far from giving power back to the people, Labour’s proposals will create a complex legislative web, where political decisions are taken from the hands of elected representatives in Parliament and given over to lawyers and activist judges who will be left to interpret the practical consequences and trade-offs of these “rights”. Why lock ourselves into these rigid frameworks, when the greater part of Britain’s success as a political community has been its flexibility and adaptiveness?

Lords of misrule 

In the commission’s final recommendation, something of the revolutionary zeal underlying the document bubbles to the surface: “[…] clear out the indefensible House of Lords and replace it with a smaller, more representative and democratic second chamber to safeguard the new constitutional basis of the New Britain” (p17). Each time I see “New Britain” in the report I wonder if this is merely comically sinister re-branding, or if I have accidentally stumbled on a policy document for a Papuan island? My confusion would likely be lost on the authors.

Of course, the “indefensible” House of Lords was created by New Labour’s House of Lords Act 1999, which scrapped almost all the ancient hereditary peers and replaced them with legions of appointed cronies and party hacks, grubby donors and failed MPs. For all their faults, at least the hereditary peers represented independent minds who were genuinely free from both the strong arm of the executive and “the fury of democracy”. Though constrained in practice by convention, they were able to openly scrutinise legislation and keep an over-mighty government in check. Quite rightly, the report criticises the stuffing of the upper house with Conservative Party donors, but the very lack of constraint on the prime minister’s power of appointment, which it laments, is a direct consequence of Labour’s reformed system. 

Considering that they envision the abolition of one of the oldest political institutions in the world, and an entire re-shaping of its purpose, Labour’s plans are surprisingly short on details of what would replace the Lords. Even Lord Mandelson has described the plans not as half-baked, but “barely in the oven”

The Lords would be rebranded “The Assembly of the Nations and Regions” — a name at once grandiose and banal, that sounds as though it was dreamt up by a South American military junta. A much smaller chamber is imagined, of around 200 members elected on a different cycle from the Commons. The method of election and how exactly it would fulfil the new chamber’s remit of representing “the Nations and Regions” are left ambiguous. In addition to its role amending legislation, the report recommends that the new Assembly have a formal role to “protect” the constitution, and certain legally defined “constitutional statutes”. 

Here again we have the urge to formulate and state outright that which, by centuries of parliamentary and cultural convention, has always been implicit. The Supreme Court would act to adjudicate the powers of the new upper house to block Commons legislation which transgressed the “constitutional statutes”: “The effect of this would be a form of what is called ‘entrenchment’, that is to say making a particular statutory provision more difficult to amend the [sic] ordinary law” (p140). In so doing, the reforms would undermine the supremacy of Parliament, and drift further to the uneasy American model of deadlock among judiciary, legislature, and executive. 

Labour’s constitutional plans are saturated with a mix of justified disdain for the corruption and abuses of recent governments, alongside a more innate dislike of the particularities of the British system as a whole—a deep frustration with the illogicality and evolved nature of our constitution. Comparisons are repeatedly made to other countries. In reference to the Lords, for example, the report lists nine other worldwide countries, to show how our upper house is ludicrously oversized (Table, p138). All well and good, but why should Britain be like other countries? We have our own system because we have our own history, shaped by chance and circumstance. And the size of the House of Lords is not the problem — it is the thoughtless, loose system of appointment established by New Labour in reforms foisted onto a chamber that needed no real change, but which offended progressive ideals appalled at the thought of hereditary aristocrats in a golden room deliberating policy. 

New Labour: the sequel 

We are faced with the impending sequel to New Labour — and it really is as bad as it sounds. Like The Return of the Magnificent Seven, a second-tier cast (alongside a few familiar faces) saddle up their weary mounts, ready for a miserable re-hash. 

The constitutional reforms of Blair’s government fundamentally misunderstood Britain and its history, and now the same people stand blind to the fact that their careless upheaval is the cause of the dysfunction they now bemoan. The very last thing we need is more well-meaning, eminently reasonable-sounding progressive reform.  

Labour’s “New Britain” would represent a final tearing up of the fabric of our ancient political system. Convention and tradition — emotive constraints on power rooted in the land and its history — are to be replaced with cold legalism. The Lords is and was not a perfect chamber, but nonetheless it somehow echoes our long history of parliamentary government and struggle. It evokes a sense of duty, and honour, and service to which we might at least aspire. But that will not do — instead, we are to have an insipid Continental “assembly”, no doubt laid out in a semicircle, and elected by proportional representation. In other words, we are to be just like every other shiny new twentieth century democracy. 

The dream has always been to transform Britain into another generic central European state, with an official ideology, a brittle and labyrinthine bureaucracy, and a castrated Parliament that sits, like a supreme soviet, applauding and waving through bills, as we reshuffle from one grisly Blairite coalition to another. 

Self-righteous superiority pervades all of Labour’s proposed reforms — a sense of entitlement and careless abandon

Meditating on the events across the channel in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Edmund Burke remarked: “I cannot conceive how any man can have brought himself to that pitch of presumption, to consider his country as nothing but carte blanche, upon which he may scribble whatever he pleases.” The Labour Party have no such compunction. Forget two millennia of constitutional conflict and adaptation — Gordon Brown has come down from the mountain and he has the solution. 

Self-righteous superiority pervades all of Labour’s proposed reforms — a sense of entitlement and careless abandon. A thrill for the Year Zero, where the absurd anomalies of history are swept aside. They propose not adjustment and improvement, but destruction — and the creation of something new and “rational”. Shatter the basis of the Union on a whim because of a faddish interest in local government; half-reform a thousand-year-old legislative chamber because it doesn’t fit pre-conceived Enlightenment ideas of “democracy”; botch an attempt to implement a “separation of powers” because it sounds cool on American tv shows. (Never mind that the British system has precisely the opposite of a separation of powers: an executive and judiciary embedded in the legislature). 

This is rationality unhinged; ungrounded by the practicality of human experience. To quote Chesterton, “the madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”

Under the banner of “decentralisation”, Labour’s plans to push power “out and down” will not make government more accountable, but will elaborate the apparatus of the state and make its power more diffuse — more evasive, and harder to influence. At the same time, they will weaken the powers of Parliament: the very thing that has been key to Britain’s historical success. And let us not forget: Britain has been a success. It is not a perfect system, but this patchwork compromise has functioned well and has been gradually and peacefully reformed for centuries. It is no coincidence that Britain has spawned vast, thriving successor states around the world. 

British people lived in freedom under the law while many countries, now admired by progressive radicals as beacons of democracy, still tyrannised their populations. A constitution is something for the generations not just for ourselves and, in judging it, our perspective must encompass the grand panorama of history.

This time, there is a real decision to be made on election day, and it matters. Between rudderless incompetence on the one hand, and bold, irreversible, optimistic, and disastrous revolution on the other. Peter Hitchens, as usual, has it right: if you want to punish the Tories, try and force them to stay in office — deprive them of their relaxing retirements and lucrative lecture tours. But, for Heaven’s sake, keep Sir Keir and his student radicalism away from the constitution.

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