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Why do we still have a Bank of England?


Andrew McDonald (editor), Reinventing Britain: Constitutional Change

under New Labour, Politico’s Publishing, 2007, 288 pages, hardback ISBN

978-1842752081, £19.99


Reinventing Britain is the timely publication of a series of essays investigating constitutional change under New Labour. No sooner is this handy review of the range of constitutional changes brought in under the Blair administration published than the incoming Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, publishes a green paper entitled ‘The Governance of Britain’, promising a debate on the possibility of a written British constitution and Bill of Rights and granting Parliament the right to vote on legislation arising from international agreements such as the recently agreed European Union amending treaty.


In terms of quantity, the legislative work pursued since 1997 amounted to 41 separate pieces of legislation, not including that pertaining to Northern Ireland. Looking at this workload one is struck by the fact that it difficult to view it as a discernible programme underpinned and steered by an overriding idea of what should constitute a constitution for a 21st century nation state. Three themes do appear: the decentralisation of power through, in the case of Scotland and Wales, devolution; the rights of citizens combined with a more open society; and, almost as an add-on, the reform of the judiciary.


The lack of an overarching idea of the direction the reforms were to take taxes Lord Falconer of Thoroton QC in the foreword where he explains that ‘it is egalitarianism that that has shaped our approach to constitutional reform. It is no longer acceptable that hereditary peers should dominate the House of Lords’. Fine words as long as you leave your brain in idle and pass by the thought that Lord Falconer owes his position to the pernicious system of patronage, which has been ruthlessly exploited by his former school chum and flatmate Tony Blair. In typical unabashed New Labour fashion he tells us that ‘Our ambition (Old Fetesians, I presume) was to leave behind the politics of division and to nurture an egalitarian society’. What he didn’t explain was that their way of doing this would be to dissolve the Labour Party as the traditional champion of the class of the politically dispossessed.


Whilst not disagreeing with the argument that society should be underpinned by a commitment to human rights, New Labour’s love affair with this concept is, I’m afraid, based on the neoconservative view of individual rights which, happily for them, is designed to atomise any possibility of organising a collective response to a social wrong.


Devolution has provided us with an interesting case study. Who would have thought, even one year ago, that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would be governed by executives containing nationalists. The curse of Mr Blair’s sofa extended far and wide such that his cosy behind-the-scenes dealing with the devolved executives, when they were run by Labour, has brought into relief imperfections in the constitutional settlement. A recent front page in the Scottish newspaper The Herald illustrates the point with the headline ‘Warning to Labour MPs over “wrecking the Union”’. The strong words from Jack Straw, Westminster’s Justice Secretary in charge of constitutional matters, who warned his English parliamentary colleagues that they were on ‘very dangerous ground’, illustrate alarm that not only are David Cameron’s Conservatives raising the socalled English Question early into a Brown premiership, but so also are Labour MPs south of the border. What is more, it is a devilishly difficult problem to solve. In England the problem is perceived to be the unfairness of Scottish MPs voting on purely English matters, which are now devolved. Plus there is the fact that the so-called Barnett Formula, which divides tax revenues within the United Kingdom between the devolved nations, is perceived to be unfair. In Scotland the SNP has undoubtedly attracted the radicals on which Labour has historically relied for its majorities simply because New Labour has been ignoring their demands in order to woo the voters in England, who will now be the ones most likely to be whipped up by the Daily Mail and Telegraph over what they perceive as an unfair distribution of mainly English tax revenues.


Brown’s response to this ‘Gordian’ knot is nothing more than a smoke screen. Elements of his plan to deliver a new ‘constitutional settlement’ for Britain have been designed to ensure that he cannot be accused of being a Scottish prime minister influencing and controlling key parts of the English establishment, ranging from the Church of England to senior positions in England’s ancient seats of learning.


One also has to question New Labour’s past record on openness and reform within the Party. The Party’s Policy Forums are designed to be held behind closed doors. No votes are taken, and the outcomes are invariably identical to the executive paper on which they started the discussions. The so-called Warwick agreement with the trade unions is a case in point. Agreed to get money from the unions before the 2005 election, and buried without even a decent funeral after the elections.


There is no doubt that Reinventing Britain is a handy reference base for locating the setting-off point for Brown’s grandly titled ‘The Governance of Britain’, but closer examination of the latter document does not excite. For instance, on sending troops into armed conflict the reality will be that government whips will prevail. A pre-Queen’s Speech debate will most likely mean the Government will still push its programme through. A written constitution will follow the logic of the British position regarding the European Union Charter of Rights with little for the labour movement to cheer about. I could go on but it is important to note that a new web site has appeared in Scotland under the banner ‘Constitutional Convention’. Devolution has always been considered to be a process in Scotland, or North Britain, as Gordon Brown may soon prefer to call it. But if he is so keen on Britishness, why do we still have a Bank of England, and why are agreements with Ireland always Anglo-Irish?


Henry McCubbin












































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