Have attempts at constitutional reforms in recent years been driven more by political considerations?

Over the recent years many attempts to reform Britain’s uncodified constitution has been motivated by political reasons, what could be termed low politics. While previous reforms can be, arguably, more aimed at creating a more democratic and codified constitution, most reforms have been nothing more than political tactics to win votes and solidify power. Blair’s Human Rights Act, judicial reform and Freedom of Information Act can be used as examples of constitutional reform aimed at creating a clearer codified constitution that outlines British citizen’s rights, creates a more independent judiciary as well as improving civil liberties. However, these reforms did not go far enough and Cameron’s proposal for boundary changes and further devolution to Northern cities are no more than political strategies to consolidate power. Therefore, attempts at constitutional reform in recent years have been driven more by political considerations than a want for genuine reform.

The Human Rights Act was introduced in 1998 under Blair’s government in what was seen as one of the most radical reforms to the constitution in decades. The HRA clearly outlined citizen’s rights and absorbed the European Conventions of Human Rights into British law. This meant it is easier for a British citizen to protect their rights and challenge decisions especially by parliament or government as they no longer had to apply to the European court in Strasbourg, which was often a long process and very expensive. This can be viewed as a genuine move by the Labour party to protect British rights and was seen to be a libertarian measure and a first step to a written constitution and bill of rights. While there was criticism that the act didn’t go far enough and that the HRA could be repealed by any future parliament, it was seen as a genuine attempt to change Britain’s constitution for the better. One could argue that Cameron’s attempt to repeal the HRA, in 2015, is also a genuine move to reform the constitution in the interest of protecting British people and stopping the abuse of the judicial system. The Conservatives believe that the HRA is used by extremists and criminals to stay in Britain by abusing the provisions of the HRA. However, critics have argued this is simply a political tactic by Cameron to placate his back benchers and right wing fringes of the party who disagree with having the ECHR included in British laws and believe the introduction of a British Bill of Rights makes it easier to stop abuses of the British legal system. It is further argued that removing the HRA will give less powers to the judiciary to challenge parliament’s decisions.

Blair’s reform to the legal system in 2003, which meant that senior judges were no longer appointed by the Prime Minister but through judicial appointment committee, the post of the Lord Chancellor was abolished and the introduction of a separate supreme court were important reforms to the constitution which had the goal of creating more independence for the judiciary and separating powers. This move by Blair was not seen as a political tactic as he gained no advantage from doing so, he only removed further power from his role. Therefore this was constitutional reform based on setting out clearer guidelines for the judiciary and enforcing the constitutional idea that government should be separate from the judiciary. Blair was also commended on the Freedom of Information Act which came into effect in 2005. Individuals now have the right to access their personal information, this was seen as another policy attempting to set out clearer guidelines of the constitution and protect rights of citizens. However, it was criticised as some information could still be withheld on ‘national security’ grounds and there is no public right to see the policy advice provided by ministers. Therefore, while Blair may have introduced constitutional reform that was not aimed at giving him a political advantage he did not reform to the extent that could have politically damaged him either, famously the cabinet papers over the Iraq war have remained secret despite attempts by FOI campaigners.

There were attempts to redraft boundary lines in 2013, which ultimately failed due to Lib Dem hostility. Although ostensibly this was to make constituencies more equal in size some would say this was purely for political gain. The Conservatives are planning to re-introduced this reform knowing it would mean that they would possibly get more seats in the next election.  The issue of boundary changes had been one of the biggest flash points between Cameron and Clegg causing the first major disagreement between the parties. Labour also opposed the reform,  as they believed it was simply an electoral tactic for the conservatives to win more seats (gerrymandering). It is estimated that as Labour benefits from the current disproportionate boundaries it would lose out the most, possibly up to 30 seats.  Although the reform was defeated in the House of Lords, after a Liberal u-turn, now Cameron is governing alone he is likely to reintroduce the idea, this has sparked more controversy as all smaller parties, and Labour, believe this is simply a tactic for the Conservatives to stay permanently in power.

Devolution has been a popular constitutional reform over the past few years. Blair’s devolution of power to Scotland was designed to stop Scottish nationalists from demanding more independence, a plan which failed.  Cameron’s attempt at devolving power to Manchester is seen by some to have a political motive. Manchester is to get its own directly elected mayor with powers over transport, housing, planning and policing. “Devo Manc” is the latest initiative in Osborne’s plan to create a ‘northern powerhouse’ to rival London. This may be a political tactic by the Conservatives, used in order to gain popularity in the North through devolving power, presenting a popular conservative mayor (one that will most likely mirror Boris Johnson’s success in another Labour stronghold, London) and investing in their city in order to win votes in the next election. The Conservatives are hoping to devolve £22bn of public spending to the city which will no doubt please the North. Thus, can these devolved constitutional reforms can be seen as a strategy used by Osborne and Cameron to consolidate power in the North of England. Some would argue they are genuine attempts at rebalancing Britain’s southern economic imbalance.

The Conservatives have resolved to answer the ‘West Lothian Question’ by diluting the power of Scottish MPs when it comes to voting on devolved matters not concerning Scotland. Famously Labour passed tuition fees using its previous Scottish MPs. William Hague in the previous parliament came back with a plan to give English Votes for English Laws (EVEL), this would involve reducing the rights of Scottish MPs to amend and discuss bills as they go trough parliament. However the West Lothian Question is less of an issue in a post 2015 parliament as Labour has lost all but one of their Scottish seats and it is unlikely to gain them back anytime soon. The Conservatives previously saw the system as giving an advantage to Labour in parliament. With a more fractious parliament, the issue is not as important. Hague plans however stopped short of removing completely Scottish voting rights, allowing them a right to vote on the Third Reading (and some would say the most important point) of a Bill. He struck this compromise in order to retain the unity of the United Kingdom and not further split it apart after the acrimonious Independence referendum of 2014. EVEL is seen as an attempt to reduce Labour’s control over Parliament in the event of a 2020 Labour government.

To conclude, while some reforms have been used with the genuine intent of reforming Britain, as seen with Blair’s Human Rights Act, judicial reform and the Freedom of Information Act-these reforms were limited and were all criticised for not going far enough as any further reform could have damaged Blair politically. Therefore, these constitutional reforms may have had a genuine purpose but were still carefully controlled for political purposes. There’s arguably no movement on two of the big reforms, House of Lords reform and the electoral system, as it is not in the Conservative’s advantage for there to be changes here. Furthermore, constitutional reform to boundaries and devolution are both obvious tactics to boost the Conservative’s popularity, consolidate power, and win votes. Therefore, attempts at constitutional reforms in recent years has been driven more by political considerations over genuine constitutional concerns.

Lily Teevan

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