Repairing British Politics by Richard Gordon, Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2010, pb. 198pp, £17.95, ISBN: 9781849460491
That there is a need to be Repairing British Politics is a telling sign of the major adjustments underway on the neighbouring island. It used to be thought that having an unwritten constitution was one of the UK’s assets. It allowed institutions to change their functions radically while providing a veneer of continuity. The monarchy could, for instance, act as a focus for loyalty and common identity while retaining only residual constitutional functions. The archaic rituals of opening parliament, ‘kissing hands’ and signing of legislation reassured the traditionalists that their prized heritage was safe while the radicals were happy that the old merely masked new realities. It may be the case that Queen Anne was the last to refuse to sign a bill in 1708, and then on the advice of her ministers, but the monarch’s prerogative remained a reassuring longstop. Conventions and usage were thought to be sufficient to provide a set of rules by which the political system could be run in the broad interests of the British people. So, after the 2010 election, the formation of a government bypassed the ‘rules’ governing the Prime Minister’s prerogative; the ‘rules’ were airbrushed to allow the leaders of opposition parties to form a coalition pact before the head of state played her bit part.
Strictly, it is not accurate to say that the UK does not have a written constitution. What it lacks is a single document in which can be found the legal framework and functions of government, a transcendent declaration of the core principles of the governing contract and a text against which a constitutional court could declare acts of the legislature to be illegal. Richard Gordon QC, a member of Brick Court Chambers, London, provides the blue print for such a document.
In Repairing British Politics, Irish readers will find a virtual shopping list of constitutional innovations in the form of a draft new written constitution for the UK. Would-be tinkerers with or even wholesale reformulators of Bunreacht na hÉireann will find much to contemplate. The book has three parts:
- a critique from a democratic perspective of current constitutional concepts such as parliamentary sovereignty;
- the draft of a constitution founded in popular sovereignty;
- drafts of enabling legislation providing for a referendum on a written constitution in principle followed by a referendum on a specific proposed text.
The book is clearly written by a fan of clarity and consistent principles. Those who applaud the ambiguities of the current British arrangement with its facility for so much flexibility may find the author’s enthusiasm naive. The rigidity of the US constitution has rendered much of the American policy process gridlocked for long periods. Its authors did not anticipate political parties being the core operating system. In the UK, the sovereignty of parliament, for example, while appearing to trump all other sources of power in the UK, has up until a short time ago (at least in British constitutional time) been constrained by a deference to the existing modus operandi. This it seems is no longer the case. Indeed, for Gordon, parliamentary sovereignty negates the idea of the written constitution which he advocates.
The Labour and Conservative Parties have, in their recent periods in office, both produced major constitutional changes including devolution and the reform of the hereditary principle in the House of Lords. At a popular level, the 'expenses scandal' of 2009 engendered an unparalleled questioning of the UK's entire political order, particularly the apparent absence of accountability at the core of government. The result of the 2010 general election seems to guarantee further change. Gordon, however, warns that this internal impetus from parliamentarians themselves may effectively stymie really radical reforms under which the people assert their sovereignty.
Here in Ireland, the Labour Party has joined several advocates of an entirely new constitution for the Republic. Its members will find Repairing British Politics useful as Gordon sets out the advantages and disadvantages of his proposals very clearly. It is not, however, designed as a textbook or even a balanced discussion. Gordon feels that the moment for radical change is now but that, if the opportunity is missed, it may not come again for a long time, even in a British constitutional timescale. He sets out both the practical steps and the guiding principles for a debate which he hopes will start before the normal complacency about constitutional change returns.
Gordon’s written Constitution would be centred on the principle of constitutional supremacy which would replace parliamentary sovereignty. He looks to making accountability more easily achieved. Britain needs reform to become, in his view, a true representative democracy in which greater citizen involvement would assure greater fairness and inclusiveness.
Professor Neil Collins
University College Cork.