Continuing the journey towards a modern constitution for Britain

This pamphlet is based on a speech given by  Charles Clarke at Labour Party Conference in 2008, at an Unlock Democracy lecture. Our lecture and pamphlet series are intended to provoke debate on and interest in issues relating to democracy and human rights. As an organisation promoting democratic reform and human rights, we may disagree with what our contributors say - but we are always stimulated by and grateful to them.

When future historians look back, they will consider the period since Labour’s election in 1997 as one of enormous and generally positive constitutional reform.

Probably the most dramatic change is in Scotland, where there is now a devolved parliament with full legislative powers and an executive accountable to that parliament, now from a different political party than that of the UK Government. It takes (or more accurately should take!) full responsibility for most areas of Scottish national life.

Though there have been many doubters along the road to this constitutional success, sometimes including myself, I think that any fair-minded observer would have to conclude that, despite the tensions, devolution has been wholly positive and has improved the quality of political life both in Scotland and in the wider United Kingdom. 

In Northern Ireland the process of change has been just as important, and a great deal more difficult. It is now reaching its conclusion after years of difficult negotiation to end the dreadful violence which dishonoured that society, and the implications are profound.

The same is true in Wales, with its elected Assembly, and in London, with its elected Assembly and elected Mayor. And the United Kingdom Parliament has changed as well, with the removal of most of the hereditary peers and a consequent shift in the balance of power between Lords and Commons.

At the same time the constitutional relationships between others of our great institutions have shifted as the Human Rights Act continues to change the balance of influence between the executive and the judiciary, and the Freedom of Information Act modifies that between the executive and the media. So the last decade will certainly be marked down as a period of historic constitutional transformation.

The question which faces the country after this momentous decade is what, if anything, to do next. These substantial changes have inevitably and rightly led to a rebalancing of our constitution, between some of the great institutions of the realm, between the nations of the United Kingdom and between local and national power. However it is not the case that this range of reforms has yet taken us to a new and stable constitutional equilibrium and it is even possible that some of the changes could lead to future instability unless the appropriate action is taken.

The achievements of the last ten years are important but inevitably partial. Future constitutional stability is important for this country’s success and it is necessary to bring the process of reform rightly started in 1997 to a stable conclusion. Therefore the process of constitutional change needs to be completed and this can and should be done by the end of the next Parliament.

The five priority areas for change are:-

  • Increasing the strength and authority of the House of Commons;
  • Completing the reform of the House of Lords (the second chamber);
  • Establishing stable constitutional arrangements for the nations and regions of the United Kingdom, preferably removing uncertainties with a wide degree of political consensus;
  • Developing the strength and autonomy of local government and establishing its independence and strength, in ways that have not happened in the last ten years;
  • Establishing fixed term parliaments.

This offers a positive agenda for change which could also be taken step by step.