21 April 2022

No one should take lectures from Labour on Britain’s institutions

By

‘The strength of our institutions cannot endure a PM undermining them for long.’ This was the dire warning issued by Charlie Falconer, formerly Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice under Tony Blair.

I suppose there may be circumstances in which one might seek the professional opinion of an arsonist on a house fire. Nonetheless, for a New Labour minister to take such a tone requires extraordinary gall.

Whatever the animating spirit of Blair’s ministry was, ‘respect for institutions’ was not one of them. Time and again, idiosyncratic but effective mechanisms of the British constitution were subjected to reforms which made sense on paper (if there) but have badly underperformed in practice.

It was Falconer himself, for example, who presided over cack-handed reforms to the lord chancellorship. Previously an important bridge between government and the judiciary, the role was dramatically overhauled in 2005 in the name of ‘separation of powers’. It is now simply another Cabinet job held by normal politicians, an arrangement which serves neither government nor judges well.

His lordship also demands that respect be afforded to the Supreme Court. But New Labour showed scant respect for the old Judicial Committee of the House of Lords – the ‘Law Lords’ – and abolished it on the flimsiest of intellectual pretexts, which basically amounted to the idea that it wasn’t modern.

Even the name of the new institution stands out like a thumbprint of Blair’s lack of respect for the British constitutional tradition. He called his new creation the Supreme Court in cringe-worthy mimicry of the American counterpart, even though our own is not, in fact, a supreme court – Parliament remains supreme.

Both innovations were pushed through via the Constitutional Reform Act 2005. So too was New Labour’s half-hearted reform of the House of Lords. 

Whatever one thinks of the hereditary peers, there is clearly something inadequate about an arrangement which has no provisions for balancing the composition of the chamber, and leaves it to successive prime ministers to bid up the number of life peers on each side.

And it was years before the 2005 Act that Blair undertook his great cut to the sitting hours of the House of Commons, in a deeply misguided attempt to make Parliament ‘family friendly’ – a practical impossibility when the majority of MPs have homes and families a long way from London.

Chris Mullin detailed in his diaries how his colleagues knowingly and gleefully voted for shorter sitting hours, and the results – time-limited debates and brutally truncated two-minute speeches – continue to mar the operation of the Commons to this day. 

Nor was their much appreciation of the valuable role of our national parliament evident when New Labour farmed out responsibilities to quangos, knocked our constitutional settlement off balance by setting up the devolved legislatures and granting them control of vital areas of policy, or signed off on the one-sided provisions of the Belfast Agreement.

The truth is that the current Conservative Party affords far, far too much respect to the many and varied creations of the New Labour era – cowed into submission, perhaps, by a constitutional policy blob which likes to treat organisations cut from whole cloth in the past twenty years as if they were each Chesterton’s Fence.

Whilst it has shown commendable steel in seeing through the repeal of the abysmal Fixed-term Parliaments Act, that really amounts to nothing more than clearing up David Cameron’s mess.

Bold plans to reform the Supreme Court, or even merely to rename it something more appropriate, such as the Final Court of Appeal, seem to have fallen by the wayside. Imaginative thinking about human rights legislation has given way to reheated plans for a ‘British Bill of Rights’ which could have the opposite effect to the one intended.

Even the current row with the Archbishop of Canterbury seems not to have sparked any discussion about reviving the Government’s proper role in selecting the bishops of the State’s church, which were only set aside by Gordon Brown (presumably on Presbyterian grounds).

Meanwhile the ground-breaking UK Internal Market Act (UKIMA), which granted the Government broad new powers to make its presence felt in the devolved territories, sits badly under-utilised, with no coherent strategy for making use of its provisions. 

The problem isn’t that serious structural thinking about the constitution isn’t taking place in Tory circles, but that the Prime Minister seems only intermittently interested. And such is the level of churn inside his government that key individuals seldom remain in place long enough to drive forward real change.

Perhaps that will change in the future. And believe me, when we really have a Conservative Government prepared to pay proper disrespect to New Labour’s constitutional legacy, Falconer will know.

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Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.