British Studies Web Pages
|The Quiet Revolution - Genies Out of Boxes?|
This article was written in 2000 - since then significant further developments have taken place. Our Government and Politics - links will give you a wide series of websites where you can trace these changes, with Guardian Unlimited a particularly useful source of news and comment.
Since New Labour came to power in 1997, there has been a quiet revolution which has brought about significant changes in the way in which many people in the United Kingdom are governed. As British identity is closely connected with political institutions and their stability, some argue that these radical reforms to the constitution are undermining the nation. Others claim that they are the only way to preserve the United Kingdom. This article looks at the changes which have been taking place, and discusses their implications.
The British constitution is famous, or notorious, (depending on your point of view), for being a combination of common law, parliamentary statute, legal precedence, and conventions based on historical practices. While constitutional historians will point to the importance of Magna Carta in 1215, the Bill of Rights of 1689, the Act of Supremacy of 1701, and other landmark documents, there is not one single document you can turn to which encapsulates the constitution.
It is in this context that we have to understand the significance of the use in recent years of referendums. When they were used in the past in the UK, (e.g. over reform of the Lords in 1910-11, or entry to the EU in 1975), they were infrequent and usually regarded as consultative. So we can say that the spate of referendums in the last few years has effectively made pre-legislative referendums a de-facto part of the constitution. In Scotland and Wales in September 1997, and Northern Ireland, May 1998, there were referendums in favour of having elections for representative assemblies, and in London, May 1998, to have an elected mayor. The Prime Minister has promised a referendum in the next Parliament on joining the Euro, and another prior to any legislation which would introduce proportional representation for the House of Commons.
As a consequence of the above-mentioned referendums on devolution, elections took place for a Scottish Parliament in May 1999, which resulted in a transfer of powers to the new Parliament on July 1, 1999. A Welsh Assembly was also elected in May 1999, which opened on May 26, 1999. Elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly took place in June 1999, and the Executive took up its powers in December 1999. Although suspended temporarily on February 12, 2000, due to insufficient progress in para-military organisations handing in weapons.
A brief summary of the powers of these Assemblies can be found elsewhere in these pages.
Finally, as will be discussed later, there has been much talk post-devolution of an English Parliament which would contain only English constituencies and be responsible for English affairs.
Regions, Local Government, and Electoral Reform
London elected a mayor in May 2000 to head a strategic authority, and the government has said that the Regional Development Agencies which were set up in May 1999 could be given more power if there was sufficient desire from the regions (which would be tested once again in a referendum). There have also been proposals for elected mayors, local referendums, and much greater public consultation in local government issues.
Wales and Scotland in their elections of May 1999 used a form of proportional representation known as the Additional Member System (AMS), in combination with the traditional 'first past the post system'. The Jenkins Commission on voting has made recommendations for a similar system to be used in the House of Commons, but once again the government has promised a referendum on any changes to the current 'first past the post' system.
Monarch and Lords
After the death of Princess Diana in 1997, the monarchy was at its lowest level of popularity for over a century. Much of this was due to popular anger at the Monarchy's response to Diana's death (there was a feeling that their grief was not vocal or public enough, as captured in the headline of The Mirror, 'Show us you care, Ma'am'). Encouraged by the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, the Queen has agreed to small but significant changes in the public face of the monarchy, designed to reduce protocol and make the monarchy more accessible. At the same time, that other bastion of the Establishment, the House of Lords, has seen a radical overhaul.
Reform of the House of Lords, particularly regarding the rights of hereditary peers to sit and vote, was a key element in New Labour's 1997 election manifesto. In November 1999 only 92 of the 755 hereditary peers retained their right to sit and vote in the Lords, and this only for a temporary period. The next stage is to transform the upper House into a more representative body, but there are huge arguments over how many members should be elected and how many appointed. Lord Wakeham's Royal Commission recommendations, published in 1999, have not gone far enough for many reformers, and the debate continues.
Human Rights and the Economy
The European Convention on Human Rights became part of English and Scottish law in 2000, incorporating into British law the basic human rights contained in the European Convention on Human Rights. Although this was actually drafted largely by British lawyers after WWII, successive governments have argued that all the rights contained in the Convention already exist under English common law. Since 1966 UK citizens have been able to take cases to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg (at great expense to the British taxpayer). Now this will no longer be necessary.
The Independent Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England now has power to set the base interest rate, which means that a major tool of economic control is no longer in the hands of government.
For the past 300 years, with the exception of Ireland, political change in the UK has been occasional and incremental. Unlike other parts of Europe, political stability has been a key feature of these years. Indeed, the British are celebrated for their pragmatic adaptation to new needs and situations, such as the widening of the franchise in the nineteenth century to include the new urban classes.
What was also perhaps just as remarkable about the changes which have taken place since 1997 was the initial general indifference they evoked and the lack of any substantial debate on the issues. Apart from the predictable clamours from the Conservatives and elements in the 'chattering classes' (the disparaging term given to writers, politicians, and intellectuals), there was surprisingly very little public response. Only recently, with attempts to re-define Britishness in the wake of Devolution, is the future of Britain now receiving attention in the media. (See other articles in this issue, such as The Untied Kingdom - Englishness in an Age of Devolution, and The End of the Affair - National Identity in the Age of Devolution).
One of the main architects of these reforms, the (unelected) Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, has said that "our proposals have been designed to preserve the Union, the sovereignty of Parliament and the separation of powers. I am confident they will do so." There are those, however, who see only a loss in sovereignty, with the state passing power downward to the nations and regions, sideways to the Bank of England (and some would say big-business), and upward to the European Union.
The two main views on the changes take diametrically opposed positions.
On the one hand they are seen as acts of folly, rushed and ill-considered. Devolution in particular, and also the prospect of adopting the Euro, are seen as a 'ticking time bomb' which will eventually lead to the dissolution of the United Kingdom.
The second view places the changes within the context of previous adaptations to the constitution. Thus they are viewed as an inspired re-balancing act, or as Peter Hennesy, Professor of History at the University of London says, another example of " the British knack for threading sufficient new elasticity into the stiffening sinews of its governing practices to ensure that its distinctive flavourful political culture will endure". Lord Irvine echoed this when he described the reforms as an example of 'the empirical political genius of our nation'.
Genies out of Boxes
Those who take the pessimistic view on the reforms speak of the 'genie coming out of the bottle' and 'Pandora's box' being opened. The implication is that a process has been started which cannot be stopped. The main arguments regarding this are:
Today Devolution, Tomorrow Independence?
While the late John Smith, former leader of the Labour party thought that devolution was "the settled will of the Scottish people", there are many in Scotland who share the Scottish Nationalist Party view that it is merely the stepping stone to fuller independence. Nationalist parties in Northern Ireland and Wales (Plaid Cymru) have similar hopes.
Undoubtedly there are serious unresolved issues surrounding devolution, not least of which is money. Only the Scottish Parliament has tax raising powers and these are small (3p in pound). Arguments over finance have already taken place on issues where Scotland might wish to take a very different financial position from Westminster (eg. tuition fees for students). On the other hand, representatives from English constituencies in Westminster point out that UK public spending, (based according to needs which were calculated in 1976), currently vastly favours Scotland, (20-30% per head higher), and does not represent current needs (an argument strongly made by areas such as the North East of England).
Then there is also the European factor. The former leader of the Scottish nationalist party, Alex Salmond, has already expressed his desire for "an independent Scotland in Europe", and a Plaid Cymru report of 1997 talked about putting 'Wales at the heart of a new Europe of the nations and historic Regions'. After all, it is pointed out, the 1707 Treaty of Union between Scotland and England was very clearly a 'a marriage of convenience', which gave the English stability on their borders and the Scots access to markets (domestic and imperial) and security. European markets and NATO can now do both of these for Scotland and perhaps for Wales too. Is it time for a divorce if there is no longer mutual advantage in the Union?
What Will Happen To the Westminster Parliament?
Within England, there are now those calling for radical changes at the Westminster Parliament, which will either reduce the influence of Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish MPs there, or exclude them altogether.
The so-called 'West Lothian question', (named after the Labour MP from that constituency who first raised the issue in 1977), points out that Scottish members for Westminster have a say in English domestic affairs (by being able to vote on all Bills in the House of Commons), while English members do not have the same influence on what happens in Scotland, where the new parliament in Edinburgh controls most domestic policies. Moreover, it is claimed that Scotland and Wales have more MPs at Westminster than their population justifies.
William Hague, the then Tory leader, 'speaking for England' in 1999, suggested a two-tier House of Commons in which Scottish MPs in Westminster would not be allowed to vote on certain issues which are purely "English'. Others, both from the political left and right, have called for an English national parliament. The 'mother of parliaments' is already looking different due to reform in the Lords, and if Regional Assemblies evolved out of the Regional Development Agencies (which the government promises if there is demand), this will further reduce the influence of Westminster.
Moreover, some legal and constitutional experts say that by incorporating the European Convention of Human Rights into British law, there will now inevitably be a demand for an American-style Supreme Court. Parliament would no longer be the highest court in the land.
Not only, the argument goes, is Parliament losing its sovereignty to other bodies within the UK, but it is also losing it to the European Union. While the then Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, might claim in 1998 that the high tide of European integration had passed, the debate over whether to adopt the Euro and lose the pound is set to split the country and all political parties in the next few years.
What Will Happen To the Conservatives?
The policies of Margaret Thatcher seemed to succeed in alienating the majority of Scottish people from the Conservative Party, to the point where the Tories do not have a single MP from a Scottish constituency at Westminster. Ironically, it was only the complicated 'topping-up' system of proportional representation, used in the Scottish elections of 1999, (and opposed by the Tories), which has given them any seats in the new Scottish parliament. The Conservatives, the so-called 'Unionists', increasingly look like an exclusively English party. This is reinforced by their (largely) anti-European stance, in which many of their members sell themselves as defenders of 'British/English' values.
What Will Happen To New Labour?
Labour has traditionally looked to Scotland and Wales for support. The reinvention of the Labour party under John Smith and Tony Blair, however, necessitated controlling the factionalism of the opposition years by strong central discipline. While for the moment the devolved assemblies in Scotland and Wales have Labour controlled majorities, there already have been indications that Labour unity is under threat. Not only will Labour politicians in Scotland and Wales have to prove their independence of London in the face of taunts from the SNP and Plaid Cymru that they are merely puppets of the Westminster government, but it may also be the case that their loyalties anyway are more likely to be national. Evidence of these divided loyalties has already been seen in the forced resignation of Alun Michael, the Blairite first minister in Wales, soon after the Assembly opened. The death of Donald Dewar in October 2000, close friend and much-respected First Minister in Scotland, will not make life any easier for New Labour in Scotland.
London too has shown that it has a mind of its own by rejecting Frank Dobson, official Labour candidate in the London mayoral elections of May 2000, in favour of the independent and former Labour politician Ken Livingstone.
The Untying of the United Kingdom?
The United Kingdom is essentially a political union of different nations and regions. Historians like Linda Colley argue that what brought the Union together in this 'marriage of convenience' (security, markets, common enemies in France, and a common religion in Protestantism), enabled a common British identity to be built around the pillars of Empire, Monarchy, and the Church of England, all reinforced by threats from across the Channel. Not surprisingly it is when this external threat is at its greatest, such as in 1940-45, that the nation comes together in its most visible form. 1945, it is argued then, is the quintessential British moment, encapsulating as it does our island history, (we 'few' repelling invaders to these shores), our imperial history (the Empire at arms fighting fascism from Singapore to Aden), our special relationship with America (the Anglo-Saxon, Christian alliance), and leaving us with the memory of victory rather than defeat after World World Two. This self-confidence and certainty about Britishness is reflected in a question which appeared in the Cambridge Proficiency Exam of 1945:
The following half-century saw all those 'certainties' undermined. A decline in economic and political power, the challenges of globalisation to both culture and the economy, and the movement towards greater European co-operation (presenting threats or opportunities, depending on your point of view), have all combined to make the certainties and self-confidence of VE day a dimming memory (although kept alive by English hooligans, reminding the Belgian police in the summer of 2000 that 'we fought the war for you lot'). At the same time, Britain's imperial past has contributed to the transformation of the country to a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society, as Andrea Levy's article shows.
For some the logical progression of devolution is for a federal Britain with parliaments in Edinburgh, Cardiff, Belfast, and London (or maybe somewhere in the North of England!). As stated earlier, this was not the intention of the architects of the changes, such as Lord Irvine, for whom the proposals were "designed to preserve the Union, the sovereignty of Parliament and the separation of powers".
The Future For Britishness?
Britishness, then, seems to many to be under threat from internal divisions (devolution and the prospects of full independence), and external forces (European integration and globalisation). Added to this, the United Kingdom is coming to terms with the full implications of post-war immigration.
Since 1945, due to successive waves of immigration from the former colonies, Britain has become truly multi-ethnic, with large minorities of Black-British or British-Asian peoples. As in Andrea Levy's case, these children of immigrants are 'born and bred' in Britain, and yet their feeling of being British or English is not always reciprocated by recognition from other British people. This has led to much debate about whether 'Britishness' can include these groups, with or without the hyphen, (Black-British, British-Asian). A Report by the Runnymede Trust on The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, in October 2000, even suggested that the idea of Britishness carried 'largely unspoken racial connotations'. Although they were using the word 'racial' in the sense that the nation was being 'imagined' as only white, many journalists and commentators took it as a criticism that the term British was inherently racist, and there was a subsequent uproar in the press and television.
This particular debate over Britishness continues, and it is clear that the issue of identity is set to be one of the defining issues of the new millennium, not only in the United Kingdom, but throughout the world.
You can find a classroom activity on 'Defining the Nation' by clicking here.
|Produced in Poland by British Council © 2003. The United Kingdom's international organisation for educational opportunities and cultural relations. We are registered in England as a charity.|