Charter 88 checklist posing as a critique

Democracy Under Blair
May 23, 2003

Democracy Under Blair, published on Guy Fawkes Day, 2002, is the second audit of British institutions to be carried out by members of the Human Rights Centre at Essex University. The first was conducted in the mid-1990s towards the end of the long period of Conservative rule. Its successor seeks to assess the condition of democracy in Britain under Labour.

It contains a new section on economic and social rights and the authors claim Democracy Under Blair "constitutes the first systematic assessment of economic and social rights in the UK, measured against international standards". They set an ambitious agenda but it would need more scholarly sophistication than is displayed here to bring it to a successful conclusion.

The fundamental question the authors put is: "Has Britain become more democratic under Blair?" They answer that, despite welcome reforms of the constitution such as devolution and the Human Rights Act, the Blair government has centralised power and threatens to limit basic rights such as the right to silence, jury trial and freedom from double jeopardy.

Some of these rights have been defended by the House of Lords. It is a pity that the authors, who favour a directly elected second chamber, nowhere confront the argument that such a chamber might prove distinctly less friendly to civil liberties than the present appointed house. It is indeed one of the weaknesses of Democracy Under Blair that its authors seem to assume that all the desirable constitutional goods, as set out, for example, by pressure groups such as Charter 88, are perfectly compatible with each other.

The authors accept far too easily the fashionable notion that Blair has centralised power, and make no attempt to confront the considerable literature on cabinet government and on the relationships between the cabinet and the prime minister. Two-and-a-half pages on this complex topic are hardly likely to yield an adequate conclusion. Nevertheless, even the most cursory consideration might have made the authors wonder how it is that "President" Blair finds himself unable to implement one of his key policies, British membership of the euro, because of the scepticism of his chancellor and the hostility of the public.

The half-page discussion of "The role of the civil service" is equally superficial, concentrating as it does on "delivery", and concluding, in rather anodyne fashion: "Overall, there are doubts about the capacity of the civil service core in Whitehall to improve and deliver the public services that are at the heart of the government's electoral mandate". The authors hardly mention the obvious but crucial point that Britain remains almost the only democracy, together with Canada, in which political and administrative roles are strongly separated so that fewer top civil service posts change hands following a change of government than in almost any other democracy. That, surely, is a bulwark against corruption and ought to have been given serious consideration in what purports to be an audit of British democracy.

The Civil Service Commission is not discussed and yet the fact that almost all civil-service appointments continue to be made under its aegis also surely forms a most powerful defence against corruption. In fact, there has been no serious attempt by politicians in modern times to interfere with the constitutional principle of appointment by ability on the basis of fair and open competition.

Democracy Under Blair contains far too many tendentious statements to be accepted as a work of scholarship. The authors complain that the composition of the Royal Commission on the Reform of the House of Lords was "fixed carefully to ensure that no member was a known believer in an elected chamber, rather than the wholly-appointed body that the Prime Minister wanted". Such an allegation requires supporting evidence before it can be taken seriously. The authors also argue that "taking the Ecclestone affair as an example", in which the government was accused of exempting Formula One from a ban on tobacco advertising in return for a pre-election donation to the Labour Party, "it is clear that both Gordon Brown (on Radio 4's Today programme) and Tony Blair (in a crucial BBC interview with John Humphrys) both lied". The evidence offered is derived from Observer journalist Andrew Rawnsley's book Servants of the People. Readers must judge for themselves whether it is sufficient.

The authors claim that there has been excessive business influence on the Blair government, a claim bolstered by anecdote rather than evidence. It rests on a comment by Confederation of British Industries deputy director-general John Cridland that Blair was "very receptive to business arguments", and a complaint by the leader of the Transport and General Workers Union Bill Morris that while the Trades Union Congress had to enter Downing Street by the front door, the CBI "could get in the back way". Such "evidence" ought not to pass muster in an undergraduate essay, let alone an audit of democratic practice.

There is, moreover, a more fundamental difficulty in conducting an audit of democracy under Blair that the authors seem not to have noticed. It lies in the impossibility of evaluating with any degree of objectivity a wide range of constitutional reforms so soon after they have been implemented. The Blair government has, after all, reformed the constitution more radically than any government since that of Asquith before the first world war. It is, surely, far too early to estimate the consequences. Constitutional reforms, even more perhaps than reforms in the social and economic field, take time to work themselves out. Any judgement made of the consequences of the Great Reform Act of 1832 in 1835, or the Government of Ireland Act of 1920 in 1923, or the Life Peerages Act of 1958 in 1961, would almost certainly have been faulty. Thus the statement, typical of many made in the book, that "The Human Rights Act is a landmark in British constitutional reform that ranks in significance alongside the Magna Carta and the 1689 Bill of Rights", is bound to appear absurd: it is far too early to tell.

In the introduction to the second edition of The English Constitution published in 1872 Bagehot remarked that it was "too soon as yet to attempt to estimate the effect of the Reform Act in 1867. The people enfranchised under it do not yet know their own power. A new constitution does not produce its full effect as long as all its subjects were reared under an old constitution, as long as its statesmen were trained by that old constitution. It is not really tested till it comes to be worked by statesmen and among a people neither of whom are guided by a different experience". These wise words apply with particular force to any attempt to analyse the experience of devolution after just four years. For the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly of Wales have so far been working under peculiar conditions in that the Labour/Liberal Democrat administrations in Holyrood and Cardiff are broadly in sympathy with the aims of Blair's government in London. No true test of devolution will be possible until there are conflicting party majorities at Westminster, Holyrood and Cardiff, until a Conservative majority in the Commons confronts Labour/Liberal Democrat majorities in Holyrood and Cardiff; or until a Labour government at Westminster has to confront an SNP majority in the Scottish Parliament. Thus any audit of British democracy during a period of constitutional flux cannot hope to be more than very tentative.

The authors promise a sophisticated audit of democracy under Blair. They offer instead a series of highly questionable judgements reflecting the viewpoint - or, as some would say, the prejudices - of Charter 88, of which one of the authors, Stuart Weir, was a founder. I am in general sympathy with the aims of Charter 88, and share some of its prejudices, such as proportional representation, though not others, such as an elected House of Lords; yet I would not have the temerity to dress up my prejudices as part of an audit of democracy. The authors claim to be asking: "How democratic is Britain under Blair?" Their real question is: "Has Blair adopted the precepts of Charter 88?" They could perhaps have saved themselves a lot of trouble by simply listing the Charter 88 proposals and then checking off the Blair government's reforms against them. Instead, they have produced, under the auspices of Essex University, a polemic for Charter 88 and entitled it A Democratic Audit of the United Kingdom. They are, perhaps, fortunate that book titles do not fall under the jurisdiction of the Trades Descriptions Act.

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government, University of Oxford.

Democracy Under Blair: A Democratic Audit of the United Kingdom

Author - David Beetham, Iain Byrne, Pauline Ngan and Stuart Weir
ISBN - 1 845 011 9
Publisher - Politico's
Price - £12.99
Pages - 333

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