It seems that Tony Blair has managed to get out of 10 Downing Street before he was led away in handcuffs for selling peerages, or arraigned before an international court for ordering British forces into Iraq. These are not the only issues that have helped to erode public confidence in the way we are governed, but they stand out from the crowd.
Will Britain have a choice about what kind of government will follow after June 27, 2007 when Blair finally hands over? The first alternative on offer is from the opposition Conservative leader, David Cameron. On May 11, we discovered that there may be another, when Gordon Brown addressed the country as a contender for prime minister. In a speech in London's Imagination Gallery, Brown announced his intention to "build a shared national consensus for a programme of constitutional reform that strengthens the accountability of all who hold power". It will be some time before we know what this really means.
Both Cameron and Brown now have to deal with the way that Blair has compromised the language of newness. He has always talked about "change" and the need to "get" globalisation (see my response to his farewell address in OurKingdom). But when it comes to fundamentals how much has Blair changed? His crowd justify selling peerages because it has "always" been done. He talks of saving Africa and stopping corruption and then orders an end to the investigation of British Aerospace bribery, apparently just as it is about to lead to charges being made. He speaks of being at ease with the new force of globalisation. But then he sticks to the creaking special relationship with a regime in Washington that is blatantly dedicated to frustrating the multinational nature of globalisation.
Blair's inability to understand the meaning of change is nowhere clearer than in his response to democracy itself. His view is that of a corporate populist looking at voters in the way that a global company looks at markets (an argument I set out at length in Prospect back in February 1999). It means Britain's outgoing prime minister had an attractively fresh, "can do" attitude rather than a traditional, mandarin fatalism. But however profitable in the short run, this is superficial. It plays the market when political leadership calls for something more profound. The need for this is confirmed by default in the excellent ten-point digest of Blair's distinctive approach offered by Matthew d'Ancona's blog in the Spectator's Coffee House.
On May 10, in his farewell speech, Blair exposed one of the worst flaws in this approach, its liquidation of history. Looking back to when he was elected he said: "1997 was a moment for a new beginning - the sweeping away of all the detritus of the past."
This is Year Zero thinking, ignorant and wrong. The past, especially the historic inheritance of British politics, needed to be respected in order to be thoroughly replaced. It couldn't be "swept away" like so much rubbish. It was structural. What would replace it? A "new beginning"?
Nature abhors vacuousness. What replaced the detritus of the old constitution with its antiquated, informal checks and balances, its Lords and Knights was, in Blair's case, an even worse version of the same: naked, royal power exercised by an upstart, or as it is now called "sofa government". He fell back, or fell upon, the worst deep-structures of the old order, such as rule from above, glorification of "hard" power, imperial ambition, corruption. Just as the adage says ... those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.
Another way of seeing this is as a flight from politics. Not, of course, in the sense of the manipulation of people and opinion and the love of power, but in the sense that politics is about processes that gather alliances, respect opposition, and care about legitimacy. David Hayes of openDemocracy suggests that Cameron's focus on "society" is a form of post-conservative conservatism that consolidates Blair's anti-politics.
The next agenda
If this is right then Gordon Brown needs - both to distinguish himself and create his own agenda - to intensify politics. He needs to look to institutional inventiveness, organised citizen power, and creative participation. Nor can this just be rhetorical, in the way that Blair was so adept at. Such has been the disenchantment Brown will probably have to face up to the fact that, however controlling he may wish to be, no one can any longer govern without the people.
He has long called for Britain to have a "new constitutional settlement". If this is to mean anything it must address how people can now take part. Here is what any new constitutional settlement in Britain will need to address:
- The national question: What is the democratic argument for Britain? What relationship should the nations have to one another now that separate parliaments have initiated a separatist agenda rather than a binding one, as originally hoped?
- The citizen question: Migrants now swear an oath of allegiance to the crown and are given a booklet that trains them on how to behave in pubs. But citizenship should be a matter of entitlement not socialisation, giving people the right to British liberty not conformity. If Britishness is to be successfully remade it has to provide the space for difference, this needs a constitutional framework.
- Our liberties: What are our rights and freedom in the age of the "'war on terror" and high-tech information? From CCTV to ID cards, our identity is being drawn into the possession of the state and our behaviour is becoming an "output" of government policy. We need to secure our freedom as well as being told about our responsibilities and this needs a legal framework that is above a government's day-to-day powers to pass intrusive laws.
- Europe: The EU is moving to reform its governing arrangements with a new international treaty that will implement some of the changes proposed by the aborted new constitution. Brussels is a democratic deficit on stilts. But to have an uncodified constitution, as the UK does, within a codified context is to be perpetually exposed to rule from without. Britain needs the equivalent of the German basic law - its written constitution.
- Parliament: a) The House of Lords has to be replaced but by what sort of elected chamber. And what will its role and function be? b) The House of Commons is supposed to be the apex of legislation but it is crippled. For example the home office was split in two and a new department of justice created just this month without any significant parliamentary discussion. Strengthening the Commons and defining the role of the new second chamber need to be done in tandem to define and strengthen the role of both.
- Voting: People need to know that their voting can make a difference. The current voting system is not just grotesquely undemocratic in its overall outcomes, it requires parties to focus on marginal seats in a way that hollows out the whole of politics and encourages pathetically low turnouts.
- Local power: There is a chronic problem with local power, especially in England. Local government needs its money back - this is a countrywide problem.
- Civil service: Should the civil service be independent? If it is who is responsible? If it is not, can the state be used as an extension of party power, as it seems to have been by Thatcher and Blair, isn't this the road to dictatorship?
- Trust: How can you trust a government and state that won't set out its fundamental principles and how citizens trust a governing system to be theirs when it refuses to issue any title deeds or legal confirmation?
These are some of the issues a new constitutional settlement needs to address. Most important of all will be the processes by which they are addressed. The last thing Britain needs, or will accept, is a new prime minister who, however able he or she may be, reaches into his inside pocket and produces a constitution like Groucho Marx reading out clauses about the first-party and the second-party while we citizens conclude that "there ain't no sanity clause".
A new settlement is not about a bean-feast for lawyers. It is about the spirit of the whole. All, repeat all, constitutions are a combination of the written and the unwritten - the codified and the cultural and informal. They set out for their country three defining things: the relationship between different centres of power; the relationship between the citizen and the state and, just as important as the other two, the aspirations of what kind of country it wishes to be.
This is why how we go about a new constitutional settlement is more important than what it actually sets down in writing, which can always be changed. Such a process would be welcomed across Britain even if it takes time. It will not be very long before we know once and for all if Gordon Brown is serious about backing such a new democratic settlement ... or not.