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Matthew Norman: A written constitution is the answer

Jacqui Smith is Brown’s lightning rod when it’s the PM we should be frazzling

Thursday, 4 December 2008

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Reuters

Someone's going to have their collar felt over this one. For leaking its content in advance of the Queen's Speech, someone will be bidding farewell to their Apple Mac and having their shoelaces confiscated preparatorily to helping police with their enquiries into this latest monumental threat to national security.

My money's on Jacqui Smith. Obviously she'll have played no part in conceiving new crime bills, because when in possession of her laces our Home Secretary couldn't decide which to tie first without Downing Street clearance. Nonetheless, courtesy dictates that she be given the line to take by a No 10 intern, so the finger of suspicion points her way. And while she's sat nervously in the cell, she might work on an exit strategy.

So far, things haven't gone well for her on the Damian Green front, and even if accepted, her denials of foreknowledge about the arrest are irrelevant. A few weeks ago, she proposed that men who pay "trafficked" prostitutes for sex be criminalised whether aware of it or not. If ignorance is no defence in law for them, it would be unthinkable hypocrisy for the woman who, much like Judge Dredd, is "the law" to claim it for herself.

No, for succour she must look to the segment of Her Maj's speech about welfare cheats. If the lie detector is the right weapon against people suspected of lying to avoid getting a job, on what grounds can it be the wrong one to deal with someone suspected of lying to keep her job? All Jacqui need do is attend the Dispatch Box or the Newsnight studio strapped to a polygraph, and answer a few questions, and we needn't hear another word about it.

While we count the moments until she re-enacts that scene from Basic Instinct, albeit, please God, wearing knickers, I must confess that the previous paragraphs, the credulous fools, have fallen into a classic Labour trap. Just as Tony Blair had Messrs Campbell and Mandelson, so Jacqui Smith plays the part of Gordon Brown's lightning rod when it's the PM we should be frazzling.

It is nearly the third anniversary of an article in The Independent worth revisiting today. "Gordon Brown may introduce a modern written constitution after succeeding Tony Blair in an attempt to rebuild voters' trust in politics," wrote our political editor, Andrew Grice, in January 2006. "The Chancellor is drawing up a series of reforms to limit the power of the Government ... Mr Brown believes the lack of trust in politics has been caused partly by the ability of any government to ignore the many elements of Britain's unwritten constitution."

Bless him for that, and for reiterating this ambition shortly before moving next door. "Gordon Brown will try to restore public trust in British politics by proposing an all-party convention that could pave the way for a written constitution," began another report in May 2007, quoting his honeyed words as follows: "I want to build a shared national consensus for a program of constitutional reform that strengthens the accountability of all who hold power ..."

I want never gets, so nanny used to say, and, as ever, the old trout was bang on the money. But then, sidelined in a post as devoid of autocratic power as that of British Prime Minister, what could Gordon have done to realise this noble dream? Apart from calling a press conference on succeeding Mr Tony, and saying: "I am going to introduce a written constitution"?

He didn't do that then, but still could. We know he's jolly busy saving the global economy, but as Barack Obama said when John McCain suspended his campaign to pretend to address the banking crisis, a leader should be able to do two things at once.

A written constitution for this disgracefully malgoverned country is essential. The lack of one weakens and poisons every aspect of government, and specifically enables such idiocies as Mr Green's arrest. Any student of the documentary series Yes, Minister will presume that Ms Smith's permanent secretary, whose first duty is to the sovereign cause of ministerial deniability, let the police know that the last thing they should do was inform the minister in nominal charge of the police. Under a written constitution, procedure for cases involving the sovereignty of parliament and the right to leak in the perceived national interest would be ... agh, my memory. What is that technical term? Oh yes. Written.

The lovingly nurtured ambiguity that forms the foam padding of sofa government would end, replaced by mechanics allowing us to determine who is responsible for what, whether it's using a politicised police force to intimidate political rivals or deciding to invade countries without the wherewithal to manufacture a stink bomb. When the Americans do something crazy or wicked, or both, their veneration for the document that begins "We The People" and all it represents obliges them to probe those responsible to perdition with congressional enquiries. Here the public inquiry, deemed suitable for a case as trivial as Mr Green's but not for the policing and intelligence failures that permitted the bombings of 7 July 2005, remains the reflex response of those keen to avoid scrutiny, or delay what loosely passes for it until the public can barely remember the incident concerned. Where the US has its constitutional First Amendment to guarantee freedom of speech, we have the Official Secrets Act and its nebulous, catch-all cousin "the interests of national security" to stifle it.

The absurdity here is that this could be Gordon's legacy. Highly unlikely to win a general election, he has 18 months to leave behind something more lustrous than the financial calamity he did so much to inflate by which to remember him. A written constitution stuffed with checks and balances to prevent criminal military adventurism and oppressive misapplication of law, and focused on defining and separating powers, would be the greatest legacy he could conceivably bequeath. Children would be taught it for centuries, and his name would echo louder and longer through history than Tony Blair's.

On the other hand, he could hunker in the bunker, watching his time in office dribbling away, greedily clinging to the Byzantine culture of secrecy that gifts dictatorial powers to British PMs, and immunises them from fear of exposure and censure. I think I know what he truly believed about a written constitution three years ago, and still does, without recourse to a polygraph. I think we all do. But wouldn't it be a thing of unsurpassed beauty if just for once the gruesome old poseur amazed us?

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33 Comments

Before we have a written Constitution we need to remove ourselves from the EUSSR. As Brown would never do that, there's no way he would ever produce a written UK Constitution.

We do need a written Constitution now and a reform of the Parliamentary system of 'democracy' which fails the electorate time and time again. It is time for a system where people elected to Parliament actually do represent the people who send them there, and not simply act as lobby-fodder for whichever Party they belong to. The whole basis of the UK needs to be redefined - moving to a properly federal system based upon the USA. But first, get us out of the EUSSR.

Posted by Boudicca | 04.12.08, 21:14 GMT

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The person I alluded to earlier who has a direct connection to the secret service of a foreign power is not the wife of Gordon Brown (as claimed today on another Independent thread by a ubiquitous clown, who until recently worked as a Political Advisor to Tony Blair) but rather the wife of Brown's 'minder.' What I am telling the British people is that our Prime Minister is 'in the pocket' of a foreign power, and one with a reputation for deceit, trouble-making, and violence.

Posted by Errol Flynn | 04.12.08, 17:35 GMT

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"Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive" The accent should be on the word "first" This Government has now been doing it for so long that it is expert in every facet!
The problem lies not in mechanisms but in people. If Government can be structured so as to attract decent, fair-minded, honest individuals then many of the absurdities will wither on the vine and die. The notion that Cabinet or Home Office decisions should be secret is an insanity. They should be transmitted, in real-time, via television, with no censorship or obfuscation at all. These people are public servants, nothing else, nothing more. You, the British subject, should be able to see exactly what is being done in your name, with your money, as it happens. THAT is rea "accountability" all else is a sham.

Posted by John Wood | 04.12.08, 15:30 GMT

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well, america has a wrtten constitution and that doesn't seem to stop it's govt from getting around the it if it wants to.
What's needed is a real will for change.
If we had a political system designed to encourage elected officials get the truth of any situation rather than encourage them to defend their position/attack the other position on any situation - a win/win model rather than a win/lose model.
It would be horrible to write a constitution that enshrined the right to muck about like we do. In the same way that poor america is lumbered with its "right to bear arms" and condemned to it's persuit of happiness instead of granting itself the right to be happy - an extreme example, perhaps, but does Brown or anyone who's made it in the current political bun-fight have the vision, integrity and lack of self interest neccessary to get it right?

Posted by door | 04.12.08, 14:44 GMT

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Vote Cthulhu for No More Years! It's the tentacles, y'know...

Posted by 999cats+1 | 04.12.08, 14:40 GMT

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"Having lived half my life in countries which apply them, as well as other non-British stupidities such as 'Human Rights, 'solidarity' and identity cards..."

Erh...right, Les W. Thank you for this insight. But what if you collect the remaining, top-british values, write 'em down and call it constitution?

Btw.: This habit is way older than the 18th century. Actually, with Hamurabis cod of law (1700 B.C.) the age of "high" cultures began.

Other than that: I never understood why a nation, that never fails to take pride in its democratic tradition, freedom, culture and sophistication never dared to write down its core-values. Afraid of the outcome?

Posted by Svan | 04.12.08, 14:38 GMT

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Here's another idea. Take big business totally out of parliament and politics and jail any politician for patronising the corporate sector. This is where it all went wrong in the first place. infowars.com and prisonplanet.com. Check these sites out and see the real extent of this corporate infiltration and influence over our freedoms.

Posted by Gaz | 04.12.08, 14:08 GMT

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Here's another idea. Take big business totally out of parliament and politics and jail any politician for patronising the corporate sector. This is where it all went wrong in the first place

Posted by Gaz | 04.12.08, 14:05 GMT

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I don't know what Gordon Brown is worried about. They have a written constitution in China.

Posted by J | 04.12.08, 14:03 GMT

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These might begin to make some difference, but it would need a new party to get them onto the statue book:

1. Fixed term elections;

2. Proportional representation;

3. Directly elected chief constables, heads of primary care trusts, etc;

4. Rebalancing power as between executive and legislature:

4a. Parliamentary committees to have powers to summon people and papers, on pain of imprisonment;

4b. Parliamentary oversight of public appointments - including cabinet posts, with powers of veto;

5. Propositional ballot papers.

6. Voter-led powers of Recall.

Posted by Tom MacFarlane | 04.12.08, 13:48 GMT

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33 Comments

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