To What Extent Did The Blair Government Deliver On Their Promise To Democratise The British Constitution
To what extent did the Blair Governments deliver on their promise to democratise the British Constitution?
This assignment will examine to what extent the Blair governments delivered on their promise to democratise the British Constitution. It can be said that the Blair government were the most radical when it came to constitutional reform and this is evident when the reforms came into force. These are reforms such as the Human Rights Act 1998, Constitutional Reform Act 2005, devolution and many other reforms that will be analysed in more depth in the latter part of this assignment. Within the Labour manifesto produced in 1997, Blair promised to “clean up politics, decentralise political power throughout the United Kingdom and put up the funding of political parties on a proper and accountable basis” Before 1997, labour were not a party “wanting reform but to capture the state.” This he has done by devolving power to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly however can be argued to have reduced Westminster power which will also be briefly explored. An aspect that had not been done was to call a referendum on proportional representation. The Freedom of Information Act that was passed in 2000 was another one of the pledges made in the Labour manifesto which allowed “the disclosure of information held by public authorities or by persons providing services for them and to amend the Data Protection Act 1998 and the Public Records Act 1958; and for connected purposes.” This shows an even greater step towards democratising the constitution due to the amount of information available to an individual however it does have exemptions and these will be mentioned further in the essay. Although Blair did deliver on the majority of his promises for constitutional reform, he was also very well known for not having a great interest in it as he only made one speech in relation to it and this was done in memory of John Smith (the former leader) whose main goal was constitutional reform. According to an article found in the Prospect, Blair wanted to get constitutional reform out of the way so that he could move onto the “real” issues such as health, education etc. Britain has never had a written constitution as there has always been a range of sources that make it up therefore due to there not being just one single source, there cannot be a written constitution. This in turn allows rules and regulations to be ever changing with a majority vote within Parliament and Royal Assent. With the democratisation of the British Constitution, tension has increased between Parliament and Blair as it can be argued that with the implementation of these reforms, the sovereignty of Parliament has reduced.
Devolution was an exceptional reform that one can see the reduction in the role of Westminster due to Blair devolving power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In theory, parliamentary sovereignty remains and even Section 28 of the Scotland Act declares that “this section which provides for the Scottish Parliament to make laws, does not affect the power of Parliament of the United Kingdom to make laws for Scotland.” However, this is disputed due to the case relating to Northern Ireland Parliament which is Stormont where Westminster would not legislate between 1921 and 1972 to anything concerning Scottish Parliament without their consent. However, this means that Scotland have a different interpretation of devolution to England as England believe in sovereignty being supreme over everything and Scotland find it no more than a right of supervision of their parliament. This is the same as in Wales where parliamentary sovereignty has been reduced regarding legislation for them. Devolution has produced a large scale change to Westminster due to it once being largely over-centralised now allowing greater expertise that Westminster did not have as well as the introduction of a fair electoral system. This makes domination from a nationalist party quite unlikely as it allows a compromise between parties to be virtually certain. This is seen as a highly democratic move and has brought about changes that has shown a distinction in the devolved systems and examples of these are the abolition of tuition fees in Scotland for higher education students and in Wales, there is free medical prescriptions for those under 25 and over 60. Although devolution can be seen as democratic, it still has a long way to go regarding reform due to Westminster still being sovereign over the UK as the devolved areas still have restrictions on what they can legislate. Referendums were also introduced and public were able to have a say on whether Greater London should have an elected mayor and authority again showing democracy with a result of 72% for compared to 34% voting against. This is seen as democratic and through this introduction, the Blair government have been able to democratise the British Constitution further however can also be seen as reducing the powers of parliament being the central power of the nation.
The Freedom of Information Act that was passed in 2000 further shows a step towards a democratic constitution as it gives the general public a statutory right to access information held by public authorities however with some certain exemptions. Those that are not happy with the information that they have requested can then write to the Commissioner of Information to see whether the authority in question complied with the FOI Act. Although the bill was passed in 2000, it did not fully come into force until 2005 mainly to give authorities time to prepare for requests. The Constitutional Reform Act of 2005 was another controversial reform which questioned the authority of Parliament. This was because within this act there enabled judicial independence meaning that government ministers are restricted from influencing the decision of the judiciary giving judges more power. This has also led to the creation of the Supreme Court which should come into place in 2009 and will have its own building separate from that of the House of Lords, own staff and appointment system. The Lord Chancellor was no longer allowed to be senior lawyer and presiding officer of the House of Lords. Another example towards democratising the British Constitution would be the Human Rights Act 1998. This Act did not come into place until 2000 and allowed judges to declare that legislation is incompatible with the ECHR and can give Parliament a fast track to alter this legislation if it wants to. This does not mean that judges have the right to get rid of legislation, they only have the power to deem whether it is compatible or not and if it is incompatible, it is up to Parliament to choose whether or not to repeal this. Although parliament can choose to repeal the decision, it shows that their power has been constrained by the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights. However, even if parliament can be seen as losing their sovereignty by the majority, the minister that was responsible for introducing the Human Rights Act tried to stress that its sovereignty had not in any way been affected even though the Human Rights Act was a higher form of law.
Electoral reform is also a process on the agenda to make the nation more constitutionally democratic and this is done by the introduction of a process that is regarded to be fairer than the existing first past the post system. This is similar to that of the existing system however it allows those that are voting to not just vote for the MP of their choice but to number their second third or fourth preferences which could also decrease the number of apathetic voters as they may see it as though they have more of a say on who they are voting for. The passage of the European Parliamentary elections Act 1999 ensures this democracy by using a regional list system for voters to vote for their MEP`s in numerical order, again, showing that they have more of a say in who is running their nation. So when elections are on, England is divided into nine regions (Scotland and Wales are seen as constituting one region making 11 regions in total) where voters can vote for their regional candidates in order.
From the reforms described above, it is evident that to a large extent, Blair did deliver on the promises he and his government made and democratised it however half heartedly it was done. It is now in the hands of his successor to improve on them further. Previous attempts for constitutional reform were in 1832 and 1911 when these ideas were of interest to the general public however changing times has shown the lack of interest from the majority on constitutional reform and therefore lead Blair to concentrate more on what his voters wanted to hear such as health, education, crime etc. In most ways the Blair government did deliver on the promises made and has democratised the British constitution as explained throughout this assignment and these reforms were all dedicated to the era of John Smith to whom was most interested in constitutional reform. Scotland for the first time in 300 years had their own Parliament as a result of these reforms and is a further sign of democracy though although another reform, the Human Rights Act that was put in place to protect the basic rights of civilians, did cause tension between the executive and the courts which was proven in the Bellmarsh case in which the House of Lords held that “powers in Part 4 of the Anti terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 had breached Convention rights. The government then with great difficulty managed to get passed the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005 and looked further to improve democracy. The Labour government made their feelings very clear to want to democratise the constitution throughout the Labour manifesto with one quote attacking the Conservatives.
“..The Conservatives seem opposed to the very idea of democracy.”
Although Britain’s unwritten constitution has been democratised to some extent, it is still in the process as referendums may look good in theory however are practised very little and even the reform of the House of Lords still has 90 hereditary peers in it as the Blair government have just stopped entry into the House by hereditary means and kept those existing 90 in.
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