The failure to introduce constitutional reform means a Prime Minister with a big majority like Boris Johnson, has sweeping powers, writes Joyce McMillan.
Long ago, in the decade of hope known as the 1990s, I belonged to a UK-wide network called Charter 88, the aim of which was constitutional reform. After 11 years of Thatcher premiership – to be followed by another seven years of Tory rule – we were tired of the “elective dictatorship” of British prime ministers with big parliamentary majorities based on a minority of votes, and very little constraint on the policies they could force through.
Our demands were simple in outline, but immense in their implications. We wanted a written constitution for the UK. We wanted reform of the House of Lords. We wanted the European Convention of Human Rights enshrined in British and Scottish law; we wanted devolved parliaments or assemblies in Scotland and Wales. And above all, we wanted reform of the electoral system; the one which had visited the economic upheaval and inhumanity of the Thatcher revolution on a nation most of whose voters had never supported it at the ballot box.
So it’s more than dispiriting to note, 25 years on, that although the first New Labour government elected in 1997 quickly implemented both devolution and the domestication of human rights, and greatly reduced the hereditary element of the House of Lords, in outline the UK’s unwritten constitution remains exactly as it was then. A week ago, Boris Johnson emerged from the latest UK general election as the winner of 43.6 per cent of the vote, and 55 per cent of seats in the Commons, with an overall majority of 80; and that majority confers on him immense sovereign power, not only the right to legislate as he pleases on ordinary matters of policy, but to change the structure of British government in any way he chooses.
The Conservative Party’s recent manifesto contained an explicit threat, for instance, to end or reduce the right of judicial review of government policies; and yesterday’s Queen’s Speech declared an intention to make the judiciary more accountable to the parliament over which Johnson currently holds such sway. At the moment, restraining mechanisms such as judicial review, and the Human Rights Act of 1998, remain in place.
Remove Holyrood’s powers?
With his current majority, though, Johnson could remove both of these within months, just as he could reduce or remove all the existing powers of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, or indeed legislate to abolish them completely. Under Britain’s current constitutional arrangements, only major rebellion in the ranks of his own parliamentary party at Westminster can limit his power; and given that the parliamentary Tory Party has now been entirely stripped of liberal rebel spirits like Ken Clarke and Dominic Grieve, such rebellions seem vanishingly unlikely, at least for some years.
We have arrived, in other words, at the beginning of the reign of King Boris, which is likely to continue unabridged until at least 2024; it’s perhaps small wonder that many UK commentators have begun to indulge in the traditional monarchist fantasies of powerless folk, about how this wayward Prince Hal - with his formidable record of lies, double-dealing and unprincipled ambition – may somehow now morph into the Good King of fairytale, rediscovering his liberal and European ideals, and healing a divided nation.
And yet, despite all that, Britain still considers itself a democracy, and is indeed now pursuing Brexit because the voters of the UK narrowly chose to do so, in the 2016 referendum. And by any democratic standard, the current condition of the British constitution remains a disgrace. It should not, for example, be possible for a government simply to legislate to put itself above the law, and beyond judicial review. It should have been possible to entrench the existence and powers of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, so that they could not be removed by a simple majority vote at Westminster.
Breathtaking double standards
And above all, UK governments need to be rid of the delusions of grandeur induced by the first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system, which allows leaders with minority votes actually to believe that the vast majority of the nation is on their side. It is striking how quick Conservative defenders of this system are to notice its flaws, when it benefits those to whom they are bitterly opposed. Since the SNP last week won 45 per cent of the Scottish vote and a stunning 81 per cent of Scottish Westminster seats, unionists have been bobbing around everywhere reminding us that the SNP did not win a majority of votes, and therefore, in their view, has no mandate even to raise the subject of independence, far less to declare Scotland independent without further ado.
Yet on the basis of a slightly smaller percentage of UK votes, these self-same constitutional diehards believe that the Prime Minister now has the right to remove us from EU on any terms he sees fits, to remove parliament’s power to scrutinise that process, and thereafter to do exactly as he pleases with Britain’s constitution and people for the next half-decade. The double standards are both breathtaking and ridiculous; and demonstrate just how obviously unfit for purpose FPTP is, as soon as we cease to view it through a prism of blinkered Westminster convention.
It is clear, of course, that we are not currently living in a time of constitutional refinement and reform. For all the clunking and whirring this week of the mighty US system of constitutional check and balances, this remains an age of “strong man” leaders elected on tides of nationalistic feeling, and mandated – so they believe – to ride roughshod over any democratic assembly or legal nicety that gets in their way.
Yet still, there are levels of humiliation and injustice that people will only tolerate for so long. More than half of the UK – including three-quarters of Scotland – is distressed by Boris Johnson’s victory last week, and deeply unhappy about its likely consequences, for the poor and vulnerable, for our economy and society, for our relationship with Europe, and for our fundamental freedoms. And no amount of parliamentary arithmetic, upheld by an increasingly ramshackle set of constitutional arrangements, can change that fundamental fact; or remove the political pressures it is likely to create, once the first flush of electoral triumph has faded from the faces of this government, and its most enthusiastic supporters.