Saturday, May 29, 2010

As a New Government Goes to Work, the Constitution Offers Britons Few Guides

The British Parliament is set to return to work in its usual baroque manner on Tuesday, when Queen Elizabeth puts on a gown and a crown and, following long-established custom, reads the new government’s legislative program aloud in a voice bleached dry of intonation.
Prime Minister David Cameron, above left, and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg return to work with Parliament on Tuesday with little written in stone, or on parchment. 
But much of what follows is sure to be unfamiliar, as the country adjusts to a hastily assembled coalition government led by the new Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, and his new Liberal Democratic deputy, Nick Clegg.

The government has already shown that it intends to act swiftly. It has announced budget cuts of £6.2 billion; set up a brand-new department (the National Security Council) while changing the name of an old one (the Department for Children, Schools and Families is now the Department for Education); and announced plans to cancel many painstakingly wrought Labour plans, like the program to require Britons to carry government-issued ID cards.

But the new government’s unusual configuration raises virtually an infinity of tantalizing questions.

Such as: How will Messrs. Clegg and Cameron deal with internal party fractiousness? When there are serious policy disputes, will Mr. Clegg speak against his own boss in Parliament? What should the new coalition be called? (Suggestions include the Liberatives and the Con-Dems, though most people have gone with “the coalition.”)

And: Why is everyone asking what all this means for the British constitution, when there isn’t one, as such?

“The British political system is without a written constitution, and there are no rules for handling these events, in the sense that there is no precise right or wrong,” said Tony Travers, the director of the Greater London Group at the London School of Economics.

It is hard to grapple with the notion of a chimerical constitution. Jon Stewart recently mocked the British system on “The Daily Show,” saying that the country appeared to have settled for rule by “gentlemen’s agreement” because it believes written constitutions are vulgar. “Your country’s been around, what, a couple thousand years and you never got around to writing down your constitution?” Mr. Stewart said. The video clip has been circulated to wide hilarity here, where many people don’t understand the no-constitution constitution, either.

The answer to his question is not that simple.

First, said Peter Facey, the director of Unlock Democracy, a group that campaigns for electoral reform, the constitution is not, in fact, nonexistent. It is a mélange of statutes, precedent and historical documents, like Magna Carta.

Not that that makes it easier to understand. “It’s like a wet bar of soap,” Mr. Facey said. “You try and catch it and it slips out of your hands.” People in his field like to joke that “if you got rid of three or four elderly commentators on our constitution, there would be no one around to tell us what it is.”

But because nothing is codified, the government has enormous amount of power with little check on its policies — provided it has a parliamentary majority, which governments by definition do.

“Once you try and write things down, politicians say, ‘We can’t have that, it will constrain us,’ ” Mr. Travers said.

Meanwhile, except in cases of human rights law, the British courts have little authority to pass judgment on parliamentary legislation.

An example of government power, Mr. Facey said, was when Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government “abolished two whole levels of local government” — in Manchester and London — because it disagreed with their left-wing politics.

Instead of the plan’s going through a long process of checks and balances and potential legal challenges, it became law through a simple up-and-down vote.

“It’s as if you could abolish Texas because it’s annoying to the president,” Mr. Facey said. (And reinstate it, too: the next Labour government promptly resurrected the local government in London).

Commanding an enormous majority in his early days as prime minister, Tony Blair muscled a number of so-called constitutional changes through Parliament. These included giving more power to Scotland and Wales, incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights into British law and ejecting most hereditary peers from the House of Lords.

One document that does exist is Magna Carta.

The new coalition government is proposing a radical constitutional change of its own. Its plan would remove the prime minister’s right to decide when to call the next election, in return for fixed parliamentary terms of five years. While it would take power from the government, it would, paradoxically, help ensure its longevity.

Under the plan, the government itself could fall on a majority vote of no confidence, but Parliament as a whole could be dissolved — a process that would force a new election — only if 55 percent of legislators were in favor.

Mr. Facey supports fixed-term Parliaments, though he takes issue with some details and deplores how easy the unwritten constitution makes it for governments to effect such monumental changes. “You shouldn’t make up constitutional law in the same way you regulate a packet of crisps” or potato chips, he said.

But Thomas Poole, who teaches public law and constitutional theory at the London School of Economics, said that in some ways, there was a “hidden sturdiness” to the constitutional system.

“There’s nothing propping it up other than what the actors believe should happen,” he said, speaking of the country’s political leaders. “But if they started doing something radically different, all the other actors and commentators and press would be all over them.”

He quoted John Griffith, a scholar who described the British constitution as constantly in flux and “no more and no less than what happens.”

“Everything that happens is constitutional,” wrote Mr. Griffith, who died this month. “And if nothing happens, that would be constitutional also.”
See Also :

No comments:

Post a Comment