What he gives with one hand, he takes away with the other. Gordon Brown’s ideas for constitutional reform, announced yesterday, include a proposal to reduce the period during which the publication of government documents is prohibited, from thirty years to twenty years. A highly commendable measure, designed to facilitate more transparent government, you might suppose. But the Prime Minister also intends to increase the range of documents released only after the statutory period has elapsed, by removing the ‘public interest’ proviso which exists under Freedom of Information legislation. It is a typical piece of New Labour sophistry, which seeks to give the appearance of openness, rather than ensuring its actuality.
When Brown succeeded Tony Blair as premier, he made much of his reformist credentials, as regards the constitution. But far from offering a different style of government to his predecessor, the Prime Minister has contributed more of the authoritarian and centralist style which his own technocratic leanings did much to impose upon the Blair administration in the first place. It should not be forgotten that the previous resident at Number 10 was prepared to modernise, but the constant wilful impediment of Brown and his ilk prevented that modernisation taking place. Now, at the fag end of Labour government, with his personal authority thoroughly undermined, the Prime Minister has belatedly cobbled together a package of measures, few of which he is likely to have a chance to implement. It is desperate stuff shaped by the inexorable knowledge that the change which Britain most urgently desires is a change in the government itself.
Where Brown’s proposals have merit, in enabling parliament to hold government to account more effectively, for instance, or using technology to allow greater public participation in, and scrutiny of, parliamentary business, he has been pre-empted by the Conservatives more thorough suggestions. Where he offers something new, he either has no prospect of implementing change, which must be presaged by extensive consultation, or his propositions would damage the constitutional fabric of the United Kingdom.
By intimating that an electoral reform debate might touch upon some type of proportional representation, but admitting that he is committed to retaining the link between MPs and their constituencies, the Prime Minister tacitly acknowledges that any alteration is unlikely under his government. Although David Cameron has laid down extensive plans for reform he has declared his party wedded to First Past the Post. The fragmented type of coalition government which PR offers is not on any serious political agenda. It is dishonest to suggest that it is and it is irresponsible to introduce the notion as an active possibility. Any form of list system or multi-member constituency arrangement would only enervate the House of Commons and participative democracy.
Why then the contradictory message? We might be witnessing a stuttering start to an attempted game of footsie aimed at the Lib Dems, which seeks to pre-empt the remote possibility of a hung parliament. Perhaps this statement is simply Brown shyly extending a tentative toe beneath the Westminster table to worry at the hem of Nick Clegg’s trousers. However, I would suggest that this grab-bag of ideas, drawn largely from other sources, has been assembled primarily in order that the Prime Minister might pay lip service to a reform agenda, which happens to be flavour of the month.
But will the public really be convinced by such a stagnant offering? There is nothing in Brown’s address with genuine political fizz. Where is the imagination or innovation? Where is Labour’s equivalent to the Tory suggestion that Parliamentary candidates should be subject to primary elections? The abiding sense is that these proposals have been introduced simply because the Prime Minister has to be seen to be doing something about the low esteem in which parliament is currently held by the public. They are designed to divert attention from the fundamental fact that his premiership is crumbling to dust.