Wednesday, July 04, 2007


Brown's Governmental Reforms Admirable but are they Sufficient?

I recall Tony Benn for years banging on about the prime minister being in effect a 'medieval monarch' living in Number 10. As so often I assumed he had been exaggerating, as passionate campaigners often do, but Gordon Brown's proposed government changes remind us how accurate Benn's critique was. The irony is, of course, that the person who seeks to dismantle this accumulation of power is probably the best known practitioner of government centralisation since the last war.

The story of our democracy is one of parliament gradually eroding the power of the king until, after a decisive civil war, the power of the monarchy was broken. Instead an office emerged, in the century following the civil conflict, of the most powerful of the king's ministers- the 'prime minister'- who assumed, amongst many other powers, the 'kings prerogative': those powers for which no parliamentary approval was required In other words the PM became a kind of secular monarch. Now these royal powers are to be renounced and handed to parliament- as The Guardian reports:

'The powers in question are to:
· Declare war.
· Request dissolution of parliament.
· Recall parliament.
· Ratify treaties without decision by parliament.
· Make top public appointments without scrutiny.
· Restrict parliamentary oversight of intelligence services.
· Choose bishops.
· Help appoint judges.
· Direct prosecutors in particular criminal cases.
· Set rules governing the civil service.
· Set rules for entitlements to passports and pardons'.

The Ministry of Justice green paper says the "executive should draw its powers from the people through parliament". Many of the powers, the paper says, "derive from arrangements which preceded the 1689 Declaration of Rights".

But this is only a small part of the change proposed; measures are envisaged on the attorney general, civil service independence, statistics and the ministerial code of conduct. All of these proposals seem sensible and likely to command a measure of bipartisan support, something which Brown, in his first, comfortably handled PMQs today is clearly keen to maximise.

Omissions include anything on the monarchy or the electoral system both of which seem increasingly anomalous in present day conditions. The whole package is designed to counter the collapse in trust and the consequent political apathy which has caused so much concern amongst those of us who care about the health of our democracy. Will it do so? I doubt it very much as a positive renaissance of attitude is required to engage voters genuinely with their government. But, like Brown's first few days in his new job, this is a very good start.

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