Any scientist or scholar, especially one attempting to decipher the forces at work in contemporary politics, will be familiar with the strange moments when a dubious, even mistaken line of thought leads to an original and, in an important way, true conclusion. It seems to me that this is what has happened with Peter Mair’s examination of Britain’s New Labour government. I am confident that his analysis of what its leadership intends is flawed. He quotes the unelected, and unelectable, Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine (in a footnote but without irony) stating, ‘We have set out to be a Government which returns power to the people’. He cites Blair’s overblown Party Conference peroration in September 1999 that the ‘cause’ is to ‘set our people free’. To take such statements seriously is to mistake rhetoric for purpose. As Ralph Dahrendorf has pointed out, the Prime Minister never spontaneously talks about liberty.footnote1 In this case he clearly told his speech writers to steal a Tory slogan. Mair is absolutely right to take the New Labour leaders seriously. But there is a difference between taking them seriously and taking them literally.
When they speak, often the most interesting things to note are the differences between them, which reveal something of the stresses the Government now feels. In the passage quoted, Blair refers to ‘our people’, using the possessive—hardly the instinctive language of someone dedicated to ‘returning’ power to them. The other half of the Irvine sentence is: ‘the people from whom power ultimately derives’. As a lawyer he must be well aware that this ‘Scottish’ view of sovereignty is not constitutional orthodoxy in England. It is possible that Irvine, as a follower of John Smith, briefly the Labour leader prior to Blair, would like to see a re-definition of British sovereignty. If so, it is one which the Prime Minister appears to have rejected and has certainly actively refused to endorse.
The Prime Minister is not, as Mair claims in his conclusion, ‘currently engaged in what amounts to a full-blooded constitutional revolution’. The point of contention between us is the term ‘full-blooded’. This implies a coherent purpose, a constructive aim, and a conscious desire to draw a line under the past. That a constitutional revolution has indeed begun in a destructive sense is clearly the case. It is the most important point. However, the ‘revolution’ will be much more far-reaching than most of the Labour Cabinet, including the Prime Minister if not Irvine himself, understand. They have triggered the endgame for a regime that dates back to 1688. Whether this ending will take five or fifty years is not yet clear. Without doubt it will be seen to have begun with the astonishing twenty constitutional bills passed in its first three sessions by Blair’s administration.
The revolution is not full-blooded because New Labour does not want it to be. It would be hard to find a more authoritative yet anaemic description of its character than the declaration of the Government’s leader in the House of Lords, Baroness Jay, endorsing the Wakeham Commission’s proposed plans for the reform of the second chamber. ‘We think that one of the strengths of the report is that it is evolutionary. As such, it is firmly within our tradition of constitutional and parliamentary change. When we look at our history, it is rare to say that a Rubicon was crossed in that process—a Rubicon that changed everything overnight.’footnote2 Jay’s pronouncement echoed the line of the Commission itself. The way Britain updates itself, in their view, remains the same.
Some of her colleagues may enjoy a better supply of red corpuscles. At the end of the same debate, summing up for the Government, the Attorney-General, Lord Williams, presented a lamentable defence of the official position on Lords reform, as he was obliged to do. Then he suddenly dropped his guard. Earlier in the debate the Tory academic Philip Norton had congratulated ‘the noble Baroness’ on her defence of an ‘evolutionary approach’ and added that as a Conservative it made him ‘happy’. But he questioned whether she was right to imply that this was indeed a description of her Government’s overall approach to constitutional change.
It has been difficult to engage in debate with the Government because . . . Ministers regularly avoid answering my questions on what intellectually coherent approach to constitutional change they favoured. The noble Baroness spoke of an evolutionary approach . . . but the Government’s approach to other constitutional changes is not evolutionary. The Government have treated changes in a discrete manner, each unrelated to the other changes that they have introduced. That is a stance which is intellectually unacceptable and constitutionally dangerous.
Given that, I invite . . . the Attorney-General, in his reply, to explain how the Government’s broad acceptance of the report of the Royal Commission fits in with their conception of constitutional change . . . I invite him to address the wider picture and tell us not only what the Government will do but also where they believe they are going.footnote3
One would have expected a bluff response of the kind Irvine himself goes in for, that the Government fully understands the different modernizations it is undertaking and there is no question of incoherence or incompatibility between them. But instead of reiterating Jay’s evolutionary perspective, Williams replied: