Britain has no codified constitution, our politics and government are fluid and ever changing. This can be beneficial as it allows the government to push through substantial constitutional reforms – such as the ongoing reforms in the House of Lords, the creation of the devolved governments in Scotland and Wales and proposed ideas for voting reform. Such flexibility marks us out against the rigid and sometimes very slow to change American system.
On the other hand, the lack of a strict constitution has made is possible for power to become increasingly centralised and for this power to be held firmly by the executive without proper oversight from the legislative body. Prime Minister’s sometimes overstep their traditional role as ‘primus inter pares’ within the Cabinet to become the dominant player and chief decision maker in government. The most recent example of this would be in the Premiership of Tony Blair who was Prime Minister from 1997 to 2007. While his government was responsible for the realisation of previous Labour promises of a Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly and for serious talks into regional assemblies throughout England, his time as Prime Minister will known for, as former member of the Cabinet Clare Short said, “the centralisation of power into the hands of an increasingly small number of advisors.”
Blair was not the first Prime Minister to act in a Presidential manner, nor will he be the last without serious reform. Margaret Thatcher controlled her Cabinet through her charisma and sheer force of will but she was not the pioneer of this Presidential style of governance. William Gladstone’s time in office proved to be the genesis of the British Presidency, with David Lloyd-George, Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill following his footsteps and cementing the trend. These men set the stage for Britain’s ‘Iron Lady’ and the quango dominated ‘sofa government’ of [call me Tony] Blair.
It is not just a lax constitution that has given strength to this shift in power, it is the natural weakening of the two other restraining forces within the British government. The House of Lords, once powerful in maintaining some control over the executive within the House of Commons, has had its power eroded through reforms and questions over its undemocratic nature. Until the time that is has such a mandate, it is unlikely that the Lords will be an effective restraint on Ministerial power. The second restraining force in the reigning monarch who in previous ages had some degree of influence over the government but successive generations have put blocks on the power the monarch can wield. With the Lords and Queen effectively neutered from checking Ministerial power, and with an overgrown executive that no is longer answerable to the House of Commons, we will continue to see more emphasis on the Prime Minister and more power being held by the British President.
What, if anything, can be done to turn the tide? How are we to enshrine and fix our constitutional checks and balances without losing the efficient nature – to borrow a phrase from William Bagehot - of our Cabinet government?
First we need to strengthen the powers of the House of Commons, give them control over the timetable and allow greater freedom to debate important issues. We also need to reduce the size and power of the executive, reducing the amount of favours the Prime Minister can bestow and the amount of Ministers he can promote. Committee members could be chosen by the Opposition rather than the ruling party in order to really scrutinise government actions. At the same time we need to think seriously about House of Lords reform, encouraging a public debate on it as well as looking abroad for inspiration on how a re-modelled Lords would function. Finally it is also important that we take a long hard look at the monarchy, what it stands for and what its role is in our constitution and then ensure that these become part of law, rather than precedent.