The pragmatic route to reform

Podium; From a lecture by the Lord Chancellor to the Constitution Unit, a non- aligned think-tank, in London
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NO OTHER government this century has embarked upon so significant or wide-ranging a programme of constitutional reform as the New Labour Government. It is my particular pleasure, as the member of the Cabinet entrusted with driving forward development of policy, to have been invited here to give this lecture.

We have been widely praised, but also there is an indictment. The criticisms go in inconsistent directions. At one end are those who say that our reforms are too wide-ranging, too radical, verging on the revolutionary. At the other end are those who complain that they do not represent the root-and- branch overhaul that is required to drag the country's constitutional arrangements into the 21st century.

Our critics include some who, to their credit, suffered long years of frustration arguing for some of the changes we have made. Yet now they, too, may have doubts: we have left things out or postponed them (for example freedom of information), we should have gone further and not only made the rights in the European Convention enforceable in domestic courts, but had a Human Rights Commission as well, or should have gone the whole hog and allowed the judges to set aside Acts of Parliament; or we should have waited to develop a home-grown Bill of Rights; or we should have done nothing at all until we had developed, perhaps through a Constitutional Convention, a comprehensive constitutional code. Or we should have established a new Constitutional Court.

The Government's approach is pragmatism based on principle. We believe that "what matters is what works"; we are not imposing uniformity for uniformity's sake.

It would be extraordinary if a union of such diverse parts as the United Kingdom could yield to a uniform pattern of powers, devolved from the centre. The continued harmony of a union of parts so diverse requires structures sensitive to place and people, not uniform structures imposed for uniformity's sake.

Intellectually satisfying neatness and tidiness are not the cement that makes new constitutional arrangements stick. What stick are arrangements to which people can give their continuing consent, because they satisfy their democratic desires for themselves.

Let me explain why I believe the main elements of our reform programme add up to a coherent prescription.

First, devolution. We are bringing devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The devolution schemes for all three are, of course, quite different. The UK is an asymmetrical entity, and the Government's approach reflects the different histories and contemporary circumstances of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. We are not promoting a federal style uniform devolution of powers, but differential devolution to different parts of the United Kingdom.

Second, there are our proposals for London. We will give London the voice it needs and deserves by creating a city-wide strategic authority, consisting of a powerful, directly elected mayor, and a separately elected assembly.

Third, regional government in England. The first step will be to establish regional development agencies, under the new Regional Development Agencies Act, in order to improve competitiveness and to provide for effective co-ordination of economic development. We remain committed to more accountable regional government in England. But we are not in the business of imposing solutions. We remain committed to move to directly elected regional government in England, where there is demand for it. Finding the right solutions may take time.

Fourth, reform of local government. In keeping with our beliefs, there will cease to be a uniform structure for local government across the whole of the country. It will be for the people to choose the local arrangements that they feel best suit the needs of their own local areas.

Although there will be a number of different electoral systems as a result of the changes we are making, each is apt in the circumstances. Again, our approach is pragmatic. Clearly, the most important election is that to the Westminster Parliament.

The Government welcomes the Jenkins Report, and has made clear that it wants to study it in detail. The Government believes that decisions on Jenkins will need to be looked at as part of the constitutional reform programme as a whole.

After many decades of sterility, we have embarked on a major programme of changes. Principled steps, not absolutist master plans, are the winning route to constitutional renewal, in unity and peace.