Written British constitution is on Brown's agenda

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Indy Politics

Gordon Brown may introduce a modern written constitution after succeeding Tony Blair in an attempt to rebuild voters' trust in politics.

The Chancellor is drawing up a series of reforms to limit the power of the Government and may decide to bring them together in a new constitutional settlement for the country. Allies believe it could set out the respective roles of Parliament, the judiciary and the Government, as well as setting out basic rights, responsibilities and opportunities for all citizens. It could also resolve potential conflicts between the Human Rights Act and Britain's ability to introduce its own anti-terrorist, asylum and immigration laws.

Mr Brown believes the lack of trust in politics has been caused partly by the ability of any government to ignore the many elements of Britain's unwritten constitution. His supporters cite the way Mr Blair took the nation to war in Iraq.

Although Mr Brown would continue to position Labour on the political centre ground and resist calls for a shift to the left, the issue of how he would govern differently from Mr Blair is one of the most critical questions in politics.

Mr Brown thinks his reforms could help Labour to see off the threat posed by a revived Conservative Party under David Cameron. The Tory strategy is to portray the Chancellor as the "roadblock" to the public service changes sought by Mr Blair before he stands down ahead of the next general election. The charge is bitterly resented by Mr Brown, who points to his landmark decision to hand control of interest rates to the Bank of England when Labour won power in 1997.

"Gordon would do lots of reforms - different reforms," said one minister close to him. "In some cases, he would go further than Tony. But the idea that he is anti-reform is nonsense."

Another ally of the Chancellor said: "The need to restore trust in politics is high on his agenda. He might do something big to symbolise a fresh start. He hasn't decided what it would be, but it could involve codifying the main elements of a constitution."

It is difficult for Mr Brown to map out his ideas while he is still Chancellor, since that might be interpreted as criticism of Mr Blair. However, there are some revealing clues in his speeches and interviews.

He said in a lecture last month: "In each generation, we have found it necessary to renew the settlement between individual, community and state and I cannot see how the long-term credibility of our institutions or our policies can be secured unless our constitutional, social and economic reforms are explicitly founded on these British ideas of liberty."

In 2004, Mr Brown told Compass, a democratic left group: "We have not done enough to respond to the yearning in 1997 not just for different government but for a different way of governing, not just for different policies but for a different politics."

The Chancellor has admitted he will not achieve his goal of building a "progressive consensus" in Britain "unless we address the disaffection from our current political system".



Mr Brown says that Parliament, not the Prime Minister, should make the final decision on whether to take the country to war, in effect giving MPs a veto. Although Mr Blair offered a vote before the Iraq conflict, he does not want to guarantee that by law, saying there could be circumstances when a Prime Minister needed to act quickly.


Although efficiency reforms would continue, Mr Brown would put less emphasis than Mr Blair on market forces and consumer choice. The Chancellor says Labour must "balance choice and equity," adding: "There is such a thing as the ethic of service, which is more than contracts, markets and exchange and is about compassion, duty and respect."


Mr Brown says: "If we are serious about a new kind of politics we must be serious about addressing the undemocratic nature of some of our institutions - and we must return to the

issue of reform of the House of Lords." His allies believe that the Chancellor would propose a largely elected second chamber.


Mr Brown has been less keen on changing the voting system for Westminster elections than Mr Blair, who flirted with but then dropped the idea. However, Mr Brown might consider limited reform short of full-scale proportional representation such as the alternative vote - especially if he needed the support of the Liberal Democrats in a hung parliament.


Mr Brown, whose critics brand him a "control freak," might try to dispel that notion by devolving some powers from central to local government. He says: "The new progressive politics cannot be a reality unless we make local accountability work through re-invigorating the democratically elected mechanisms of local areas - local government."


Mr Blair has rejected demands for an independent watchdog to police the ministerial code of conduct. Mr Brown could bring one in, ending the system under which the Prime Minister is "judge and jury" on whether ministers have broken the rules. He could also force former ministers to obtain approval before taking outside jobs within two years of leaving office.


Mr Blair has also stalled a Civil Service Act to safeguard the independence of Whitehall and set out the respective roles of political advisers and neutral officials. The Commons Public Administration Committee has drafted one and Sir Gus O'Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary and formerly the Treasury's top official, is keen on measures to improve trust in the system.


There is speculation that Mr Brown is less keen than Mr Blair on a national identity card and that he is worried about the eventual cost. With the legislation still before Parliament, he cannot air any doubts in public and must support the Government line. But on becoming prime minister, he might decide not to implement the scheme.