Matthew Norman: A written constitution is the answer

Jacqui Smith is Brown’s lightning rod when it’s the PM we should be frazzling

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Someone's going to have their collar felt over this one. For leaking its content in advance of the Queen's Speech, someone will be bidding farewell to their Apple Mac and having their shoelaces confiscated preparatorily to helping police with their enquiries into this latest monumental threat to national security.

My money's on Jacqui Smith. Obviously she'll have played no part in conceiving new crime bills, because when in possession of her laces our Home Secretary couldn't decide which to tie first without Downing Street clearance. Nonetheless, courtesy dictates that she be given the line to take by a No 10 intern, so the finger of suspicion points her way. And while she's sat nervously in the cell, she might work on an exit strategy.

So far, things haven't gone well for her on the Damian Green front, and even if accepted, her denials of foreknowledge about the arrest are irrelevant. A few weeks ago, she proposed that men who pay "trafficked" prostitutes for sex be criminalised whether aware of it or not. If ignorance is no defence in law for them, it would be unthinkable hypocrisy for the woman who, much like Judge Dredd, is "the law" to claim it for herself.

No, for succour she must look to the segment of Her Maj's speech about welfare cheats. If the lie detector is the right weapon against people suspected of lying to avoid getting a job, on what grounds can it be the wrong one to deal with someone suspected of lying to keep her job? All Jacqui need do is attend the Dispatch Box or the Newsnight studio strapped to a polygraph, and answer a few questions, and we needn't hear another word about it.

While we count the moments until she re-enacts that scene from Basic Instinct, albeit, please God, wearing knickers, I must confess that the previous paragraphs, the credulous fools, have fallen into a classic Labour trap. Just as Tony Blair had Messrs Campbell and Mandelson, so Jacqui Smith plays the part of Gordon Brown's lightning rod when it's the PM we should be frazzling.

It is nearly the third anniversary of an article in The Independent worth revisiting today. "Gordon Brown may introduce a modern written constitution after succeeding Tony Blair in an attempt to rebuild voters' trust in politics," wrote our political editor, Andrew Grice, in January 2006. "The Chancellor is drawing up a series of reforms to limit the power of the Government ... 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."

Bless him for that, and for reiterating this ambition shortly before moving next door. "Gordon Brown will try to restore public trust in British politics by proposing an all-party convention that could pave the way for a written constitution," began another report in May 2007, quoting his honeyed words as follows: "I want to build a shared national consensus for a program of constitutional reform that strengthens the accountability of all who hold power ..."

I want never gets, so nanny used to say, and, as ever, the old trout was bang on the money. But then, sidelined in a post as devoid of autocratic power as that of British Prime Minister, what could Gordon have done to realise this noble dream? Apart from calling a press conference on succeeding Mr Tony, and saying: "I am going to introduce a written constitution"?

He didn't do that then, but still could. We know he's jolly busy saving the global economy, but as Barack Obama said when John McCain suspended his campaign to pretend to address the banking crisis, a leader should be able to do two things at once.

A written constitution for this disgracefully malgoverned country is essential. The lack of one weakens and poisons every aspect of government, and specifically enables such idiocies as Mr Green's arrest. Any student of the documentary series Yes, Minister will presume that Ms Smith's permanent secretary, whose first duty is to the sovereign cause of ministerial deniability, let the police know that the last thing they should do was inform the minister in nominal charge of the police. Under a written constitution, procedure for cases involving the sovereignty of parliament and the right to leak in the perceived national interest would be ... agh, my memory. What is that technical term? Oh yes. Written.

The lovingly nurtured ambiguity that forms the foam padding of sofa government would end, replaced by mechanics allowing us to determine who is responsible for what, whether it's using a politicised police force to intimidate political rivals or deciding to invade countries without the wherewithal to manufacture a stink bomb. When the Americans do something crazy or wicked, or both, their veneration for the document that begins "We The People" and all it represents obliges them to probe those responsible to perdition with congressional enquiries. Here the public inquiry, deemed suitable for a case as trivial as Mr Green's but not for the policing and intelligence failures that permitted the bombings of 7 July 2005, remains the reflex response of those keen to avoid scrutiny, or delay what loosely passes for it until the public can barely remember the incident concerned. Where the US has its constitutional First Amendment to guarantee freedom of speech, we have the Official Secrets Act and its nebulous, catch-all cousin "the interests of national security" to stifle it.

The absurdity here is that this could be Gordon's legacy. Highly unlikely to win a general election, he has 18 months to leave behind something more lustrous than the financial calamity he did so much to inflate by which to remember him. A written constitution stuffed with checks and balances to prevent criminal military adventurism and oppressive misapplication of law, and focused on defining and separating powers, would be the greatest legacy he could conceivably bequeath. Children would be taught it for centuries, and his name would echo louder and longer through history than Tony Blair's.

On the other hand, he could hunker in the bunker, watching his time in office dribbling away, greedily clinging to the Byzantine culture of secrecy that gifts dictatorial powers to British PMs, and immunises them from fear of exposure and censure. I think I know what he truly believed about a written constitution three years ago, and still does, without recourse to a polygraph. I think we all do. But wouldn't it be a thing of unsurpassed beauty if just for once the gruesome old poseur amazed us?

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