Mr Blair cannot keep changing the constitution without some explanation

The political map is being redrawn, but what is lacking is any sense of overall vision behind these changes
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The Independent Online

At a recent meeting of Labour MPs, Tony Blair took his audience by surprise. Mr Blair declared that constitutional reform would be the great historic legacy of his government. Some of those in the room could hardly believe what they were hearing. Mr Blair had never shown much interest in this area. He had managed the reforms without much enthusiasm. They had happened almost in spite of the Prime Minister. Now in a comment, uttered apparently as a casual aside, he was suggesting that the constitution is what he would be remembered for.

At a recent meeting of Labour MPs, Tony Blair took his audience by surprise. Mr Blair declared that constitutional reform would be the great historic legacy of his government. Some of those in the room could hardly believe what they were hearing. Mr Blair had never shown much interest in this area. He had managed the reforms without much enthusiasm. They had happened almost in spite of the Prime Minister. Now in a comment, uttered apparently as a casual aside, he was suggesting that the constitution is what he would be remembered for.

Such is the Government's confused approach to constitutional reform that Mr Blair's bold declaration and those who listened to him in disbelief were both correct.

As Mr Blair suggested, his constitutional reforms have been sweeping and historic. Oddly, in his first term he tended to apply the term "revolution" to just about every policy initiative, except those relating to the constitution. Within months of the 1997 election Mr Blair was hailing a welfare revolution, a health revolution and a transport revolution. It was almost impossible to move without another revolution erupting. Those early overblown claims are a factor now in the voters' scepticism about the recent genuine and significant improvements in some public services - the division between personal optimism and national pessimism that I wrote about last week.

Yet from the beginning Mr Blair was leading a real constitutional revolution, even if he did not realise it at the time. Since 1997 there has been a Scottish Parliament, a Welsh Assembly, a London Mayor, a few mayors elsewhere, and the abolition of most hereditary peers. There is possibly more to come, with additional reforms applied to the Lords, the implementation at some point of the judicial changes that were defeated in the Lords on Monday, and the likely introduction of some regional assemblies. And there is possibly even more than that. This summer, the Leader of the House, Peter Hain, plans to revive the idea of electoral reform for the Commons.

Apart from being historic these reforms have something else in common. All of them have been introduced with an unusual combination of extreme caution and a broader recklessness.

Each individual change has been implemented with an agonised timidity. The London Mayor was given virtually no power. In all parts of the country mayors were only introduced following local referendums. Similarly regional assemblies will only get the go ahead after tortuous referendums. The powers of the Welsh Assembly are so puny that there are proposals being considered to increase them. One of the more substantial criticisms of the plans for an independent commission to appoint senior judges is that the powers of the new body will not be strong enough. In all cases Mr Blair has been extremely tentative in his willingness to let go of the strings.

Yet the overall impact of these changes is to alter radically the political map of Britain. This country is now ruled by a range of institutions that did not exist before 1997. What is more, the direction of power continues to move slowly away from the centre. As well as the moves to increase powers in Wales, there is talk about the London Mayor getting more responsibilities. The proposed judicial reforms will take away ministerial powers of patronage.

This is welcome: The political map is redrawn and once the new institutions have settled down they are given more powers. But what is lacking is any sense of overall vision behind these changes. At Labour conferences these historic reforms are often listed along with unrelated policies, such as the introduction of the minimum wage, as "achievements", but without an explanation of guiding principles. Mr Blair has made many passionate speeches. Constitutional reform has not been the subject of any of them.

The lack of context is the main reason why opposition to his plans for a Supreme Court made such undeserved headway. At least I assume that is the reason for the defeat of the proposals in the Lords. It was the only substantial argument advanced by opponents of the proposals in the debate earlier this week.

I listened to the debate waiting to be enlightened by some of the greatest legal minds of our age. To my surprise, the speeches against the Government's proposals were of a dismally low quality, unusual for the Lords. The only criticism of substance came from the other side of the argument. Why was the independent commission not being given more power? What would be the precise criteria for deciding the merit of judicial appointments? On the back of this, the Government was defeated. The disparate and unconvincing rebels got away with it partly because the Government gives the impression that it is not entirely sure why it is introducing changes of any kind to the constitution.

I became more aware of the eccentric incoherence of the Government's programme during a lunch the other day with a senior diplomat from a European country with a more robust pluralist tradition (which could mean more or less any country in Europe). He was explaining to me how councils in his country were directly responsible for many local services and therefore demanded a substantial amount in taxation. Council leaders had to justify the precise amount during election campaigns.

The diplomat paused and asked, "Can you explain to me the British government's plans for regional assemblies? As far as I understand it, there will be one in Newcastle. So why will there not be one in Cornwall?" I could not really start to explain why the Government was too scared to impose assemblies across the country. I am only grateful he did not ask me why Hartlepool had a monkey as elected mayor and most towns had no mayor at all.

Mr Blair was right to propose the idea of high-profile mayors, although he now regards it as one of his errors. His error was to allow the process to be decided by referendums. He should have legislated first and then allowed the local electorates to decide whom they wanted to elect as their mayors. If he had done so I suspect that mayors would be popular and more credible institutions by now.

I did not even start to explain to my baffled diplomat how it was that this weekend at Labour's spring conference, John Prescott will be stressing that he plans to cap the budgets of some councils. Mr Prescott, the most consistent advocate for regional assemblies, also knows it is central government that runs and finances local authorities. Therefore he is getting the blame for high council tax bills. He will continue to get the blame until he gives power away to those at a local level, a risky business but one that would be more consistent with the thrust of the constitutional reform programme.

If, that is, the constitutional programme has a thrust at all. This is the challenge for Mr Blair. He needs to borrow a phrase from the Chancellor and lead his constitutional revolution for a purpose. The reforms must all hang together or they will fall apart. At the moment, his government's historic legacy is in danger of falling apart.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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