When a close ally of Gordon Brown suggests a grand project for renewing British democracy, it is safe to assume that he does so with the authority of the Chancellor. The suggestion of Michael Wills MP in a think-tank pamphlet that a "constitutional convention" of non-politicians should be established at the time of the next general election almost certainly reflects the Chancellor's own thinking on what might follow his inevitable succession from Tony Blair.
The vision outlined by Mr Wills is extensive. He argues that he would like the convention to come to recommendations on fundamental questions such as reform of the House of Lords, the division between central and local government, the limits of executive powers and further UK devolution. There is very little that Mr Wills, and by extension Mr Brown, is not willing to throw open to public consultation and debate. Even the question of whether Britain should, at last, devise a written constitution would be under discussion.
The narrow political motivations for this move are not hard to discern. The Chancellor is trying to create some political space for himself, while still remaining loyal to the Government's present agenda. He is also attempting to signal that there would be a clear break with what has gone before under his leadership.
But that element of political calculation does not make any of these ideas any less worthwhile. Mr Wills argues that such an extensive public consultation process is necessary for "restoring trust in the political class". He is quite right that trust has been gravely damaged by this present government's record in office, in particular the way we were taken to war in Iraq. And while this convention alone would not be a solution, the suggestion at least indicates an acknowledgement of the problem. And no doubt such a convention would indeed prompt a healthy debate about how we expect our political life to function.
The idea of a convention also indicates an imaginative approach to one of the traditional difficulties of British politics: namely, pushing constitutional reform on to the statute book. As we have seen time and again when the subject of reforming our hopelessly unfair voting system arises, our legislators have a dispiriting instinct to shy away from voting for measures that may have an adverse effect on their careers. Yet Parliament would find it very difficult to ignore considered recommendations from a collection of non-politicians. The mandate for change would be strong.
At the moment, we remain mired in the final stages of the Blair era, but Mr Wills' ideas provide an intriguing hint of what a future Brown government might taste like.Reuse content