When Gordon Brown called off an early election he claimed he wanted more time to outline and implement his vision for the country's future. In his speech yesterday on the theme of liberty, Mr Brown gave grounds for optimism about the route he intends to take. But he could have been much more ambitious about the pace of travel and in describing the final destination.
The Prime Minister was impressive in his attempts to place his interpretation of liberty in an historic context. Not even his severest critics can accuse him of tackling the issue in a superficial manner. Everyone from Milton and Locke to Orwell and Churchill was cited as evidence of a distinctly tolerant and pluralist approach towards liberty in this country. Mr Brown was particularly effective in demolishing the simplistic notion that laissez-faire libertarianism and what he called the "leave me alone state" was the same as genuine liberty.
For political leaders, outlining a context can be easier than making specific proposals. After the historic sweep, the precise policies in Mr Brown's speech were anti-climactic. There was a welcome buttressing of the Freedom of Information Act and some important safeguards in relation to controversial security measures. Proposals to ease the restrictions on the right to protest near Parliament and a role for MPs in the appointment of senior judges are welcome, as was his rejection of the Conservatives' demands to repeal the Human Rights' Act. Potentially, the Prime Minister moves in an historic direction, holding out the prospect of a written constitution. But he moves cautiously and therefore constitutional reformers must watch events with their fingers crossed rather than cheering with unequivocal fervour. So far, Mr Brown has made no announcement that would curtail prime ministerial powers in any significant way. Even the pledge to hold a vote in the Commons before military action is more of a symbolic constraint that a practical one. After the Iraq catastrophe, no Prime Minister could realistically go to war without majority support among MPs.
Still, symbolism matters in politics and Mr Brown deserves credit for formally enhancing the role of Parliament. The bigger causes for concern relate to the challenging reforms that Mr Brown approaches more gingerly. Still we await a decisive move to reform the House of Lords. Once more, the precise future of the upper chamber is being kicked into the long grass, a matter to be addressed in the next parliament rather than this one. The House of Lords always seems to be a matter for a future parliament. Yet it would be absurdly anachronistic for a modern constitution to tolerate a second legislative chamber that is not wholly elected. Likewise, there is also a need for electoral reform for the House of Commons. During his campaign for the leadership, Mr Brown hinted that he would consider a change in the voting system, but less has been heard about that since. More specifically in relation to the precise theme of his speech yesterday, Mr Brown supports the introduction of ID Cards, a costly and grossly illiberal innovation. Again yesterday Mr Brown announced safeguards. The biggest safeguard of all would be to scrap the scheme.
Mr Brown recognises that, when he made the Bank of England independent, he secured the voters' trust to run the economy. Now he seeks to renew political trust by acting in a similar fashion with constitutional reforms. So far, though, this is work in progress compared with the big bang announcement on the Bank of England. The welcome changes announced must be the beginning of a constitutional revolution rather than the end.Reuse content