I'm reading 'The British Constitution' by Martin Loughlin which is one of the books from the ' A Very Short Introduction' series.
In the introduction I was struck by the fact that constitutional reform has been on the agenda for many years but apart from some tinkering at the edges nothing significant has changed.
Indeed Lord Halisham's celebrated 1976 Dimbleby Lecture was on Elective Dictatorship. In it he noted the paradox that government had never before possessed so much power and commanded so little respect, he noted that there was scarcely an institution of government nowadays that does not come in for serious criticism - that was then so what about now!
Hailsham believed this was because these institutions were no longer performing their constitutional role of providing an implicit balancing mechanism. The monarchy had been reduced to an entirely ceremonial function, the H of Ls no longer acted as a restraining influence, and political conduct in general seemed to be dictate by party political interests rather than any sense of appropriate behaviour on the part of officeholder - Amen to that last point!
He went on that customary constitutional restraints were no longer working, leading to a loss of trust. More broadly, the traditions of civility from which these constitutional values grew were losing authority. The only solution, as Hailsham concluded, was to devise an entirely new constitution. Like all new constitutions, this would be written down and defined in law.
And all this delivered by a man that was as far removed from being a radical as one might find and as I've already said above 'that was then so what about now!'
What then happened was that with Thatcher gaining power, in 1979, the Conservatives lost interest in constitutional reform as they tackled the many other issues they faced. However the SDP did pick up the baton of constitutional reform which was then developed by 'New' Labour with their introduction of devolved governments, H of Ls reform and the introduction of the Human Rights Act and Freedom of Information. Loughlin points out that New Labour promoted a more radical set of constitutional reforms than any other government since the First WW.
Even Cameron's coalition government offered constitutional reform by holding the referendum on our voting system, which was, as far as I'm concerned, fortunately rejected.
Loughlin concludes his introduction by pointing out these reforms were all rather makeshift but by tinkering with the rules they helped present our politicians as 'modern'. Yet incremental modernisation has merely blurred the issue. We have in some haphazard way codified many of the rules and in that sense are closer than ever to having a written constitution, but at the same time we no longer have a clear sense of the values of the public realm that this rule-system is supposed to protect and address.
When I have finished the book I will write another post commenting further and on any conclusions Martin Loughlin comes to. However, for my money the time has never been so ripe for the introduction of our six demands and in particular our sixth demand for a codified constitution, which is needed, to ensure our politicians are left in no doubt that they are our servants and not our masters.