Constitutional reform is a process whereby the fundamental nature of the system of government is changed. The position with regard to constitutional reform in Britain at the start of the twenty-first century is certainly contradictory. On the one hand, the years after 1997 have seen the greatest constitutional changes in Britain probably since 1832. Reforms include the House of Lords, the House of Commons, human rights act and the constitutional reform act. However labour’s reforms have disappointed many inside and outside the party.
Labour’s plans to remodel the constitution were the outcome of successive election defeats. The conservatives had been in power from 1979-1997 with Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major. Previously Labour elites held a similar view to the Tories ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ This is partly due to the fear of unforeseen consequences. However after the consecutive defeats the labour ideology changed. Labour were now pro change, with views more distinguishable with the Liberal Democrats. The Conservatives have practically accepted most of Labour’s reforms, but parties like UKIP argue that the reforms have done untold damage to a system that worked perfectly well for centuries. Another example of Labour’s ulterior motive is devolution that can be viewed as an attempt by Labour to coagulate support in the Celtic fringe rather than having been driven by a deep New Labour desire to democratise.
Constitutional reform hasn’t gone far enough because the UK constitution isn’t fully codified. Codification would provide a counter-balance to the power of the executive. At present the Prime Minister wields enormous power through the royal prerogative, such as the power to declare war without the need for Parliament’s consent. Increasingly, much of what we have taken our constitution to entail, such as Cabinet government has been washed away. Increasingly Prime Ministers make decisions with special advisers and the Cabinet is kept in the dark. Greater checks and balances are therefore necessary. Related to this is the power of the Commons. They can force through anything they wish by implementing the Parliament Act, as done with hunting with hounds. Thus there is no effective legal restraint against a party with a majority in the Commons in-between elections.
However, there is no need. Britain has not undergone the kind of constitutional crises that have precipitated the drafting of written constitutions in countries like the Germany and Japan after WWII. The only shock that might act as a catalyst for a written constitution is if Scotland became independent. Furthermore the UK constitution has been modified enormously since the 1960s. Even if we consider solely the changes that have taken place since New Labour took power in 1997, it is clear that it is time to take stock and consider their impact.
After the successive defeats the 1997 Labour manifesto pledged that the House of Lords would be reformed in two stages. Stage one is to remove the hereditary peers, which has been more or less achieved through the 1999 House of Lords act. This removed all but 92 hereditary peers. Stage two was to create a ‘more democratic and representative second chamber.’ Although stage one was a step in the right direction, there are currently no plans for reform since the House of Lords reform bill 2012 was withdrawn. The most common argument against the House of Lords is that it is place in a modern democracy is indefensible. The only other country in the world where membership of the legislature is based on birthright is Lesotho. The most recent reforms cutting the number of hereditary peers did not make it that much more democratic. A quote from Tom Paine a political revolutionary argued as long ago as 1791, "The idea of hereditary legislators is as inconsistent as that of hereditary judges, as hereditary juries; and as absurd as an hereditary…