From The Times
June 1, 2009

We need a new constitution for Britain — and the debate has begun

Vernon Bogdanor

For the first time since the suffragettes, constitutional reform has become a popular issue. The crisis over MPs’ expenses has convinced many that Parliament has become insulated from the people. MPs must become accountable between general elections, not just once every five years.

MPs have also lost authority. If, far from being better, many are worse than the rest of us, their right to monopolise legislative power comes into question. Many people believe that they are at least as well qualified to take decisions as their MPs. That means more direct democracy — primaries, recall of MPs and referendums.

Gordon Brown has long been a constitutional reformer. He supported devolution long before it was fashionable and, in 1980, co-authored a book on the subject. He appreciated that reform must mean more than a shifting of the institutional furniture.

Yesterday he suggested that the agenda of constitutional reform should embrace reform of the electoral system, reform of the Lords, a Bill of Rights, votes at 16 and a written constitution. That is a huge package, requiring many Acts of Parliament. A government in the last year of its term is not in a good position to initiate radical change.

Most constitutional reforms have been implemented by governments with a mandate from the people: the Great Reform Act of 1832 and the 1911 Parliament Act, restricting the power of the House of Lords, followed general elections held amid popular enthusiasm. Votes for women came in 1918 as a result of the consensus created by war.

The next election is likely to be fought on economic issues, not the constitution. Even a government with a secure majority might lack the authority to alter the constitution. A mandate probably requires a referendum. Labour has promised that it will not change the electoral system without one.

Important constitutional reform should not be a knee-jerk reaction to crisis, but the result of popular reflection. To be effective, it needs to be a product of popular wishes, not something implemented from on high. All that a government can do is to initiate a debate. How should that debate be conducted? Sir Menzies Campbell, when Liberal Democrat leader, argued for a directly elected constitutional convention, half of whose members would be chosen by lot.

Perhaps guidance to a convention could be provided by an advisory Royal Commission, taking evidence throughout the country.

What is clear is that we must refashion our democracy to meet the needs of an age in which participation has to reach beyond party.

Vernon Bogdanor is Professor of Government at the University of Oxford. His book The New British Constitution is published this week by Hart. ... 402216.ece