Buried in the Education section of Tuesday’s Guardian is an interview with Vernon Bogdanor, Professor of Government at Oxford. Bogdanor is one of the most established authorities on the constitution and some of his observations are useful when considering the impact of constitutional reforms undertaken by Labour post 1997.
On the Human Rights Act for instance, Bogdanor says:
‘The problem with the original act is that it seems to be concerned only with unpopular minorities, such as suspected terrorists or asylum seekers. The average person doesn’t feel as though he or she owns it.’
Then on the nature of executive power in relation to the rest of the political system, Bogdanor surprisingly observes that the government probably has less freedom than is thought to be the case:
‘Issues like the Iraq war, foundation hospitals and top-up fees have provoked the largest parliamentary revolts since the abolition of the corn laws in 1846,” he maintains. “And the government had to withdraw its proposals to hold suspected terrorists for 42 days without trial. Little of this would have happened in the 1950s, when MPs were either knights of the shires or retired trade union officials.”
In addition, he claims, this government is much more under constitutional control than its predecessors. That is partly because of external factors, notably European laws, and partly because of the consequences of its own legislation, he argues.
Apart from the Human Rights Act, Bogdanor cites devolution and the removal of hereditary peers from the House of Lords. One means that the Westminster government has no control over major policy issues, such as health and education, in Scotland and Wales; the other has resulted in a permanently “hung” upper chamber with no party having an absolute majority.
“To get its legislation through, the government now has to win the support of cross-benchers and Liberal Democrats,” Bogdanor points out. Many peers are now former politicians with the sort of influence that makes them a target for unscrupulous pressure groups.’