Looking for a New England

Looking at various reports on Britain’s new coalition government, and their proposed reform agenda, no matter where you fell on the results of the last election, it’s hard not to respect the Tory/LibDem alliance (unholy monster?) for, by all accounts, giving the British what they wanted: a fully re-invented government. If even half of these proposals come to pass, Britain will have substantially reinvented itself in the space of a generation, but, in enacting those reforms, they’ll be abandoning the process that got them there in the first place. Have a look.

Much of the document is a ringing endorsement of Americanism, writ large, proposing as reforms for Britain several things we do right. This is a process that began with the end of hereditary lordships under Blair, the 2009 replacement of the “law lords” with a Supreme Court of the United Kingdom — a ringing endorsement of American-style judicial review — and, now, continues to potentially include, inter alia:

  • A British Bill of Rights;
  • Liberalized libel law (thus approximating an American-style speech right), and;
  • Full elections for Lords.

It’s unclear whether the last proposal would effect true bicameralism — or if that’s even desirable. Post-Blair, Lords seems to work pretty well as a repository of policy wonks, full of individuals who regularly undertake the kind of in-depth, objective research that MPs can’t, for reasons both temporal and political. Would elections improve or neutralize that role?

Several other parts of the document approximate things we would do right, if we were faithful to ourselves. The Cameron/Clegg monster states an interest in “safeguards against the misuse of anti-terrorism legislation,” equal pay for equal work, gay rights, and measures to institutionalize respect for “strong and stable families of all kinds.”

So, good for England, but the scope and ambition of this reform project should put us all to shame. A lot of this is what a true center-left platform would look like in America, and it would be feasible, but for the great national distraction of the culture wars, and the dead weight imposed on us as a culture by the far right. Even the document’s inoffensively positive parts would stoke absurd, nonsensical controversy here — when the government pledges to “give national museums greater freedoms,” does that mean at the taxpayer’s expense? And what if the art offends this one guy, somewhere? The horror.

As we speak, a nation with whom we share a deep kinship is reinventing herself, for the better, by consensus, within (unwritten) constitutional norms. Why can’t we?

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11 comments

  1. So, good for England, but the scope and ambition of this reform project should put us all to shame. A lot of this is what a true center-left platform would look like in America, and it would be feasible, but for the great national distraction of the culture wars, and the dead weight imposed on us as a culture by the far right. Even the document’s inoffensively positive parts would stoke absurd, nonsensical controversy here — when the government pledges to “give national museums greater freedoms,” does that mean at the taxpayer’s expense? And what if the art offends this one guy, somewhere? The horror.

    You answered your own question!

  2. Anzezzle · ·

    I’m glad to see they’re reforming their libel laws. My understanding was that their current ones are outrageous.

  3. It would be lax of me not to mention that the United Kingdom already has a Bill of Rights. It’s from 1689, and was a major influence on the later American one, as well as, somewhat ironically, on the Declaration of Independence.

    (On behalf of the British, you’re welcome.)

    Less flippantly, I don’t think this new BoR that’s apparently in the making is really that much to celebrate. The UK already has the Human Rights Act 1998 which at least to some extent establishes the European Convention on Human Rights as British law, and provides legal remedies against public authorities which violate the Convention. As I understand it, the new BoR is meant to replace the HR Act, and considering the Tories’ known distaste for its provisions, I consider it extremely unlikely that the BoR will in any way improve or even maintain the current standards of civil liberties in the UK (which are already bad enough on some areas), Nick Clegg’s best efforts notwithstanding.

    (BTW, ‘England’ != ‘United Kingdom’.)

  4. I’m aware of the nonequivalence ;). I messed up in the usage in the penultimate paragraph; the title was purposeful so I could quote Billy Bragg.

    I wasn’t aware of the 1689 Bill of Rights! Tell me more, please!

  5. The Bill of Rights was a Parliament act which established both parliamentarian supremacy above the Crown and a number of rights which all Englishmen possessed: petition, free elections, due process, free debates in Parliament, the Crown cannot interfere with legislation, etc. It basically legalised the Glorious Revolution which kicked out the absolutist James II&VII Stuart in favour of William of Oranje and finally established a sort of constitutional monarchy.

    It was very significant for the American Bill of Rights – for instance, the Eight Amendment is quoted directly from the 1689 Bill. And at least according to Pauline Maier’s American Scripture (Ch. 2:1), it also had a certain influence on the Declaration of Independence, especially in the whole “whereas the Crown has done this and that against our rights, we now take the following actions” framework which is found in both documents.

  6. On another point, I must admit I’d regret seeing the House of Lords turn fully elected. It’s obviously not a democratic institution by most measures, but it has acted as a sort of check & balance on some of the more enthusiastic ideas in the Commons in the past – such as the attempt last year to introduce 42-days detainments without charge for terror suspects. I’m not entirely convienced it could fulfill that same role if its members were dependent on re-election.

    1. One of the nice things about the Lords, as far as I understand it, is that it is a bit like the US Supreme Court. It is job for life so there is no fear of retribution for you decisions. It is usually made up of the “brightest and the best”- well educated, analytical people. Also if I understand it correctly, new Lords are appointed by the current Prime Minister so it has that slow democratic effect the court has, where the Judges are proxy elected via the elected official.

      1. That’s a rather generous assessment of the Lords; it’s less common than it once was, but it’s still used as a way to reward political cronies and/or celebs – see Baron Lloyd-Webber, for example, as well as the recent Cash for Honours scandal.

  7. the 2009 replacement of the “law lords” with a Supreme Court of the United Kingdom — a ringing endorsement of American-style judicial review

    The Supreme Court is an appellate court but does not have judicial review powers in the American sense – it cannot overturn a law, consttutionally speaking.

    1. Yes, under the Human Rights Act, the courts are obliged to consider the European Convention as well as Parliamentary legislation, but even if a law is completely incompatible with the Convention, the most they can do is issue a “declaration of incompatibility”.

      In the handful of cases where that has happened, the laws have mostly been amended accordingly, but it remains Parliament’s decision whether to do so – although a failure to comply with the Convention would often lead to a case in the European Court of Human Rights instead.

      1. Although it bears mentioning that Parliament is more than capable of telling the ECHR to bog off; Factortame and Thorburn aside, Parliament is supreme.

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