How Constitutional Tinkering Left Britain at the Mercy of Unintended Consequences

by Andrew Alexander
The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and may not be construed as in any way representative of the views or policies of Oxford Royale Summer Schools.


If you had to identify the decisions made by the Blair government and the Coalition that will have the largest impact on the nature of British life over the next two centuries, what would you choose?

You should also read…

Depending on your political orientation, I imagine the list would look something like this: the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the immense accumulation of public debt under both, the introduction and subsequent escalation of tuition fees and the end to the principle of free tertiary education, the dramatically altered approach to civil liberties in the face of an escalating terrorist threat, the changing shape of public spending under austerity, the refusal to join the euro or to construct a policy towards the European Union which pays the slightest heed to continence or sense.

Image shows a British soldier receiving a medal for service in Afghanistan.
Around 450 British servicemen have been killed in the war in Afghanistan.

In a sense all of the above matter deeply. They have a profound impact on the living standards of people in Britain. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were coherent with the grand tradition of British foreign policy in that they appeared to have been entered into thanks to a commitment at an emotional level by the governing class. Their legacy is one of bereaved families and tens of thousands of displaced people in Britain from the nations concerned who must now try to forge a life despite lacking, in the main, any semblance of the skills required for success in a highly developed Western service economy. Tuition fees and the budget changes under austerity have also had a significant impact on those directly affected, likewise economic outcomes for all are affected by the European question in ways we can’t begin to model.
At the same time, however, none of these items matters a jot in the long-run. The shape of government spending can and will continue to shift through time, tuition fees will increasingly be ameliorated for those worse off by a stratified payment system with large bursaries, the European relationship will fluctuate also, as it always has. None of these changes marked a radical and semi-permanent parting of ways. Those reforms that did were barely remarked upon at the time.

The History Men

The last century saw two constitutionally reforming governments. One came incredibly close to causing a civil war in the 1910s – no mean feat given the cohesiveness of British society at the time. The other may well have signed the UK’s death warrant and has, at the very least, committed it to a path which can but prise it apart as the years go by.
Image is a button that reads, "Browse all Politics articles."Following the 1906 election, decided on the emotive, abstract and wholly irrelevant issue of Chinese coolie labour in South Africa, the New Liberals were returned to power with a programme for the reform of the working classes which, like all such reforms before or since, had the virtue of appealing to the guilty middle classes without compromising its intellectual purity by taking into account the corrupting views of the working class themselves (the main opponents to the new welfare state which the New Liberals brought into being were not the landed classes but the trade unions, who felt they would encourage an indolent, undignified and un-aspirational life for the poor).
[pullquote]The 1909 People’s Budget raised finance to give it to a set of people whom the government judged to be more deserving than the person who earned or inherited it.[/pullquote]Creating Welfare State 1.0 required money, lots of it. It was appropriate, therefore, that the great political clash over the measures came in the 1909 People’s Budget, presented to the House of Commons by Lloyd George and championed by the Chairman of the Board of Trade, Winston Churchill. The budget was the first in British history which was nakedly redistributive, that is to say, it raised finance through graduated general taxation not in order to fund a national good like a battleship but in order to give it to a set of people whom the government of the day judged to be more deserving than the person who earned or inherited it. The budget introduced a higher rate of income tax, a super tax, and a land tax amounting to 20% of value. The House of Lords, containing as it did the greatest concentration of land owners to be found anywhere in the country, was less enamoured with the bill, rejecting it outright and challenging the Liberals to call an election while promising to abide by the outcome.
The chain of events which followed demonstrated perfectly the dangers of wholesale dismantling of the British constitution, which is illogical at the best of times, but never illogical without reasons. The Liberals called and won a general election in which they campaigned not in favour of their welfare state but against the powers of the Lords. Having narrowly won that general election with more seats but fewer votes than the Conservatives, they set about Lords reform and, following a convoluted process which involved the King, several hysterical speeches on both sides and an eventual Lords capitulation in the face of royal blackmail, the Parliament Act was passed removing the Lords’ ability to reject money bills entirely and ensuring that after three vetos from the Lords, the Commons was able to pass any bill it so wished by invoking the protections of the Parliament Act.
This spiteful assertion of parliamentary authority came at a cost which none had foreseen at the time. Since Gladstone’s day, home rule for Ireland had been obstructed by the entrenched conservatism of the Lords. Now that the Lords would no longer hold a veto power over the Commons, the Liberals were obliged to try again. What had been a comfortable convention of British parliamentary life – Tories pro-union, Liberals pro-home rule and both constrained by the iron grip of the Lords – was now a constitutional crisis. The Liberals brought home rule legislation covering all Ireland, the Tories objected on behalf of Ulster, the two sides started arming themselves, the Conservatives promised to back any military action taken against the King’s soldiers by the people of Ulster, an incredible formulation for the party of the Crown, a conference between the sides failed miserably, German agents started to pile arms into republican hands. As George Dangerfield argues convincingly in The Strange Death of Liberal England, the two sides were now on a war footing – only the outbreak of war with Germany and Redmond’s magnificent gesture to stand down the republican movement in Ireland for the duration of war and work side-by-side with the Unionists to man the home front saved Britain from a squalid, dreadful civil war.

Image shows the debating chamber of the Scottish Parliament building.
The controversial Scottish Parliament building cost £414 million.

A century later and legislation pushed forward for similarly short-term reasons of party political advantage under the Blair government threaten to tear another chunk from Britain. The creation of devolved parliaments and powers for Scotland and Wales spoke to a strategic and an ideological demand keenly felt by Labour. The strategic need was one felt by a party which had been out of government for 18 years thanks to the incredible popularity of the Conservatives in southern England, the richest and most populous part of the country as well as the part with the most MPs. By creating national parliaments in the Labour strongholds of Scotland and Wales as well as (planned but voted down) regional assemblies hiving off the English regions and the Labour stronghold of Greater London, Labour hoped to retain a stake in the country’s governance even after it had been defeated in a general election, a consideration of party political relevance but not one responding to either popular agitation or the interests of strategic government for the UK as a whole.

Image shows the European Parliament in Strasbourg, with blossom in the foreground.
The European Union has encouraged devolution.

The ideological drive for split responsibilities and parliaments is a curious one at first glance, given the reputation for control-freakery which Labour eventually won. It has its roots in the European Union principle of subsidiarity – the idea that powers should be devolved to a local sub-unit instead of central government wherever possible. This principle is one of the most disingenuous in world politics. The ideological justification responds to the political circumstances following the Second World War. The war was seen as having been caused by systems of government and a small number of crazed individuals, a necessary interpretation given the consequences of considering the alternative – that the war came about as the result of the collective, democratically licensed violence of German society, and that a necessary condition of its terrible nature was the cowardly, amoral conduct of the British government towards its French allies. As a result – the strong nation state is seen as a terrible thing by progressive politicians in Europe. Subsidiarity within an EU member tackles this by transferring power from the state up to the EU and down to local bodies, weakening the ability of the centre to influence national life. Whether this was necessary in the UK or in any way consistent with British culture, national ethic or political history is debatable, but in such ways we are protected from demagoguery. The hiving off of power to Scotland and Wales was, therefore, entirely consistent with a progressive ideological tradition which abhorred the strong state, although I doubt this was a conscious conviction of many involved, rather an instance of the group-think which is a strong input into progressive thought.

Image shows an oil rig in the North Sea.
Ownership of North Sea Oil has been hotly debated; up to 98% of it technically falls within Scottish waters, though defining maritime borders is also challenging.

At first glance my comparison of the referendum on Scottish independence with the situation in Ulster in the 1910s will seem wilfully provocative. However, like Ulster the situation exists because of constitutional legislation which was not thought through on a level of national strategy but instead with a temporary party political gain in mind. Devolution was a necessary step to independence which was unnecessarily taken. A Scottish yes vote, now or in the future, will create enormous strategic problems for the remainder of the UK, partly because of geography but partly because a devolved Scotland was always intended to be an ideological, progressive state. If and when Scotland chooses to break away, London must ask itself how it intends to conduct a national defence policy with what is certain to be a demilitarised, neutrally oriented state sharing a land border and unwilling to protect itself. The answer, of course, is that England must protect it, but this task is harder without tax revenue or submarine bases, both of which it would lose. The rump of the UK must also ask how it will be able to exert any national control over borders given that Scotland’s immigration policy is likely to be liberal, but Scottish citizens are certain to be able to cross open borders into England and work freely there. Is it sensible to allow a country with a population smaller than London to take the bulk of the country’s energy reserves? Does it help the UK to guarantee Scotland’s debt and then be left with no enforcement mechanism to collect what’s owed? These are questions to which there might be a moral answer in favour of the independent Scotland, but British governments are not in place to arbitrate from on high on the rights of other nations – they exist to protect the British national interest. The national interest is plainly hampered by even the possibility of an independent Scotland, and it is a reckless and foolish thing that such a thing should now be permitted to be so near.

Cash Kings

Image shows the exterior of the Bank of England.
The 1998 Bank of England Act transferred responsibility for setting interest rates from the Treasury to the Bank of the England.

This act of constitutional vandalism was not the only one undertaken for identical motives by the Blair government. The creation of an independent Bank of England with rate setting powers was, again, a party political manoeuvre. It is an unfortunate historical fact that every Labour government has met its demise at a time of national economic crisis. The British electorate inferred from this trend that the party was not a responsible manager of the economy. The announcement that control of monetary policy would transfer to an independent governor in Threadneedle Street was, therefore, a political gesture disguised as anti-partisan – if Labour was not trusted to control interest rates, then the easiest way of preventing the Conservatives enjoying a tactical advantage was to remove interest rates from the list of things which the government was responsible for.
It is not popular to argue that this was irresponsible, largely a consequence  of the justified belief that British politicians are incapable of running anything other than an expense account with competence, but I believe that it could have been easily foreseen that this would be damaging to any hope of a coherent national economic strategy. This is largely because monetary policy and fiscal policy must move in tandem if the government is to hope to change the economic environment. Placing the BoE in a target-driven rate-setting straightjacket impedes the ability of the Chancellor to influence the national fortune, and also raises the spectre of the two pulling apart if ideologically different people are at the helm of the Bank and the Treasury respectively. There is also a more long-term impact: by handing over interest rate control, the government of the time indicated that this was a far more important tool for controlling economic outcomes than the government’s own behaviour in the form of fiscal policy. This sense that someone else was watching the stove contributed to the reckless burning down of the house which the Major/Clarke axis had built by 1997, and it continues to impede economic reform at a government level as the myth of central bank omnipotence has taken centre stage at the expense of due scrutiny of government finances.

Image shows the Houses of Parliament seen from the Thames.
Increasing numbers of MPs have no practical experience of life outside Parliament.

At a more ideological level, the monetary policy transfer also introduced an incredibly harmful principle into British political life – the idea that democratically elected figures should defer, and ideally transfer power to, academics. The academic capture of British (and American and European) national life is one of the great limiting factors of our times and requires a separate article to address in depth. Needless to say, though, that while government by practical, experienced men who have proved the popularity of their ideas through open election was the primary source of governing talent for many years, the current source is technocratic, men and women whose entire careers have hitherto been devoted to avoiding the practical application of abstract ideas. It is a principle which is likely to produce far more erratic outcomes and which actively damages democracy.
Constitutional reform will never be a glamorous topic – the immediacies of political action take precedence in the human mind over the changes made to the architecture in which that action takes place. Nevertheless, it is the architecture which dictates the possible and likely shape of things to come. The British constitution lacks ideological consistency – it is built on the basis of what works. The changes made to it for the worst of reasons in recent times have brought into being problems which the old order was specifically designed to redress. The vandalism of the old order in the interests of narrow party gain represents the privileging of party over nation – it is a sad motif for the modern age, but an apt one all the same.


Your email will not be shared and you can unsubscribe whenever you want with a simple click.

Image credits: banner; army; Scottish Parliament; EU; oil; Bank of England; UK Parliament