25 years have passed since the Labour election win of 1997, which preceded a plethora of constitutional changes, including partial reform of the House of Lords, devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the Human Rights Act. Tom Leeman summarises the contributions of three expert speakers (Professor Robert Hazell, Baroness (Shami) Chakrabarti and Lord (Charlie) Falconer of Thoroton) at a recent Unit event to mark the anniversary.
This year marked a quarter of a century since the victory of Tony Blair’s New Labour in the 1997 General Election on 1 May. Blair’s first government embarked upon a programme of constitutional reform, many elements of which, such as devolution, the Human Rights Act (HRA), and the status of hereditary peers in the Lords, still spark debate in the UK today.
To mark the anniversary and discuss the Blair government’s constitutional legacy the Unit convened an event with three expert panellists: Professor Robert Hazell, founding Director of the Constitution Unit, who supported the Cook-Maclennan talks on constitutional reform between Labour and the Liberal Democrats in 1996; Lord (Charlie) Falconer of Thoroton, who served as Lord Chancellor in the second and third Blair ministries from 2003 until 2007; and Baroness (Shami) Chakrabarti, who was Director of Liberty from 2003 until 2016. The event was chaired by Professor Meg Russell, Director of the Constitution Unit. The summaries below are presented in order of the speakers’ contributions.
Robert Hazell presented slides to summarise New Labour’s constitutional reform programme from their first election victory in 1997 until Gordon Brown’s resignation as prime minister in 2010. The reforms in Blair’s first term (1997-2001) were the biggest package of constitutional reforms in the twentieth century. They included devolution of power to assemblies in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast in 1998; incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law in the Human Rights Act; and the removal of hereditary peers from the House of Lords.
However, key areas earmarked for reform in the 1997 Labour manifesto, such as referendums on euro membership and the voting system for Westminster elections, were not addressed. The second stage of Lords reform, to make the House more democratic and representative, and of human rights legislation, in a British bill of rights, never materialised. Regional government in England made no further progress after defeat of the North East referendum in 2004. The Brown government’s ambitious plans to codify all the prerogative powers ended in a whimper. But the second Labour government legislated for the new Supreme Court and Judicial Appointments Commission, and in all the New Labour reforms saw the creation of ten new constitutional watchdogs.
Lord Falconer began by remarking on the general mood regarding the UK constitution in 1997; namely, that it had stagnated under a Conservative government he believed to be uninterested in the constitutional status of the non-English parts of the country. Crucially, though, Falconer added that though there was a prominent feeling that the constitution needed reform, this narrative, save for perhaps Northern Ireland, had not been born out of constitutional breakdown or crisis.
Falconer offered two principal commendations of the 1997 constitutional reform programme. Firstly, the passage of the HRA and the Freedom of Information Act helped to foment a more rights-driven culture in the UK, with citizens empowered to protect themselves against the executive. Secondly, the Labour government-brokered 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland has led to ‘25 years of peace’.
Despite this high praise, Lord Falconer also acknowledged that the Labour government was perhaps too timid in some areas of constitutional reform; specifically, he argued that the overly conventional view of parliamentary sovereignty put forward by the government led to a perception among the devolved bodies that their powers were not set in stone and could be changed on a whim from Westminster. Falconer also echoed Robert Hazell’s remarks on the issues of English governance and the Westminster electoral system, before claiming that the political consequences of the worsening economic situation of the last decade have led the constitution to a crisis point that it was not at 25 years ago.
Baroness Chakrabarti started with a defence of the HRA, describing it as not merely a ‘wonderful, modern’ bill of rights, but also a brilliant compromise, given its status as a bill of rights within an unwritten constitution. Chakrabarti’s criticism of the HRA relates not to its substance, but to its lack of promotion by the Blair government; the Act was ‘snuck in like a thief in the night’ with little fanfare or public campaign.
Chakrabarti’s main criticism of Labour’s later years in power was of cuts to civil legal aid, which she believed lent credence to a post-9/11 rebranding of human rights as being for ‘criminals and terrorists’ by the UK media. Baroness Chakrabarti also alluded to an interplay between this and the lack of fanfare for the HRA; in short, that the Labour government’s failure to educate people about human rights in its first term led to an erosion of some of those rights in the second.
On the issue of the government’s failure to sell the HRA to the public, both Robert Hazell and Lord Falconer remarked that whilst some members of the Labour government were sufficiently interested in constitutional matters to construct a coherent reform package, Blair himself was not. Baroness Chakrabarti sought to differentiate Gordon Brown’s push for a written constitution in 2007 with the Johnson government’s attempt to repeal the HRA and replace it with a new British Bill of Rights, claiming that the latter represents a diminution of the courts and of existing rights.
A question-and-answer session with the audience followed the panel discussion. A member of the audience asked why initial plans for a public information campaign for the HRA in 1998 were dropped. In response, Lord Falconer argued that the political direction of the Labour government was always more economic than constitutional, with Blair in particular deducing that issues such as health and education were more important to voters during general elections.
Looking to the current and future devolution settlement in Wales, Robert Hazell said that he agreed with Labour and Plaid Cymru’s proposal to enlarge the Senedd, to account for the body’s increased powers since 1997, but that he believed the public should be consulted on this issue through a referendum. On the wider question of how to introduce significant constitutional reforms in a way that guarantees widespread public agreement, the panellists agreed that the HRA needed to be reintroduced to society, but Lord Falconer and Baroness Chakrabarti mentioned that the use of the HRA as a political football would make this very difficult.
On the failure to reform the Westminster voting system, Lord Falconer lamented the lack of internal ideological coherence of the two major parties produced by the first-past-the-post system. Both Falconer and Robert Hazell attributed the Labour government’s unwillingness to hold a referendum on the voting system to a lack of support amongst Cabinet ministers for proportional representation.
The video of the full event, including a lively and informative Q&A, is available on our YouTube page, while the audio version forms a Unit podcast. Visit our Events page for news of future events and video and podcast links for previous webinars.