The title of the blog is a quote from W.E. Gladstone, who referred to three acts of parliament as 'actual misdeeds of the legislature': the Ecclesiastical Titles Act, 1851, the Matrimonial Causes Act, 1857 and the Public Worship Regulation Act, 1874, under which 5 clergy served prison terms for deviations from the rites of the Church of England

Saturday, 27 February 2010

Who Cares about British Consitutional Reform?

At Power 2010 there has been a recent poll to determine what are the top priority issues for constitutional reform in the coming election. The top five are: 1. Proportional Voting; 2. Eliminating ID Cards and Rolling Back the 'Database State'; 3. Replacement of the House of Lords with an Elected Chamber; 4. Allow Only English MPs to Vote on English Laws; and 5. Draw Up A Written Constitution. The suggestions are interesting but not necessarily coherent and reflect the problems with prioritizing issues. Indeed, I would argue that No. 2 is not a constitutional issue at all.

If, as by all counts is likely, there is a Conservative government following the general election, then the only really likely candidates are 2 and 4. (1 disserves the party in power, 3 ended up being practically impossible even under a Labour government, and 5 is probably impossible at any time.)

The elimination of ID cards is an easy call for Tories who can capitalize on the appeal of the policy to Libertarians who oppose government identification. It carries a cost, however, because every time the now-Opposition Labour Party can identify a criminal who is not caught or who cannot be identified properly when he/she is, they will be able to claim that better identification cards would have solved the problem. This is particularly true in areas like benefit fraud and other financial and bureaucratic areas, control of which is particularly appealing to Conservative voters. Moreover, the actual costs to a given individual of having highly accurate identification are nearly zero. I should not be able to avoid being identified properly, if I am claiming to be someone. The reciprocal benefits are great, insofar as I am less likely to be the victim of identity theft. The difficulty is with what government may do with my identity: I object to a police officer being able to ask for it without a good reason. But that's a different question and one that can be answered independently of the ID issue.

English votes for English laws is another difficult case. Who decides what laws are English? And is it possible that in a new parliament in the future the government of the United Kingdom will lack a majority in the English subdivision of the legislature? People worry about bicameralism creating deadlock if the House of Lords is strengthened, but this seems like a potential nightmare. Until we are willing to devolve power to regional governments and adopt a really federal system, tinkering along these lines is likely to lead to problems.

All of these problems have long been obvious and were undoubtedly debated at length in the voting discussion boards on Power 2010. But it's surprising how often the same old arguments get trotted out, and people simply talk past one another.

In short, although the process was interesting, it looks more like a dead end than anything else. Perhaps there is a reason to have Royal Commissions after all.

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