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The radical constitutional reforms since 1997 offer a spectacle, unique in the democratic world, of a country transforming its uncodified constitution into a codified one, in a piecemeal manner, there being neither the political will nor the consensus to do more. The end-point of this process of reform, therefore, is bound to remain unclear. Nevertheless, the reforms that have already reached the statute book will profoundly alter our constitution and our system of government.

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Professor Vernon Bogdanor


I have been giving a series of lectures on Britain's Constitution at Gresham College. These are to come to a close at the end of May in a lecture in which I will draw the threads together of everything I have been saying about where we now stand, whether we are nearer to having a written or codified Constitution, or where the various reforms actually led us.

Today, I want to talk about something different, so I hope that if you have come today you will not feel barred from coming at the end of May as well.  Today I want to talk about something a bit wider, and I want to introduce my remarks by pointing to something that has happened to me, but I suspect has not happened to anyone else in the audience, because before the last Election, I was rung up by the editor of a magazine, which I do not read, called Cosmopolitan.  They asked if I could explain why it was that so few young girls between the ages of 18 to 24 voted in General Elections.  They said that in the General Election of 2001, just 33% of 18 to 24 year old voted - the Editor called it 'the high heeled vote'.  The average for all 18 to 24 year olds was 39%, but girls voted less than young boys.  It is a remarkable figure because the Government hopes to get 50% of young people into university, and if this figure is right, it means that more young people will be going to university than voting, which I think is cause for thought.  I suggested that they do interviews with the three Party Leaders on issues of interest to young women, and then publish the results, which they did, but I am afraid it did not improve the turnout very much!

This really does relate to my central theme, because after all, one of the main purposes of constitutional reform was to rejuvenate our democratic system, and I do not think even the most optimistic person in the audience would say that they have succeeded in doing that.  So the theme of my talk today is why has it not rejuvenated our democratic system and what in fact has gone wrong with the programme.

Certainly those who have come to my lectures will know the main outline of the constitutional reforms.  In my first lecture I gave a rather detailed list of 15 reforms that have occurred.  You will be pleased to hear I am not going to repeat all those 15 reforms in any detail, but I am sure you are all familiar with the main outlines in the reform: that there has been devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; there is a London Authority with a directly elected major, the first directly elected mayor in British history.  These bodies have all been established through referendum, which is something fairly new in British history.  We have only had one referendum before that, which was in 1975 on the question of whether we should remain in the European Community. 

We have had the Human Rights Act, giving a great deal more power and influence to the judges in interpreting legislation. 

We have had the use of proportional representation in elections in Scotland, London, Northern Ireland and Wales.  Proportional representation which used to be thought of as a rather cranky issue but it is now coming to be accepted.  Interestingly enough, tomorrow in Scotland, the Scottish Local Government Elections will be by proportional representation as well. 

We have had the reform of the House of Lords.  That is an unconcluded story, as I am sure you know.  The bulk of the hereditary peers were removed in 1999, and the House of Commons voted recently to have either an 80% elected house or a fully elected house.  So that is a saga that is still uncompleted.

Then we have had changes in the office of Lord Chancellor, whereby the Lord Chancellor is no longer the Speaker of the Lords or the Head of the Judiciary.

All these were very major and important reforms, but suppose you are not professionally interested in law and constitution, and you ask yourself, what difference has all this made to me, what difference has it made to my life?  Let us assume that you are someone living in England who does not mind the Scots or Welsh having devolution, but you do not want it for yourself.  You may think the Human Rights Act is a good thing but you hope never to actually use it - you do not want to use the courts so the Human Rights Act is not a central feature of your life.  The other reforms I have suggested will not influence you in any obvious and direct way.  You may say that this is a redistribution of power, no doubt, but it is a redistribution of power between the politicians and judges, and between one set of politicians living in Westminster and other sets living in Edinburgh, Belfast, Cardiff and London, with Ken Livingstone.  So it is the elitist having divided power up in a different way; if you like, it is an answer to the question of how the officer class is going to divide up the spoils, how they are going to run things.

One perhaps should not underestimate the importance of this.  This is a dispersal of power, which I think is a good thing in itself.  Power is less concentrated in Westminster than it was.  The great English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, once said, 'The definition of liberty is power cut into pieces,' which I think isn't a bad definition.  It has I think been cut into pieces quite a bit by these reforms.

But if there has been a dispersal of power, it has not really given us what many of us I think probably want, which is a much greater share of power for ourselves.  We may say it is not enough just to redistribute power between people professionally interested in politics, because after all, we live in a democracy, and in a democracy, should not the people rule? 

One has seen in other fields of life, over the past 20 or 30 years, a great redistribution of power in other areas towards the mass of the people.  For example, in economic life, the consumer is treated much more seriously than he or she was 20 or 30 years ago.  Public services are required to meet certain standards, and if they do not, they may be penalised.  Shareholding is much more widely distributed than it was: around 21% of the British public now own shares, and there are in fact more shareholders than trade unionists, a great revolution in British life.  The principle of consumer sovereignty is accepted in most areas of life today, people are expected to be active in the economic field, and they are expected, indeed encouraged, to complain if consumer services in the private or public sectors are not up to standards.  It is very difficult to combine that role of being an active consumer in the economic field with, as it were, a passive citizen who is a recipient of decisions made by the elites, even if the elites are now more dispersed than they once were.

This may be one of the reasons for the great disenchantment with politics in Britain.  The evidence of disenchantment is clear, and I have already given one illustration of it in the low turnout here for General Elections.  In the year 2001, 58% voted; at the last Election, in 2005, just 62% voted, and they are the lowest turnouts since universal suffrage came in in 1918.  Even worse, as I have said, it is particularly low amongst young people; it is around 39 or 40% amongst the 18 to 24 year olds.  In other words, more of them do not vote than do vote.  Politicians often make the mistake of courting the young vote.  That is a great error, because people over 75, 75% of them vote, even though it is no doubt much more difficult for many of them to get to the polls - it is the grey vote that is important.  The vote of someone over 75 is worth four times that of someone who is 18 to 24, because there are twice as many of them and they are twice as likely to vote, so politicians ought to court the elderly and not the young vote.

Apart from that, fewer of us join political parties.  The Labour Party has about 200,000 members now and the Conservatives around 250,000.  Fifty years ago, Labour had a million individual members, and by individual members, I mean non-trade union members, individual members, and the Conservatives around a million-and-a-half members.  One could put the point another way: that 50 years ago, one in 11 of us belonged to a political party; now, one in 88 of us do.  It does not mean that people are not joining ourselves to things.  The National Trust has around a million members.  The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has around a million members.  That is more than all the political parties put together.  Furthermore, we feel less attached to the party of our choice.  In 1966, 42% of those surveyed said they felt a very strong attachment to the party of their choice.  Now the figure is just 13%.

It is worth saying, and I think important to say, that these phenomena are not just peculiar to Britain.  They are not just a British disease; they are common to almost all democracies, certainly in Western Europe.  We noticed in the French Presidential Election, about 10 days ago, turnout was 84%.  That is a striking deviation, because in almost every democracy, turnout has fallen from the high levels of the 1960s and '70s to much lower levels now. 

Almost everywhere, political parties and their leaders have become much less trusted.  You read a lot in the press about how Tony Blair is not much trusted, but this is true of political leaders in most Western democracies, and regardless of their attitudes to the Iraq War.  French leaders are not much trusted, German leaders, and so on and so on.

In a recent Gallup international poll, 79% agreed that democracy was the best form of government, but 65% did not believe their country was ruled by the will of the people, and these figures were highest in advanced and stable democracies, like Britain, Sweden, Denmark, France, and the Netherlands, with long established and stable democracies. 

If that is true then the reasons for disenchantment cannot be the result of a particular institutional or constitutional set-up, because we talked about countries with very different constitutional structures.  It cannot be result of the 'first past the post' electoral system or a proportional electoral system, because these phenomena are there in both sorts of countries.  It cannot be the result of a federal system rather than a unitary system, because again, these phenomena are there in both sorts of countries.  There must be something common to different types of democracies, so we have to look rather deeper than these particular constitutional changes to common features of our representative systems.

Of course, our system of representative democracy rests essentially upon political parties, and it is political parties as mass organisations that seem to be in decline.  Political parties in their modern form first grew up in the late 19th Century, and the mass party was, in large part, the creation of a radical Mayor of Birmingham called Joseph Chamberlain.  He invented the modern party machine as a response to the expansion of suffrage and the need to canvas and win the support of a wide electorate.  He called an organisation locally 'the caucus', and then it became a national organisation in terms of the National Liberal Federation, which was founded in 1877, largely through Chamberlain's influence, and it was blessed by the leader of the Liberal Party, Mr Gladstone.  This was a model followed by the parties, by the Conservatives and the new Labour Party.

The classic age of party politics was an age of tribal politics, when most people adopted political allegiances resulting from their social position or social class, or they inherited political views from their parents.  Once people had adopted these political views, they tended to retain them for most of their lives, rarely changing them in response to changing circumstances.  Anyone who was involved in politics a long time ago may remember people saying 'We have always been Conservative,' or 'We're all Labour here,' but I do not think people say such things now.  It is interesting that in the General Election of 1951, 97% of those who voted supported the Labour or Conservative Parties; in 2005, just 69% did.  The Government which was elected in 2005 with a comfortable majority of 67 was supported by just 36% of those who voted, just over a third, so 64% voted against them, but since turnout was only 62%, more people abstained than voted for the Government.  So we no longer live in an era of tribal politics.

Political scientists have given us a technical term.  They have said that we have moved from an era of position politics to an era of valence politics.  Position politics means that we take a position on a key political issue.  Fifty years ago, it would have been the nationalisation of basic industries - do we favour the nationalisation of basic industries or are we against it?  Are we in favour of decolonising, of moving out of the African colonies in particular, or do we think we should retain our position there?  Are you in favour of joining the European Community or not?  Do we favour Britain remaining a nuclear power or not?  Those are position issues. 

A valence issue is one where we agree on the fundamentals, but disagree on how to achieve it.  A good example of a valence issues is the National Health Service.  I think probably we all agree that the basic principles ought to be kept, but we may disagree about the best way of achieving these aims.  Should we have competition between providers, as Tony Blair wants?  Should we have a separate National Health Service Executive Board, as Gordon Brown seems to want?  It is worth perhaps pointing out that part of Tony Blair's skill as a politician is to convert position issues into valence issues, because the position issues associated with the Labour Party in the past, like nationalisation and public control, were highly unpopular with the public, so if you can convert them into a valence issue, you are going to improve your position.  A valence issue that Tony Blair managed to convert matters into and bear out what I have said is that we all agree about the National Health Service, that the important thing is to improve it.  The only way you can disagree is: if you are on the left and you are saying, 'Well I do not want any private involvement at all,' and that puts you on one extreme; or if you are on the right, and saying, 'No, I think we ought to charge people for using the Health Service' - that puts you on another extreme, an equally unpopular extreme. 

Similarly, on the issue of Europe, Tony Blair says we all agree we should remain in the European Union, the important thing is to improve our position in Europe and reform Europe - ensure it is more efficient, get cheaper mobile phones, cheaper flights, etc.  The only way to oppose, again, is you are perhaps some people back to the Liberal Democrats Party, say, 'No, we want a much more strongly integrated Europe than that,' or people on the right, who say, 'No, we should leave Europe,' both of which, again, are fairly unpopular with the British public.

So this is why Tony Blair is a difficult man to oppose.  He learnt this tactic from Clinton.  It is called triangulation - taking the middle, so that anyone who opposes you is on the extreme, the Third Way if you like.  It makes him a very difficult man to oppose.  I think David Cameron is trying to do the same.

The broad conclusion I want to draw is that politics is less ideological than it was.  It is more about means and less about ends, and therefore, inevitably, it is much duller.  We can all go to the barricades saying that we want Britain to abandon nuclear weapons or to leave the colonies.  It is not so easy to go to the barricades in favour of foundation hospitals or city academics.  They are matters of means on which people of good will can easily differ, without getting into a huge argument on principles.

This is one of the reasons I think why the grip of the political parties upon people is much weaker than it was.  This is one of the reasons why people feel less attached to parties and the old tribal cries have gone.  But the trouble is that the hold of political parties on the Government is as strong as it has ever been.  Their hold on the people is less, but their hold on the Government is very great, and therefore there is some degree of alienation from party politicians.

This is coming to be recognised by the politicians themselves.  In 2003 Peter Hain, who was then Leader of the House of Commons, said, 'We who constitute the political class conduct politics in a way that turns off our voters, readers, listeners and viewers.  Too many people believe that Government is something done to them.  Westminster must stop giving the impression of being a private club and instead give the public a greater sense of ownership.'  Of course, political parties are likely to remain crucial in democracies.  I do not know of any democracy which operates without political parties, and nothing is likely to change there.  But the parties are ceasing to perform one essential function which they used to perform as vehicles of political engagement; they no longer satisfy the demand for political participation.

I can see at this point an objection, that the lack of engagement is a part of something much broader, namely a wider loss of community engagement, a loss of social capital.  I think that is simply not true, because all the evidence shows that popular interest in politics today is as great as it was 40 years ago.  There is no decline in people interested in politics.  Furthermore, in terms of volunteering and community activity, Britain scores fairly well.  For example, 81% of British adults gave to the tsunami appeal two years ago - twice the rate in the United States, and two to three times the rate of any European countries.  Around 40% of the population belong to a voluntary organisation.  Amongst 18 to 24 year olds, the very generation I said do not vote, around 3 million volunteer every year.  So one could conclude that the democratic spirit is healthy, but it is institutions of democracy that seem wanting or that need to develop.  I think what has happened is that people no longer see political parties as the best means of influencing events and securing change, and that leaves open the question of how we are to rejuvenate our democratic system so that it channels civic spirit and desire for community engagement which are definitely present.

The trouble is that our traditional structure of democracy implies that the role of the people in Government is essentially passive and that our rights are, broadly speaking, restricted to voting in elections every few years.  As I said, that is a great contrast with other fields of life, particularly the economic field of life.  This problem was very succinctly posed by Gordon Brown, now currently Chancellor of course, in the Fabian pamphlet written as long ago as 1992, when he was in opposition.  He said, 'In the past, people interested in change have joined the Labour Party largely to elect agents of change.  Today, they want to be agents of change themselves.'  I think it is a very succinct illustration.  He then lists various agents of popular participation: tenants' associations; residents' groups; school governing bodies; community groups, and so on.  This was echoed in 2004 by Alan Milburn, ironically, Gordon Brown's great enemy, but Alan Milburn said it was not enough just to consult citizens, they should also get the chance to decide for themselves.  That involves bringing in a greater element of direct democracy into our system.

There is an obvious philosophical conflict between representative democracy and direct democracy, but in practical terms, I do not think there is a conflict I do not think anyone suggests that direct democracy should replace representative democracy, and even a country like Switzerland, which uses the instrument of direct democracy to what you might call the very limits - they have on average a national referendum or initiative every year - but still, Switzerland is not a wholly direct democracy, and can perhaps be best described as a semi-direct democracy.  The issue here I think is not a matter of principle so much as a matter of degree.  To what extent should the machinery of direct democracy contribute to setting up the representative system?  That is the question we have to ask.

Some people again say that you cannot really have a great degree of participation in a very complex, post-industrial society.  The challenges and the complexity of the scale make it impossible - we might have had it in Athens in the 5th Century BC or a New England town meeting, but you cannot have it in a modern society.  I do not think that is true, because I think in particular the development of information technology which makes possible communication between people who cannot actually physically meet together in the marketplace.  Just as this is used by corporations and companies to secure participation, so also I think it can be used politically.

We have got now some experience of this in Britain.  We have had some referendums in Britain, but you have also had something beyond that, because in the Local Government Act of the year 2000, there was a very interesting provision which has been used in many areas, including my own, whereby any 5% of registered electors could require a referendum on the election of a mayor, a directly elected mayor.  The reason that was introduced was because survey evidence showed that while many people favour directly elected mayors, elected councillors didn't, for the obvious reason that it would undermine their influence.  So the Government brought in this provision, and I remember signing the petition in Oxford.  We got the 5%, but sadly, in my view sadly, we were defeated in the referendum itself.  There have also been ballots on whether grammar schools should be retained or not.  You may say that if voters can be trusted to decide these issues for themselves, why not wider issues also?  Why not the shape of the local authority budget, for example, or the shape of the National Health Service in their area?  Why should it be restricted to these particular examples?

There are other new forms of participation which might be looked at.  There are many attempts now to bring the public into association with the police in terms of community policing, because it has been found it is very difficult to make a real attack on crime unless you can involve communities affected by crime in that attack.  It has been found, when you are dealing with issues that so affect ordinary people, they are much likelier to come to meetings than they are perhaps for abstract issues.

In a number of areas of this country, we have followed a precedent I think first started in Finland of developing elected youth councils, by which young people elect representatives who make recommendations on matters concerning youth, and of course it is then up to the local authority or other bodies whether they adopt them - they do not actually have any power. 

One can go further than that I think.  In British Columbia, there was a very interesting exercise on electoral reform.  They have had a Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform, randomly chosen, one man and one woman from each of 79 electoral districts, with two aboriginal members, and the Government said that whatever they recommended they would put to referendum.  They recommended a form of proportional representation.  There has been one referendum, which did not meet the threshold for success, and they are going to have another one in British Columbia.  That is very significant because it was the first time in modern history that I am aware of that a democratic government has given to unelected citizens the power to review an important public policy and then seek from all citizens approval of the proposed changes to that policy.  It is not just simply recommendations, not just talking shop, but the authorities are going to actually take notice of what you say.

The problem with all this, and the problem perhaps also with methods of democracy that use the new information technology, is creating a new divide between those who are in possession of information technology, and those who are not.  This is would be a dangerous divide in society, that the people who benefit from these matters are people who already have a lot of political advances, the educated, the articulate, and so on.  You would create a democracy of the articulate.  Oscar Wilde once said that one of the problems with socialism was that it took too many evenings, and this is a great danger which needs to be somehow guarded against.

I do hope that it is possible to instigate a practical investigation as to how we can improve the machinery of democracy, perhaps using the methods of modern information technology, so that you involve more people in political decision making.  It will transform our system from one in which the few rule many to one in which we can all help to take part in the decisions which influence our lives, as we do in the economic field.  This seems to me the fundamental reason why these constitutional reforms have not made more impact - they do not really make much of an impact on these problems and they do not begin to attack to these problems.  I think this illustrates a wider problem with our system, which relates to what I have said about the Constitution.  We have begun, in a very slow way, the process of bringing things up-to-date, but our constitutional forms, which are very old and inherited, as it were, are no longer in alignment with the political and social forces of the age in which we live.  They imply a passive citizenship, top-down structure of government, and so on, but society has developed far beyond that.  We live in a new era of democracy.  I think one of the fundamental problems we face in British politics is the problem of making these traditional and old-fashioned forms more congruent with these modern social forces.


©Professor Vernon Bogdanor, Gresham College, 2 May 2007

This event was on Fri, 04 May 2007

Vernon Bogdanor

Professor Sir Vernon Bogdanor FBA CBE

Professor of Law

Vernon Bogdanor CBE is Emeritus Gresham Professor of Law, former Visiting Gresham Professor of Political History, Research Professor at King's College London, a Fellow of the British Academy and an Honorary Fellow of the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies.

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