Gordon Brown’s conference speech yesterday gripped the nation, obviously – if you want to know what I thought of it politically, have a look at my other blog. A couple of constitutional and legal points emerged from it too, though.
Obviously, there was his surprising (in the civil service sense – a phrase I may get addicted to) promise of a referendum on the alternative vote system. That takes me back to the 1980s, actually, when as an enthusiastic Liberal/SDP student (you could join both in those days) I was all for STV and spat metaphorically on the unilaterally disarming, anti-European, pro-siege economy Labour students who, in response to the irresistible call for fair votes, suggested AV. I’ve changed my mind since then, put off by the permanent coalition government STV would bring, and the resultant muffling of the public’s ability to influence who has power. In Germany this week, for instance, we’ve seen Angela Merkel’s power increase even though her party’s vote went down to its second-lowest level ever. I’m not sure Gordon’s referendum is a good idea – and it may well not attract the liberal votes he wants. But it has a nice nostalgic whiff of Thatcher-era student politics. And actually… I now think AV might be a very good system for Westminster. I like to think I’m wiser. I’m definitely older. Brown also proposed recall of misbehaving MPs, in some, pretty narrow, circumstances.
Another interesting point for lawyers though is the way Brown is increasingly setting binding targets for government in legislation. Already we have the Climate Change Act 2008, which imposes a binding target for reducing carbon emissions by 2050. The Child Poverty Bill would impose a number of targets in relation to child poverty, to be met by 2020. And in his speech this week, the Prime Minister proposed two further similar measures: a Financial Responsibility Bill, to oblige government to reduce the public deficit and national debt, and legislation to force government to raise overseas development aid to 0.7% of national income – a long-standing ambition of international development campaigners. Interesting, this: it’s a new technique in British public policy, and clearly a favourite of Gordon Brown’s.
I’ve been a bit dismissive of this in the past. I don’t agree with the very traditionalist view that obligations without enforcement provisions are useless – social psychology, culture and, in the case of politicians, scrutiny, may concentrate minds wonderfully. But targets do nothing to meet themselves, I’ve argued, and these are just targets writ large and legal. Was I right, though? Thinking about public debt, I can see how making a public binding pre-commitment now may well help British governments of whatever colour in the future to retain confidence in fiscal policy. Britain’s “Triple A” rating may be safe, but is now discussed more than previously. Legal commitments may help. And to be fair, that makes me realise legal obligations on climate change may give the UK credibility internationally on that issue, too. The same goes for overseas aid; and while a similar approach to child poverty has a clearly domestic political edge, sharpened for David Cameron, I can see that a similar logic may apply as it gives poverty campaigners a big stick to beat the government with.
I may be a convert.
I thought it was a constitutional principle that no government can bind it’s successors. Any government has the power to repeal any existing law. Of course, it might not be easy, especially if there are international treaty obligations tied in, but not impossible.
I agree, Peter – a future government can simply repeal these laws. Or disobey them. But they may well be afraid of the political consequences of doing so, in terms of popularity here, and credibility abroad.