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Human rights and the UK’s liberal democracy

Posted by Matt Walker on October 2, 2011

In my previous post I outlined the main criticism of the UK’s liberal democracy. Today’s comments by Home Secretary, Theresa May, illustrates this criticism perfectly. Today’s Sunday telegraph reports her as saying that the Human Rights Act should be scrapped because it causes “problems” at the Home Office, particularly when it comes to deporting illegal immigrants, some of whom “are perhaps terrorist suspects”. A summary of what she says can be found on the BBC News website.

The Human Rights Act enshrines into UK law the European Convention of Human Rights, and is the main cornerstone of human rights within the UK constitution (apart from the Magna Carta of 1215, which was aimed at the barons of the Middle Ages rather than 21st Century peasants like you and me). Aside from the arguments for and against the Human Rights Act, it is interesting to note that if there were a majority Conservative Government in this country they might well repeal the Human Rights Act, thereby changing my rights, your rights and everybody else’s rights just by passing an ordinary law through Parliament. To have such an effect on American citizens’ rights, for example, the US Government would need  two-thirds support from both Houses of Congress, as well as the support of two-thirds of state legislatures.

Put another way, human rights are not entrenched in the UK which means they are easily tampered with. Entrenchment would mean protecting our rights from being swiftly reversed. From the government’s point of view it would mean accepting human rights law even if it does inconvenience and cause “problems” to the UK Home Office.


Posted in Constitution, Democracy and participation, Home, Judiciary and human rights | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Is the UK a liberal democracy?

Posted by Matt Walker on September 26, 2011

In many respects it seems obvious to conclude ‘yes’ to this question, that the UK is a liberal democracy.  The UK enjoys free and fair elections, experiences smooth transitions of power from one government to the next, and is generally a tolerant society whose politics has been opened up by the Freedom of Information Act.

However, there are some major criticisms which we can level, and these stem from the fact that the UK constitution does not successfully limit governmental power,  nor does it entrench our human rights. On the latter point, any British government could in theory alter our key human rights by simply passing a Bill through Parliament. In most liberal democracies, it would require a lengthy challenge to a constitution, making it harder to make any such changes to citizens’ rights.

With regards to the UK’s failure to limit government power, a good example (see video link below) is the decision by the Labour Government to go to war with Iraq in 2003. As evidence to the Chilcot Inquiry indicates, Tony Blair made this decision himself, largely side-lining Cabinet and Parliament in the process. This particular issue demonstrates that in the right circumstances, the UK Prime Minister is very powerful.

Any assessment of the success or otherwise of liberal democracy in Britain cannot ignore this point, and in any essay you write making such an assessment will require you to tackle this issue.

Click here for video link.

Posted in AS, Constitution, Democracy and participation, Home, Prime ministerial power | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Making it up as we go along?

Posted by Matt Walker on March 31, 2010

It emerged today that Whitehall (i.e. the Civil Service) has drawn up a plan in the event of a hung parliament next month. It has been suggested that the newly elected House of Commons would not meet for 18 days after the election, as opposed to the usual 6 days. This would enable negotiations to take place between parties for the formation of a new government. The current government would remain in place whilst these negotiations take place.

The worry for Whitehall is that if the Commons meets early it would vote out the government, after which would be a protracted period of uncertainty which would affect financial markets. In other words, the 18 day stand-off would be an attempt to foster political stability so as to prevent economic instability.

If this is how things pan out, Gordon Brown could remain as prime minister for up to 18 days after the election, even if the Conservatives are the biggest party. This would give him breathing space to create a workable coalition. Of course, whilst he is trying to do this there would be nothing to prevent David Cameron putting out feelers to minority parties.

According to The Guardian, the Head of the Civil Service, Gus O’Donnell has drawn up the manual to set out who should do what in the advent of a hung parliament, and also to prevent the Queen from being drawn into the political mire. It has been suggested that the  Queen could refuse a second immediate election if she deemed it damaging to the country. Imagine, for example, that Brown remained as prime minister despite losing the election, and during the newly agreed 18 day waiting period actually asked the Queen to dissolve parliament again!

What’s also interesting here is what it reveals about the nature of the UK constitution.  We are faced with the prospect of a hung parliament, a situation experienced in most countries, and we need the Head of the Civil Service to draw up a manual explaining what to do under such circumstances. Arguably, the UK constitution should be doing that job.

Channel 4 News report

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Scottish devolution

Posted by Matt Walker on January 18, 2010

Just a very quick entry today to refer you all to some previous entries on Scottish devolution. Follow the link below.

Scottish Independence?

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Does the UK constitution need further reform?

Posted by Matt Walker on January 8, 2010

There is no doubt that the Labour Government enacted a significant number of constitutional reforms after 1997. But did it go far enough?

There are a number of further reforms which some organisations (such as Charter 88) suggest are required to bring UK politics into the 21st Century.

Further possible reforms:

1) Reform of the electoral system, making it more proportional.

2) Codifying and entrenching the constitution.

3) Full democratisation of the House of Lords

4) Removal of the prime minister’s prerogative powers and their transfer to parliament.

5) Devolution for England


Why do some people advocate such reforms, and do you think they are worthwhile?


BBC News article

Posted in Constitution | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

FAQ: What constitutional reforms did Labour introduce?

Posted by Matt Walker on January 6, 2010

Donald Dewar After winning power in 1997, the Labour Government embarked upon a radical programme of constitutional reform. These reforms aimed at tackling what was believed to be an over-centralised and overly secret state, which paid too little attention to human rights and too much homage to privilege. So what did they do?

1) Devolution – Scotland was given its own parliament, and Wales and Northern Ireland their own assemblies. London was also given its own mayor.

2) Human Rights Act – this enabled UK citizens to prosecute individuals, organisations or government in a UK court, not just in the European Court of Human Rights.

3) Freedom of Information Act – making government more open by allowing individuals to request any (with some restrictions re. national security) information they want from public bodies.

4) Reform of House of Lords – the majority of hereditary peers were removed from the House of Lords, leaving only 92.

5) Supreme Court – removal of the House of Lords’ function as the highest court in the land, transferring it to an independent body, as well as the abolition of the role of Lord Chancellor.

6) Party Funding – a new electoral commission was set up to regulate party funding, including the full disclosure of donations above £500.

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Why did New Labour reform the constitution?

Posted by Matt Walker on January 4, 2010

Magna Carta Constitutions in themselves can seem rather dull. However, as you explore them further you start to see how the choice of rules used to regulate politics can have a fundamental impact upon how politics operates in general.

Between 1979 and 1997 the Labour Party were in opposition. Over this period they developed a series of constitutional reforms, often in partnership with the Liberal Democrats, which they eventually implemented when in government. So why did Labour develop such a programme?

Firstly, they believed that many of the practices of British politics were out-of-date, and therefore sought to modernise the constitution. The secrecy, centralisation, and reliance on privilege within British politics were deemed unacceptable. Secondly, it was believed that owing to the UK’s uncodified and unentrenched constitution, insufficient protection was afforded to individual human rights.

Thirdly, the Labour Party believed that the executive had to much power, with a relatively weak legislature incapable of restraining it. Finally, offering constitutional reform to the electorate was a useful way for Labour to distinguish itself from the Conservative Party, at a time when its own economic and social policy appeared to be converging with the Tories.

Consequently, once Labour won power in 1997 they embarked upon a radical programme of reform.

Posted in Constitution | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

FAQ: What is the nature of the UK constitution?

Posted by Matt Walker on December 8, 2009

Erskine May Unfortunately, studying the UK constitution is not straightforward. First of all, we need to find it! Many people think that the UK constitution is unwritten. This is quite wrong. The best description  is that it is partly-written and uncodified.

The UK constitution is uncodified. It is not to be found written up in a single document. Much of it is to be found in statue law. Statute laws are laws that have been passed by Parliament. Those laws which have a constitutional impact are part of the UK constitution, for example the 1911 Parliament Act, and the 2000 Human Rights Act. This part of the constitution is written.

A second source of the constitution is  conventions. These are accepted ways of behaviour that have evolved over time, such as the Salisbury convention. This convention asserts that the House Lords will not reject any policy the governing party included in its manifesto at the previous election. Conventions are an unwritten part of the constitution.

Other sources of the constitution include common law (ancient rights such as freedom of speech and movement, which go back centuries), foreign treaties (for example, the Lisbon Treaty), and works of reference such as Dicey and Erskine May.

All of this seems very odd, and in many ways it is. So don’t worry! The UK constitution has evolved over centuries and no one has ever bothered to scoop it up into a single document, arguably because it would take so long.

But what do you think? Is this any way to run a modern democracy?

Posted in Constitution | Tagged: | 9 Comments »

FAQ: What is a constitution?

Posted by Matt Walker on December 7, 2009

US constitution So what is a constitution? It is a term that is used frequently in politics and is indeed essential to politics. An easy definition is that a constitution sets out the rules of the political game.

A constitution  should tell us who has power, how much of it, and what the limits are to their power. This could be for individuals, such as the prime minister, or an institution like a parliament. How much power does the government have? What is it permitted to do? Does the Commons have more power than the Lords? All these things should be specified by the constitution.

A constitution should also set out the rights of a country’s citizens. As a citizen of the UK, I know that I have freedom of speech and movement; that since the age of 18 I have been able to vote; that if I’m suspected of a crime I will face a jury of my peers, and will only be convicted after the presentation of sufficient evidence; and I also know that I cannot be imprisoned without a trial and the due process of law.

It is also important for a constitution to specify how it can be changed. Often constitutions are difficult to change, so that it is not easy to change the balance of power or people’s rights. If this is the case, a constitution is said to be entrenched.

Most constitutions around the world are  written up in a single document, like the US’. Such a constitution is described as codified.

The US Constitution

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Scottish independence? Part II

Posted by Matt Walker on September 4, 2009

greatkilt I commented yesterday about the SNP proposal to offer Scottish people a referendum on independence from the United Kingdom. How have we reached this particular juncture?

Scotland has it’s own First Minister, government and parliament. These were created in 1999 by the Labour Government in a process known as devolution. This is where powers from central government and the Westminster Parliament were transferred to Scotland. The general idea was to allow Scotland to have more say about how their country is run, after years of being rather unhappy about decisions made far away in London. The Labour Government hoped that this would keep Scotland happy and prevent the break-up of the United Kingdom.

In the 2007  elections, the Scottish National Party (SNP) became the biggest party in the Scottish Parliament, with Alex Salmond becoming First Minister.  The SNP are committed to achieving full Scottish independence, and they now want to achieve this by offering the Scottish people a vote  in a referendum. This is something the Conservative Party warned would happen when Labour promised devolution at the 1997 general election.

Follow the links below for more information.

A decade of devolution (article)

Scottish devolution ten years on (video)

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