Whatever happened to…constitutional reform?

Interesting piece by Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian on what the Hutton Inquiry reveals about the state of our democracy:

Start with the delightful novelty of open government. The Hutton inquiry has thrilled political observers by allowing them to wallow in paper normally kept secret for decades. But releasing government documents is not just a treat for historians and Whitehall buffs; it is surely a legitimate expectation of all citizens. After all, we pay the government’s wages; ministers and civil servants work for us. Shouldn’t we be able to see how they reach the decisions they take in our name, and according to which they risk our blood and treasure?

Of course we should. Yet the default position in Britain remains that papers are locked up for 30 years, sometimes 50 or more. Secrecy is the rule, openness the exception. Only a crisis, in this case an apparent suicide, can tug the veil back. Labour in opposition understood this argument and promised a robust freedom of information act as the solution. In office, they delivered only a watery imitation.

Indeed, anyone remember Charter 88 and how constitutional reform was the ‘big idea’, the area in which Labour could be truly radical with the added Blairite bonus of not having to upset the wealthy?

What have we had? Elected mayors, a reform no-one asked for. If we were going to borrow ideas from American democracy we might have gone for freedom of information.

Freedland goes on to point out how much power the executive has in the UK and bemoans the lack of checks and balances. I remember plenty of talk about that from the left during the ‘elective dictatorship’ of Thatcher, but again very little has been done to address the problem.

Indeed, the entire select committee system looks toothless alongside Hutton: to investigate one man’s death, he is allowed access to all the paper and witnesses he needs. A humble select committee, weighing the rights or wrongs of going to war, has to ask nicely for the right to ask questions at all. Not that it is ever going to press the executive too hard. Why would it, when the governing party of the day always has a built-in majority?

The Hutton Inquiry gives us a little taste of what a really effective system of holding government’s to account might be like (even if it remains rather undemocratic that Hutton was appointed by the PM).

But when it has finished its work normal service will be resumed: Over-centralised and under-scrutinised government.