A PM offering to reduce his powers?

Britain's new Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, was a day early with his Independence Day celebrations.

Last Tuesday, on July 3, he made one of the most startling statements ever made by a newly installed premier before the House of Commons. Unless my ears mistook me, Mr Brown pledged to transform the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland into the United States of Britain.

Opinion polls such as the Pew Global Attitudes survey continue to testify to widespread anti-American feeling among British voters. Mr Brown himself has already hinted that he will pursue a less slavishly pro-American foreign policy than his predecessor Tony Blair.

Yet the "new British constitutional settlement" Mr Brown promised last week owes an unmistakable debt to the American system.

Even more remarkable, no one so much as grumbled. Indeed, the opposition parties' sole complaint seemed to be that Mr Brown was not going far enough in the direction of Americanising Britain.

My question is: Has anyone in London been to Washington lately? On paper, no doubt, the American constitution looks great. It's the real-life practice of American government that isn't quite living up to the founding fathers' lofty ideals.

Let's take a closer look at Mr Brown's speech, which contained no fewer than seven American-inspired initiatives:

  1. "For centuries," declared Mr Brown, the Prime Minister and the Executive "have exercised authority in the name of the monarchy without the people and their elected representatives being consulted". His aim, by contrast, is to "entrust more power to Parliament and the British people". Nota Bene: from royal authority to "We, the people". Remind you of anything?
  2. Mr Brown offered to delegate the power to declare war to the House of Commons, albeit on the basis of a resolution rather than a statute (unlike the power to ratify new international treaties, which will also be given to the Commons). Again, this imitates the United States, where (under Article I, Section VIII, of the Constitution) Congress alone has the power to declare war.
  3. The Commons will be empowered to hold pre-appointment hearings for public officials such as the chief inspector of prisons, the civil service commissioner and members of the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee. This is a straight American import.
  4. The Government is to publish, on a regular basis, a national security strategy. Another import: President Bush has published two such documents since 2001.
  5. There is to be a British national security council. The American model for this dates back to 1947.
  6. The House of Lords is almost certainly to become an elected body. Hey, Gordon, how about renaming it "the Senate"?
  7. Above all, Mr Brown proposes to "codify. both the duties and rights of citizens and the balance of power between Government, Parliament and the people". In concluding his statement, he explicitly raised the possibility of a Bill of Rights and written constitution.

Wow. It's taken more than 200 years, but finally a British prime minister has accepted that Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison and Washington were right. The only one of Mr Brown's suggestions that did not have "Made in America" stamped on it was his call for weekend elections (a European custom).

Given the current public mood, these proposals might have been expected to elicit a storm of indignation. An earlier generation of Tories would have been dismayed by such an assault on our time-honoured traditions, not least for its obvious anti-monarchical undertone.

Yet the Conservative leader David Cameron's response seemed to be: Why stop there?

Ever since the resurrection of the Scottish Parliament by Tony Blair, Tories have been posing the so-called "West Lothian Question": Why can Scottish MPs at Westminster still vote on purely English matters, while English MPs have no say over the Scottish matters that are now debated in Edinburgh?

In effect, the Conservatives are now arguing that Westminster should house two parliaments: the present one for UK-wide matters and a smaller one, excluding the MPs for Scottish constituencies, for matters that concern only England.

When you think about it, that would be a step towards American-style federalism. There would be four states, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, each with its own assembly, leaving only matters of collective concern to the federal Parliament.

In this light, Mr Brown's retort that such an arrangement would threaten the Union makes no sense. Why copy so many American institutions, but rule out federalism?

Now, I agree that there are some superficially plausible arguments for an Americanisation of the British system of government. Under Mr Brown's predecessor, there is no doubt that the power of the executive relative to Parliament grew intolerably and was systematically abused by the prime minister and his cronies.

However, there are even more compelling arguments against the creation of a United States of Britain.

The most important of these is that, whatever it says on paper, in practice the US constitution gives the executive branch even more power than is currently enjoyed by the British executive.

Did Congress restrain President Bush from going to war in Iraq? Of course not. Did Congressional hearings prevent Mr Bush from making a succession of disastrous appointments to high office, notably to the Federal Emergency Management Agency? Again, no.

Did it improve American foreign policy to publish a National Security Strategy? On the contrary.

And how about that Bill of Rights? Did it stop the administration from treating habeas corpus as an optional extra when it comes to terrorist suspects? I don't think so.

As if to prove the point, President Bush chose last week to give a brazen exhibition of the quasi-monarchical power the occupant of the White House now wields by annulling the 30-month prison sentence handed down to Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice-President Dick Cheney, for perjury and obstruction of justice.

Why? Ostensibly because the sentence was "excessive". In reality, it was because Libby is a loyal insider who knows where a great many of this administration's bodies are buried.

Guess how much attention this president will give to the 3,000 other current petitions to have sentences commuted. One second? Two?

Louis XIV famously declared: L''tat

The Telegraph
  • Show All
  • New York Times
  • Wall Street Journal
  • Daily Telegraph
  • Financial Times
  • Newsweek/Daily Beast
  • The Washington Post
  • The Australian
  • Daily Mail
  • Huffington Post
  • Vanity Fair
  • FORA.tv
  • The Telegraph
  • Time Magazine
  • Foreign Affairs
  • The Sunday Times
  • London Evening Standard
  • The Spectator
  • The Atlantic
  • The Globe and Mail
  • Politico Magazine
197 Article Results