Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Constitutional Change

We famously have a malleable, unwritten, uncodified constitution. Discussion about constitutional issues that would be central to political discourse in somewhere like the US or Japan, seem academic and obscure in the British context. Something happened yesterday which should be a cause for concern notwithstanding the yawn factor that any such discussion induces. Our constitution was potentially changed by a Government agency without any legislative or legal discussion.

The decision by Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, to release the minutes of Cabinet meetings where the issue of whether we should go to war in Iraq was discussed fundamentally challenges the process of Government and the doctrine of collective responsibility. If a Secretary of State can't voice his or her objections openly in Cabinet (and processes connected) then they are either silenced or collective decision making will be undermined.

We should absolutely expect openness and transparency from our Government. It may be that the 30-year rule of disclosure is outdated (and, in fact, that is an ongoing consultation into this very issue.) It may be that the doctrine of collective responsibility itself is outmoded (but let me state categorically that I don't believe that it is). It may be that it is right that these minutes are released (and, let's be frank, we know what was said in these meetings from a number of biographies and autobiographies published since.) It may be right that there is a wider Inquiry into the decision and assessments that were made about the case for war.

All of these things may or may not be true. No, my argument against the Richard Thomas' decision is that he has unilaterally undermined a number of constitutional principles. If we are to change our constitutional arrangements then it should be after democratic, administrative, legislative, and/ or legal consideration. Not the unilateral decision of an agency officer. Our constitution does need considerable reform but this it not the way to do it.

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