A kingdom comes to a crossroads Britain: Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Labor Party are proposing the most radical constitutional changes in seven decades.

September 20, 1997|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- First, the Scots voted themselves a parliament.

Then, the Welsh mustered a bare majority for an assembly.

But when it comes to changing the old political order, Britain's freshly elected Labor Party is just getting started.

Prime Minister Tony Blair is transforming the way Britain will govern itself, putting forward the most radical constitutional proposals since the 1920s, when women received the vote and the Irish state was established.

Blair is adding more local government, contemplating a change in the voting system and fashioning legislation that could break decades of government secrecy.

Some claim that his initiatives could lead to the breakup of the United Kingdom, which is composed of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

xTC Others, though, say Blair's way will cement the diverse parts of this nation, which is roughly the size of Oregon with a population of 58 million people.

"In the United States, there are lots of checks andbalances built into the system. We don't have them," says Robert Hazell, head of the Constitution Unit at University College London. "We don't have a Bill of Rights, Supreme Court or separation of powers. So, the constitutional reform agenda is all about building some checks and balances into our democratic dictatorship."

In selling his program to the British people, Blair sounds a lot like U.S. politicians.

"The era of big centralized government is over," he declared earlier this month. "This is a time of change, renewal and modernity. This is the way forward."

L In two votes in a week, the British embarked on the new era.

Scotland approved a 129-member parliament with the ability to make laws and raise or lower income taxes by up to 3 percent. And in a cliffhanger Thursday, Wales agreed to create a 60-member assembly to parcel out a block grant from the central government.

Both parliaments will be seated by 2000, pending almost certain approval from Britain's Parliament. The demoralized Conservatives, driven out of power in May after 18 years, have offered only token opposition in the Home Rule debate.

The Conservatives claim that with Home Rule, the Scots and Welsh will bid for outright independence and thus break apart a country created over the centuries from war and deal-making.

But Blair and his supporters see the Home Rule issue as a way to keep the country intact.

"I do not regard changing the way we are governed as an afterthought, a detailed fragment of our program," Blair said before becoming prime minister. "I regard it as an essential part of new Britain, of us becoming a young, confident country again."

There's more.

He has promised London a referendum on creating a mayor with a powerful assembly. England could be presided over by nine regional development agencies to oversee economic expansion, health care and planning.

The Northern Ireland peace process also is linked. A 90-strong assembly has been proposed to rule the province, if a peace deal can be sealed by those representing the majority Protestants and the minority Roman Catholics.

Blair's government is also mulling over introducing a new voting system. Instead of winner-take-all elections, Britain might create a national parliament by proportional representation, with each party assigned seats based on the percentage of votes it receives.

Blair also wants to reform Britain's upper legislative chamber, the House of Lords. He has vowed to take away the voting rights of hereditary peers -- those who become peers by virtue of their birth. So-called life peers, selected by the government, would continue having a role in shaping -- and approving -- legislation.

Blair's government is also seeking ways to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into British law. The move would give Britain what amounts to an American-style Bill of Rights.

His government has also promised to fashion a Freedom of Information Act, a bold step in a country with a long-established culture of government secrecy.

To some like Philip Norton, a Hull University political scientist, the Blair proposals are slapdash and ill-conceived.

"The more levels of government you have, the less accountability," he says. "And there is potential for conflict between the local governments and the national government.

"I know that there is a desire for change, a feeling that there is a problem in government," he adds. "Reforming the structure of government seems the easy way out. It seems the answer to several ills. People are feeling alienated. The economy seems sluggish. But it's wrong."

Even supporters of the Blair program, like Hazell, say that the government may be moving too fast.

"I want to see them slow down to enable the public to catch up," he says.

"These are the biggest changes in our system of government for nearly 100 years. And it's very important that they command public understanding and public consent. I'm not opposed to the changes. But they have to come after public understanding and public debate."

L Ready or not, however, Britain is adopting the Blair agenda.

Pub Date: 9/20/97

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