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New Labour came to power in May 1997, ostensibly signalling a change from the seemingly interminable rule by the former Tory governments of John Major and his controversial predecessor, Margaret Thatcher. Their mantra, “things can only get better”, resonated throughout the country somewhat reinforcing a sense of security that finally, the people, rather than businesses, would matter.


          It has been almost two and a half years now since, and the belief that things would get better has been further from the truth. New Labour, for starters, can no longer be confined to the preserve of socialist ideology; rather, it has maintained a more right-of-left stance with Blair, emphasizing a meritocratic society -- one totally inconsistent with Old Labour. In fact, Roy Hattersley, a Guardian commentator, observes this transformation with composed candour: “Meritocracy has nothing to offer {people}. That is why New Labour poses a moral dilemma for persistent Socialists.”[1]


          While this may seem negligible in the face of more important changes that New Labour has experienced, I believe that in order to understand better the constitutional changes in Britain, a brief overview of what Labour is about is necessary. Furthermore, I will focus in this paper, more on four main issues of the constitution:


à Tutelary Law

à Northern Ireland

à House of Lords

à Devolution


I will also focus my work as reflected through political commentators from the left-of-centre British newspaper, The Guardian. The reason for this is so that one obtains a better insight, of the issues, as this paper seems better out of the rest of the newspapers, to advance opinions both for and against Labour.


Ø    What is a constitution?


According to Jones and Kavanagh, a constitution is “an authoritative document or set of rules which describes the powers and duties of government institutions and the relations between them.”[2]


In Britain, the constitution is uncodified, rather than simply unwritten; in fact, most of the written constitutions are “adopted by states which are newly independent or have suffered a rapture in their evolution”, argue Kavangah and Jones.[3]


          They contend that in Britain, the constitution has been considered to be a system wherein the style of politics has evolved over the centuries. Furthermore, central to Britain’s constitution has been its popularity: many political institutions – particularly those that were under the British Empire – have been conferred with the Westminister-type model (for better or for worse); of which my country, Ghana, is one.


Ø      Sources of the British Constitution


According to the authors, the British constitution has three main sources: Common Law, Laws and Conventions.


1.      Common Law is defined as “traditions and customs administered by the old law courts. e.g. freedom of expression.


2.      Laws: Statutory or Parliamentary law that overrides Common Law providing a substantial written part of the constitution.


3.      Conventions: Rules, which lacking force of law, are adhered to for as long as they are regarded as binding. e.g. Prime Minister’s resignation following electoral defeat.


Ø       The Issues


Tutelary Law is one “which imposes codes of conduct.”[4] Apparently, it is this law that has permitted governments to intervene “more often to regulate formerly private areas of conduct, e.g. race relations, sexual discrimination and industrial relations.”[5]


With respect to tutelary law, there have actually been no official changes, except perhaps in the MacPherson report, delivered to the British government mid-February this year, and published the subsequent day.


            The report, written by Sir William MacPherson, came in the wake of the black teenager, Stephen Lawrence, murdered by racist thugs in 1993 in London. The report levelled accusations of “pernicious and institutional racism” as being inherent within the Metropolitan Police Department. In fact; the Leader (or editorial) column put it in a much more candid way[6]: {the report} depicts a police culture riven with prejudice and ignorance.” Alan Rusbridger, the editor, urged that one of the things the report emphasizes, and must be encouraged, is the strengthening of the 1976 Race Relations Act.


            Also, one positive consequence of the report is that since April, there has been a “new disciplinary regime in which police officers can retire early to evade prosecution.”


Another aspect of tutelary law that has also fallen under the ambit of industrial relations, has been the relationship between trade unions and New Labour. There has been no formal constitutional change, but it was signalled again recently – in fact in last week’s Guardian – that there is now to be a definitive break between trade unions and Labour.


However, this message was made clear as early as August 1998, in which the headline of an article by the Guardian’s political editor reads: “Blair cuts Union links with individual help.”


Ø       Northern Ireland


The case of Northern Ireland remains a great source of frustration for the Blair government. The Good Friday Agreement, signed April 1998, seemed to provide some semblance of hope for the future of the troubled province, but once again, political permafrost has set in the past few months. For example, David Trimble, the elected First Minister of the Irish Parliament, made calls for the expulsion of Northern Ireland Secretary Dr.Mo Mowlam in the summer cabinet re-shuffle that proved abortive in terms of removing Mowlam. Also, the fatal Omagh bombing of August 1998 has prompted negotiators to greatly consider the case of Northern Ireland.


            So much so that in September of 1998, Home Secretary Jack Straw, rushed through a Criminal Justice Bill – the Terror Bill. He argued his point in the Guardian the following day, by explaining that the Bill was necessary if Britain was to “deter terrorists and overseas criminals from reeking havoc in the country.”


            This prompted a swift rebuttal from Conor Gearty, professor of human rights law at King’s College London, and a barrister at Essex Court Chambers, who argued in the same paper that it was a “disgraceful exercise from a parity that stood up for civil liberties…”






Michael White

Blair cuts union links with individual help.



Michael White

Blair encouraged to find a solution to outdated tax system that would distribute taxes evenly such that they could go to worthy causes like the National Health Service (NHS)



Jack Straw

The Terror Bill is necessary if Britain is to deter terrorists and overseas criminals from wreaking havoc (in the country).



Hugo Young

Polly Toynbee

The Bill is a betrayal



Alan Travis

Poll shows Britain to be country that favours higher taxes to pay for better public services.



Roy Hattersley

Tony Blair’s vision is that of a meritocratic society in which there are super nurses, super teaches. He also refuses to increase standard rate of tax. Problem with Blair’s vision is that it doesn’t work, because intellectually anathema to traditional Labour ideology.



Hugo Young

Blair could well learn some lessons from Helmut Kohl; Third Way needs to be better re-defined as Kohl, as untelegenic as he was, defined and pushed through the Euro.


Hugo Young

Blair is doing well; he seems to be handling things well by effectively using skilful crisis management, despite problems rocking the Labour boat.



David Walker

Blair is failing to offer palatable alternatives to ousting the Lords as hereditaries.



Peter Preston

The Scottish are indifferent to devolution. “They  are not prepared to forego the price of a couple of pints of bitter.”



Ø       House of Lords


The House of Lords has had a chequered past. After it was unceremoniously stripped off its power in 1910 by the House of Commons (by a vote of 350 to 75), it has fallen into a welter of criticism, begging the questions: are they still relevant in modern Britain; and if so, why are they all mostly white, (very) old, and from priviledged classes?


            In David Walker, a Guardian commentator’s Analysis article of April 26th 1999, he writes, “we have got this far because Labour promised to rid the Lords of hereditaries.” He continues that “blasting them is the easy bit: Tory bias, maleness, gerontocracy.” The solution, it appears, is that the government will set up a so-called “transitional house”, whose members will be appointed outside the “N# 10 patronage.”


Ø    Devolution


Although devolution failed to come about in 1979 when Thatcher waved her handbag into power, today, it is very much a reality: in May this year, devolution in Scotland took place; later, Wales’ was to come into fruition.


            The Blair government, however, is both adversely and positively affected by the twin devolution, admittedly historic event s in the United Kingdom. In fact, in an article by Patrick Burkham of April 9 1999, the author lends weight to this idea.


            First of all, he argues how the May elections {lead} to the creation of a Labour administration in Scotland…” but that whilst legislation that created the Scottish parliament, “left many questions

On the division of power between Westminister and Edinburgh unanswered, “a clever set of ‘concordat’, quietly drawn by the leader of the Scottish parliament, Donald Dewar, in the months preceding the election”, have helped to keep the division of power firmly in Blair’s favour.”


            As for Wales, Labour eventually  “becomes the majority party by a massive margin.” He continue that Blair, however, has a nightmare which is “much, much longer”, and that is devolution turning out to be more tortuous than contemplated, especially for Scottish nationalists.


            Central to Blair’s frustrations is the added problem of Labour in Scotland, winning no more than 50 percent of the vote just like every party in Scotland since the Tories in the 1950s. The genesis of this situation lies with the proportional representation, which thus would force Labour to share power with the Scottish Liberal Democrats, ostensibly “well to the left of Labour.”





            However, a positive aspect hinted at by the author is the fact that the Labour government’s constitutional change in the debate over regionalism is laudable: “the regional bureaucracy Labour created in 1999 (in the form of eight regional development agencies) provides the motor for the creation of regional democracy.


Ø       Conclusion


New Labour may not necessarily be the best panacea to social democracy towards the end of the twentieth century, and no one denies that it still has some way to go. Yet, if devolution is anything to go by, the government has gone far, despite the inherently problematic nature of devolution – particularly towards Scottish nationalists.


Moreover, if it says nothing, it speaks volumes of the extent to which there have been some progressive-looking changes in the constitution since Labour came to power in May 1997.















[1]The Guardian -- Vision Thing (September 14th 1998).

[2] Jones and Kavanagh, p.61.

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid, p.65.

[5] ibid.

[6] The Guardian. Leader: February 25 1999.

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