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David’s Mental Meanderings
13th June 2003

Tony Blair shuffled his cabinet yesterday. This is something Prime Ministers often do, especially in the summer when Parliament either has or is about to recess. It is a chance to prune the dead wood and give some new shoots a chance to grow. It fine tunes the machinery of Government to better match talents with roles.

Normally this wouldn’t merit anything more than an entry in my blog, which you should be reading of course, so there would be no excuse if it passed you by. There are lots of other things to be reading in David’s Daily Diversions. You should probably set it as the home page on your browser. But, anyhow, it’s not in the blog, it’s in a Meandering, so you have to read it anyway. Now back to why…

When Tony shuffled the cabinet, he did away with one of the Government departments. For Americans this might seem shocking, as it isn’t very often that the President does away with one his cabinet departments. It has been a feature of this Government. For example they changed the Department for Education and Employment to the Department for Education and Skills and moved the Work bit to the Department of Social Security and renamed it the Department for Work and Pensions. When they needed an impressive job for John Prescott – you know, the one who punches people and makes obscene gestures at the news media -- they cobbled a bunch of things together to create the Department for Environment, Transport, and the Regions. When he botched every possible thing, they started to dismantle it. This coincided with the botching of the Foot and Mouth Crisis, so the best thing to do with the Ministry for Agriculture, Farming, and Food (MAFF) was to make it disappear. Overnight Tony created the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and the Department for Transport, getting rid of MAFF Secretary Nick Brown and taking away most of Prescott’s toys at the same time. Of course it cost millions and millions of pounds to create and abolish departments, but that was never mentioned.

But even something like that would be a blog entry. No, Tony has done something much bigger this time. He has abolished the oldest and most important office in all the land. It predates the office of Prime Minister by over 1100 years. It was an office first held by a bloke named Angmendus, but you probably haven’t heard of him, because it was a long, long time ago. The year 605 to be exact. It has been held by no less that five saints canonised in the West (only one of whom would be recognized by the Orthodox – St. Swithin) and some less than saintly figures as well (Cardinal Wolsey comes to mind). It was even held briefly by a man named Baldrick, though I do not know whether he bore any resemblance to his namesake of Black Adder fame. The incumbent is the second non-royal in precedence in the Kingdom, after the Archbishop of Canterbury. He is the head of the Judiciary and the official go-between from the Monarch to Parliament. He sits on the Woolsack as Speaker in the House of Lords.

There will no longer be a Lord High Chancellor.

Until today, the last person to hold that post was to be Derry Irvine. I have written about Lord Irvine at length in the past. Though he never held the sort of power over life and death that Wolsey did, he must have looked to this predecessor as a model of extravagance and conceit. He’s the one who bought £400,000 worth of wall paper for his apartments in the Palace of Westminster and took a salary higher than the Prime Minister.

This re-Constitution of the British political system would have happened sooner if it had been entirely up to Tony Blair. Who wasn’t willing to yield any of his personal power? Derry Irvine. He is a very determined man and is used to having his own way. (This is apparently a family trait which has been passed on to his son Alistair, who was sentenced to 16 months in prison in California last year for stalking a woman with whom he became obsessed and her boyfriend, pouring acid on the boyfriend’s car and threatening him with a gun.) He fought any changes in the current system, including turf battles over the criminal justice system with the Home Secretary. Yet in his resignation letter to the Prime Minister, he says, “I hope you will take the opportunity in the legislation which will be necessary to abolish the office and to create a new Supreme Court to reaffirm that guarantee of judicial independence; and I wish you well in the implementation of the further programme of reforms that you are setting out today.”

Today it was discovered that legislation is required to make all this happen. Since Irvine stepped down yesterday -- the man who gave Tony his first job as a barrister – somebody has to take over all his areas of responsibility. Today, Tony’s childhood friend and later his flatmate Charlie Falconer spent his first day on the Woolsack. Charlie has confirmed today that in fact he will be the last Lord Chancellor ever and when everything is done and dusted he will become the first Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs. Or is he already Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs? Hmm… We don’t know. No one seems to know. According to the BBC, even Downing Street admits it's all a “little hazy”.

Does the requirement of legislation mean that such a monumental change will be up for real debate in Parliament? No. Remember this wasn’t even announced to Parliament first. That used to be the way things were done, but not by this Government. Everyone found out in a press release.

That’s why our form of government is rightly called a “parliamentary dictatorship.” You thought it was called a “constitutional monarchy”? You’ve been referring to too many encyclopaedias. Encyclopaedias refer to things as they are officially. There is no constitution, written or even the fabled unwritten since this Government came to power. And even the term “parliamentary dictatorship” can be misunderstood. It doesn’t mean that parliament has absolute power. You’re back to legal fiction again. It means that the Government of the day is determined by the party with the most seats in Parliament. And the Government of the day does whatever is pleases. Even to the point of abolishing the oldest office in the land without consulting or even notifying anyone.

But there’s more. It’s not just the top of the judiciary that’s changing. It’s the whole thing. The House of Lords will no longer be the highest court in the land. The Law Lords will now be replaced by a new supreme court with no connection to the Upper House. This bit will require legislation, which won’t be filed until the next session of Parliament, so in true Blair constitutional upheaval form, everything in the meantime will be in limbo.

The Department for Constitutional Affairs and Fiascos (okay, I added the last bit) will be responsible for the legal system, but the reason it is called “Constitutional Affairs” is because Tony has also abolished the Welsh and Scottish offices, with their respective cabinet positions. Or has he? In true Blair fashion, they are being cobbled together with the legal system under Lord Falconer. Sound like another mish-mash like Environment, Transport, and the Regions?

It’s worse. Peter Hain, who was the Welsh Secretary until yesterday, has become the Leader of the Commons (the bloke who lets everyone know what stuff the Government will be pushing through Parliament on a particular day), but he will still answer questions on Welsh issues. But Wales is the responsibility of Lord Falconer in the cabinet and Peter Hain doesn’t answer to him. Alistair Darling, who already has his hands full as Transport Secretary, will now answer Scottish questions in the Commons, but since Scottish issues are now part of Lord Falconer’s brief, Alistair isn’t the Scottish Secretary. So says Downing Street. Oh, yes he is. So says Downing Street. Well, we’re not sure. So says Downing Street. All in the same day.

If you are creating a constitutional fiasco, I think Charlie has to be your go-to guy. He’s got experience with fiascos. After all, he helped guide the Government through the Millennium Dome. He managed to pump hundreds of millions of pounds of tax money through the Dome and right into the Thames, so that there was never any return on the investment and it had to be given away.

To be fair, I don’t think the problem with the Dome was entirely Charlie’s fault. It was a boondoggle that Peter Mandelson first began to screw up before it was handed over to Falconer. The Dome is just another example of Labour’s inability to manage Government.

And just to throw one more wrench into the works, Alan Milburn, the Health Secretary resigned because his partner was going to leave him if he didn’t (so he told the Mirror). Tony hadn’t planned on this. So Tony dumps John Reid into the Health Department. Reid is a very capable fellow, but the backbenchers are going nuts. He’s Scottish and we can’t have a Scot in charge of health. After all, the Scottish Parliament and Executive in Edinburgh are now in charge of Scottish health. So this means there is a Scottish MP is in charge of English and Welsh health, even though he is accountable to no part of the electorate of England or Wales.

Confused? So is Downing Street, so is every Member of Parliament, so are all the news media (except the newspapers in Wales which are seething in anger because Welsh affairs have been demoted in importance and that is the only thing about which they care). The ITV news tonight called it the Ramshackle Reshuffle. No one from the top down knows who is responsible for what. The only thing they know is that they have dismantled another ancient institution at whatever cost, and of that they are awfully proud.

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