Britain's own C-word

The big question in coming months is how far the new leader will transform the machinery of state. D

Having at last entered into his inheritance, Gordon Brown has a chance to open a new chapter in the story of Britain's slow march towards democracy. His campaign hints about radical constitutional change were titillating, but inconclusive. He committed himself to reform of the Commons, a more accountable executive and parliamentary control over decisions of war and peace. He promised more vigilance over civil liberty and talked of more public involvement in policymaking.

But, as he said himself, these moves are not enough. They would nudge Britain a little further along the road to 21st-century democracy, but there would still be an enormous distance to cover. The great questions are how far Brown is willing to travel, and what comes next.

It is not difficult to envisage a constitution fit for the 21st century. It would state that sovereignty belongs to the people, instead of to the crown-in-parliament. The royal prerogative would be abolished (not just trimmed). Ministers and civil servants would be servants of parliament or the people, not of the crown. The House of Lords would be consigned to the dustbin of history. The second chamber would be elected on a national-cum-regional basis, with Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the English regions as the electoral districts. Subsidiarity would be a fundamental principle. The remorseless growth of central power, which has been a leitmotif of British government since the 1940s, would be halted and in some fields reversed.

Substantial, legally entrenched devolution from the central to the local and regional level would create new sites for civic engagement and provide a check against the inevitable self- aggrandisement of government at the centre. Human rights would be extended and more firmly guaranteed. Electoral reform would make the Commons democratically legitimate for the first time in its history. And, like virtually all other democracies, Britain would have a written constitution, based on clear and explicit principles expressed in accessible language.

For the moment, though, constitution-mongering is beside the point. At this stage process matters as much as outcomes. What is crucial is to ensure that constitutional reform is not the property of any party or group of parties, or even of the political class as a whole. The single most obvious feature of present-day British politics is the deep, almost visceral, distrust that the public feels for politicians and political institutions: that is one of the main reasons radical constitutional reform is needed. Certainly, political leaders will have a crucial part to play, but they will have to play it with deftness and modesty.

If the project is to succeed, it must be the property of civil society as a whole, in all its rich diversity. This would, in itself, be a breathtaking innovation, but that is no reason to hold back. The Brown government's first big test is whether it will do for the United Kingdom what Scottish devolutionists did when they set up the constitutional convention that paved the way for the Edinburgh parliament.

The English question

Public alienation from the system is now at an all-time high. Brown's prime ministership will stand or fall on his ability to translate negative alienation into a positive consensus for change. The emotional and institutional obstacles are redoubtable. One of them is the banalisation of public discourse epitomised in the mantra, "It's the economy, stupid". Today, the real stupidity is to give the economy primacy over the polity. The British economy is now one of the most productive in the world, but rising prosperity has gone hand in hand with a deepening political malaise. Falling levels of trust in politics and politicians, miserable general election turnouts, the recent SNP victory in Scotland, disaffection among a small but ominous minority of British-born Muslims and the belated emergence of a potentially explosive "English Question" now haunt the British state like so many ghosts of Banquo. But the spectres are political, not economic. They have to do with the fundamentals of identity, legitimacy and political allegiance. They can be laid to rest only by and through political debate and institutional change.

Another obstacle is the constitutional conservatism that lurks deep in the Labour Party's DNA. Ever since it became a serious challenger for power, Labour has taken Britain's time- encrusted constitution for granted and ignored the tension between social-democratic values and British constitutional orthodoxy. In the days of interwar unemployment and crisis-ridden postwar reconstruction, this was understandable. But over the past 30 years two things have become obvious.

The first is that, although the powers once exercised by the crown have been taken over by the government of the day, the British version of democracy is essentially monarchical. The second is that this negates the social-democratic values of equal citizenship, popular sovereignty and government by dialogue and discussion.

True, the reforms of Tony Blair's first term were more far-reaching than anything seen since 1832. But they did not spring from a coherent vision of pluralist democracy. All too often, the government clung to the monarchical habits of the past. Devolution to Scotland and Wales went hand in hand with increasing centralisation in England; the Human Rights Act with illiberal statutes restricting civil liberty and strengthening the state's already excessive capacity to intrude into the lives of its citizens.

The consequences were doubly malign. The "old" constitution - centred on the absolute sovereignty of the crown-in-parliament - has gone for ever. But it has been replaced by an ad hoc miscellany of measures and executive actions, pulling in different directions. The result is a constitutional wasteland, which is rapidly becoming a breeding ground for confusion, conflict and illegality. The law lords say one thing, ministers another. The consensus among international lawyers was that the Iraq war was illegal. The Attorney General pronounced it legal.

But the biggest obstacle to further democratisation is the crabbed mindset engendered by British constitutional doctrine. For those imprisoned in it, the constitution (any constitution, not just ours) is an uncodifiable melange of practices, precedents, conventions and occasional enactments that govern the operation of the political system until new practices miraculously emerge from the womb of time.

Herbert Morrison's famous dictum was that socialism is what the Labour government does. On the traditional British view, the constitution is what the political actors of the day can get away with. The constitution simply is. Constitutional discourse has no room for ought.

Yet, in reality, constitutions - whether written or not - are more than assortments of institutional nuts and bolts. They embody (and sometimes express) a moral vision: a vision of the good political community, of the good citizen and even of the good society. The US constitution (to take the most famous example) defines a set of institutional arrangements and legal principles designed to reconcile republican liberty and popular sovereignty in a polity of continental scope. Its opening words - "we, the people of the United States" - summarise the governing principle with beautiful economy: the state is the property of the people, not of the rulers temporarily in charge of it.

The state and the monarch

Ironically, even the "old" British constitution embodied a vision of the good political community. The trouble was that the vision was pre- democratic. It was a vision of responsive, but autonomous executive power, in which the people had only walk-on parts in a drama scripted by government at the centre. The state did not belong to the people. It belonged to the monarch, and later to the monarch's ministers. Under the pressure of social, cultural and institutional change, that vision has faded. But it has not been replaced. The result is a vacuum of understanding and principle, which goes a long way to explain the disaffection and cynicism that now poison the wells of political debate and undermine the whole progressive tradition.

Not only was the old constitution pre-democratic, it was monocultural and mononational. It presupposed a culturally homogeneous society and a single, overarching "British" identity, replacing the various national identities of the UK. Manifestly, neither of these assumptions hold good today. Fundamental political questions - Who belongs to the political community? What holds it together? How do the nations of Britain relate to each other and to the whole? How does England relate to the non-English nations? Where do ethnic minority cultures and communities fit in? - are now on the agenda, in a way that has never been true before.

But the British constitutional tradition lacks the moral resources to supply convincing answers. British nationhood can be only civic, like those of France or the United States, not ethnic, like those of Israel and much of eastern Europe. Apart from any other reasons, there is no British ethnicity. Britain is and always has been a multinational state. But civic nationhood presupposes a civic culture, and in so far as present-day Britain has a civic culture at all, it is feeble to the point of anaemia. There is no British equivalent to the valeurs républicaines of France, or the "civic religion" of the US. Rightly, there is now a broad consensus that "Britishness" should be about values, not genes.

But British values are nowhere defined. Faced with alienated young Muslims or separatist Scots asking why they should be British, we have no iconic national utterance to point to - no equivalent of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen or the American Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address. Mumblings about Magna Carta are not adequate substitutes.

This has been true a long time, but two developments have added urgency to the question. The first is the historic Commons vote for an elected second chamber. It would be outrageous to sweep this under the carpet and only one degree less outrageous to erect an unstable halfway house between democracy and appointment. But the vote to elect the second chamber was only the beginning. A host of other questions crowd behind. On what basis should elections take place? What electoral districts should be represented? What powers should the chamber have? Above all, what will it be for? These questions can't be answered by more piecemeal tinkering. The creation of an elected second chamber will be a revolutionary change with ramifying effects across the political system. It would be absurd, even dangerous, to look at it in isolation.

Formidable agenda

The second new development is the "English Question" I mentioned earlier. Sometimes this is confused with the notorious "West Lothian Question", but it goes deeper than that. English nationalism (or patriotism, for those who feel squeamish about nationalism) has always been with us, but for most of the time since the Act of Union it has masqueraded as British nationalism. English nationhood was subsumed by British nationhood; the cross of St George by the Union Jack. The Scots and the Welsh were understandably offended by the English habit of talking of "Britain" and "England" as though they were the same thing, but to most English people it was second nature.

Now this is changing. St George crosses on flags at football matches, the recent Social Attitudes Survey finding that there has been a significant fall in the percentage of English people who identify themselves as British and Conservative talk of confining votes on English legislation to English MPs are all straws in the wind.

It is not a high wind - yet. Perhaps it never will be. But it would be dangerous to count on that. Devolution has fostered a remarkable and fundamentally healthy growth in the self-confidence and sense of nationhood of the Scots and Welsh. Scotland and Wales are now distinct political communities, with real capital cities and real parliamentary assemblies, in a sense that has not been true of Scotland for 300 years and has never been true of Wales before.

The revival of England's sense of nationhood is a natural response to these transformations. Though the metropolitan liberal intelligentsia has never been comfortable with the idea, the English are a people, too. If the peoples of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are entitled to autonomy over a wide range of policy areas, how can it be right to deny it to the English?

The agenda is formidable, but so is Brown. He has been the strongest Chancellor since Cripps and the most successful since Gladstone. He has a chance to build a consensus for democratic change of a kind we have not seen since 1945. If he succeeds, he will go down as one of the greatest reforming prime ministers of modern times.

Gordon Brown's in-tray

Health Give public greater access to GPs on weekends and evenings; resolve NHS pay crisis and flawed application procedure for junior doctors

Poverty Put government back on track to meet target of halving child poverty by 2010

Terrorism Develop cross-departmental approach to tackling Islamic extremism

Housing Build eco-towns; meet targets for new housing; make it easier for first-time buyers to get on the property ladder; deal with home information pack problems

Schools Increase funding of state schools; set up National Council for Educational Excellence to tie industry, higher education and the voluntary sector more closely to schools; increase the number of school-leavers entering university

Europe Deal with fallout from the EU treaty and calls for a referendum

Iraq Set date for troop withdrawal; answer calls for an inquiry into the Iraq war