New Government In Britain Promises Much Less Intrusion

A week after taking power in circumstances that led to widespread questioning of its longevity, Britain’s new coalition government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats has challenged detractors with the most ambitious plan in decades for upending the highly centralized and often intrusive way the country is governed.

A week after taking power in circumstances that led to widespread questioning of its longevity, Britain’s new coalition government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats has challenged detractors with the most ambitious plan in decades for upending the highly centralized and often intrusive way the country is governed.

The plan outlined on Wednesday would create a fully elected House of Lords, scrapping heredity and political favour as a passport to power.

It would change the voting system for the House of Commons, adopting a system that would require all lawmakers to win 50 percent of the vote in their constituencies and shaking up the politics of “safe” parliamentary seats that effectively give scores of MP’s lifetime employment.

In addition, the plan would adopt an American-style power of recall opening the way for restive voters to unseat errant lawmakers by gathering 10,000 votes on a recall petition, and introduce new laws to regulate Britain’s $3.5-billion-a-year political lobbying industry, until now one of the most freewheeling in Europe. It would also set a five-year “fixed term” for parliaments, coupled with a new law specifying that governments cannot be toppled by less than a 55 percent vote in the House of Commons. That measure is intended, the coalition has said, to stop political parties forcing elections for partisan reasons.

Along with this, the reforms, as laid out by the new deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, would seek to reverse what many rights activists and civil libertarians have depicted as an increasingly Orwellian trend in British life. Targets would include a proliferation of “nanny state” laws, non-elected administrative bodies and surveillance systems — many of them a product of Labour’s 13 years in power — that critics say have severely curbed individual freedoms and enlarged state powers to a degree unrivaled by other democratic societies.

Vowing that the coalition would end “the culture of spying on its citizens”, Mr. Clegg said it would “tear through the statute book,” scrapping a nationwide system of identity cards on which the Labour government spent huge sums, and abandoning a new generation of “biometric” passports holding a vastly-expanded archive of personal data. In addition, he said, there would be new restrictions on the government’s right to intercept and hold personal internet and email traffic and to store DNA data from people not convicted of any crime.

Mr. Clegg said the reforms would also place new curbs on tens of thousands of closed-circuit television cameras in public places — a field in which, critics say, Britain is a world leader, to the extent that police investigating crimes are often able to construct extensive videos tracing the movement of suspects and victims through shopping centers, city streets, hospitals, gas stations and other public places. Hidden surveillance cameras have also been used to monitor people dumping rubbish illegally, and to enable the prosecution of parents who lay false claims to residency in an area with better schools than are available close to their real homes.

“It is outrageous that decent, law-abiding citizens get treated as if they have got something to hide”, Mr. Clegg said.

Libel laws that strongly favour litigants seeking to shield private and professional activities from media scrutiny will also be changed, he said. In recent years, London has been dubbed the “libel capital of the world” for the habit of wealthy people, including film stars, business tycoons and other celebrities, filing defamation suits in British courts under laws and judges that tend to favor privacy rights over media freedoms, in contrast to the pattern in American libel litigation.

The reforms would decentralize much of the power now wielded by the government in London, which Mr. Clegg said made Britain “on some measures, the most centralized country in Europe, bar Malta.” He said the coalition would abandon the Labour belief that “change in our society must be forced from the center”, and allow communities much greater say in the management of hospitals, schools, local police forces and other matters. “We’re not insecure about relinquishing control”, he said.

Overall, Mr. Clegg billed the reform package as the “most significant program of empowerment by a British government” since the 19th-century.

It was, he said, nothing less than “a power revolution”, and “a fundamental resettlement of the relationship between state and citizen that pouts you in charge”. He added:

“This government is going to transform our politics so that the state has far less control over you, and you have far more control over the state”. The new program immediately ran into opposition from critics who called it risky and overdrawn, as well as a smokescreen to disguise issues on which the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, as coalition partners, have wide differences. Even supporters said it could take years to implement, assuming it can overcome opposition from a political establishment and bureaucracy accustomed for generations to largely untrammelled executive power.

A foretaste of the opposition came from Alan Johnson, who until the fall of the Labour government last week served as home secretary, with wide powers over security, the police and other regulatory agencies. He accused Mr. Clegg of employing “rampant hyperbole” on the surveillance issue and said that Labour’s law-and-order reforms, at the heart of Mr. Clegg’s assault, had wide public backing..

But supporters hailed Mr. Clegg’s speech for challenging what has been an article of faith in many quarters throughout the country’s modern history: that Britain, with a historical claim to be the “mother of democracy” from the time of the Magna Carta in 1215 A.D., has remained an example for much of the rest of the world to envy. For at least 200 years, a British prime minister backed by a loyal parliamentary majority, and freed from the constraints of a written constitution, has had powers that that American presidents and other rulers could only envy.

Mr. Clegg said the government knew it would meet with widespread scepticism. “All politicians say they want to give people more control over their lives”, he said, but added: “This government is going to make it happen.”

Whether that is possible, though, may depend on whether the coalition can hold together in the face of strong pressures from within each of the two coalition parties, including a Conservative right-wing that is likely to be deeply discomfited by wide-ranging political reforms.

But another view that has begun to take hold is that David Cameron, the Conservative prime minister, who had hoped for a majority in the May 6 election, has seized on the coalition as an opportunity not only to change Britain, but the Conservative Party, too. In effect, some commentators have said, the pact with the Liberal Democrats has freed Mr. Cameron to govern in ways suited to his own liberal predilections, and his vow to make the Conservatives more “compassionate.”

Source : nytimes