Britain's Brown Eyes Political Change

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown says he wants Parliament — not the prime minister — to have the final word on whether Britain goes to war in the future. The plan is seen by many analysts as a repudiation of predecessor Tony Blair.

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The attempted car bombings in London and Glasgow came just days after Gordon Brown took over as Britain's prime minister. That violence interrupted a process that Brown had been planning for months - constitutional changes aimed at making the government more accountable to the British people.

Yesterday, Gordon Brown went ahead and presented his proposals for radical constitutional reform to the House of Commons. NPR's Rob Gifford reports.

ROB GIFFORD: It's not every day that the leader of a country lays out proposals for limiting his or her own power. But that's exactly what Gordon Brown did yesterday in his first speech to parliament, proposing 12 areas in which he believed his own power as prime minister should be curtailed.

Prime Minister GORDON BROWN (United Kingdom): The power of the executive to declare war, the power to request the dissolution of parliament, the power over recall of the - the power of the executive to ratify international treaties without decision by parliament.

Unidentified Group: Yea.

Prime Minister BROWN: The power to make key public appointments without - power over the civil service itself and the executive powers. I know propose…

Unidentified Group: Yea.

Prime Minister BROWN: …to surrender or limit these powers to make for a more open 21st century British democracy which better serves the British people.

Unidentified Group: Yea.

GIFFORD: There are two important things that Gordon Brown learned during his years as Tony Blair's chancellor of Exchequer. The first is that people increasingly don't trust politicians. The second is that, as he took over midterm from an unpopular Blair and still did not have a mandate from the people himself, he had to make it clear that he and Tony Blair were very different.

Yesterday's speech, his first to parliament, was Brown's attempt to address both of theses issues.

Prime Minister BROWN: The changes we propose today, and the national debate we now begin, are founded upon the conviction that the best answer to disengagement from our democracy is to strengthen our democracy.

GIFFORD: Britain does not have a written constitution. Its constitution is drawn from legislation, often many hundreds of years old, from judicial precedents and from convention. One of Gordon Brown's most radical proposals is to announce a public consultation on whether to establish a U.S.-style bill of rights and a written constitution which would set out clearly the rights and responsibilities of British people for the first time.

Tony Blair was known to enjoy the executive power of being prime minister, and was sometime criticized for making decisions with a few close, unelected advisers and only then presenting them to his cabinet or to the House of Commons, and sometimes even presenting them first to the media.

Ed Miliband is the new minister for the Cabinet Office and a close colleague of Gordon Brown.

Mr. ED MILIBAND (Minister for the Cabinet Office, United Kingdom): What we've seen, particularly over recent years but even before that, is the growth of 24-hour media. I'm not blaming the media for that, but in increasingly big statements not made in parliament, made elsewhere. Today is part of a general approach, I think, which the prime minister is hoping marks his new government, which is that parliament becomes a more central place in our national life partly as a way of reengaging people in politics.

GIFFORD: Gordon Brown stressed that his proposals were not a final blueprint but rather a roadmap subject to consultation with the other political parties and the public. The general sense among other parties has been that political reform is long overdue. The leader of the opposition Conservative Party, David Cameron, welcomed many of the prime minister's proposals but said he did not think Gordon Brown was the man to make them.

Mr. DAVID CAMERON (Conservative Party, United Kingdom): He says he wants to restore trust in politics, but surely he has to recognize that he has been at the heart of the government that has done more in living memory than any other government to destroy trust in politics.

Unidentified Group: Yeah.

Mr. CAMERON: That's why when it comes to restoring trust in politics, we simply don't see that he can be the change that this country needs.

Unidentified Group: Yeah.

GIFFORD: Gordon Brown had hoped to come into office and present these plans with a flourish. The plots to explode car bombs in London and Glasgow have distracted the public's attention, but Brown has gone ahead anyway, perhaps in the belief that his proposals are aiming to strengthen the very institutions and way of life that the terrorists are trying to destroy.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, London.

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