Can Scotland trust Westminster to transfer enough powers to seal it for a No result?

Brian Walker explores whether the pro-Union parties can offer enough devolution to persuade voters Scotland will be given priority if they vote No.

On September 18 voters in Scotland will take a momentous decision based on two sets of uncertainty: on independence which is on the ballot paper and on more devolution which is not. A recent survey by the British Election Study suggests 74% of voters want some or a lot more devolution. Only 35% of them are Yes supporters.  57% of No voters actually want more devolution and 50% of all voters believe it will happen if No wins. This is a rising tide the pro-Union parties are desperate to harness.

And so to counter the clearer appeal of independence, the leaders of Scotland’s pro-union parties gathered on Calton Hill in Edinburgh on 16 June to deliver a joint promise of more devolution in the event of a No vote. David Cameron declared:

All the mainstream pro-UK parties believe in further devolution, so whilst we would want to build consensus for a set of measures and legislation, there is no reason why these changes shouldn’t happen early in the next Parliament.

Lib Dem peer Lord Jeremy Purvis, leader of the cross-party Devo Plus group, enthused that all of the major parties were now ‘clearly and unequivocally supporting a stronger Scotland.’

In early July Purvis joined representatives of the other two parties, Anas Sarwar MP, Deputy Leader of Scottish Labour and member of the party’s Devolution Commission and Peter Duncan, a communications consultant and former Scottish Conservative MP,  for an Institute for Government debate:  Scotland in a changing UK: Unionist visions for further devolution after the referendum. Is  the impression of chiming pro-union agreement justified?

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Codifying the UK constitution: an exercise in reform or preservation?

If the UK gets a written constitution, will it seek simply to codify the current constitutional arrangement or will it present an opportunity for more fundamental changes? In light of a recent PCRC report assessing the desirability of a written constitution, Daniel Helen looks at recent codification proposals and considers the reforms they put forward.

A new Magna CartaBehind the title of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee’s report into the desirability of a codified constitution for the UK – published last Thursday as A New Magna Carta?– lies an unintended analogy. While the rebellious English barons in 1215 may have claimed that they demanded nothing more than a return to the good old law of Edward the Confessor and Henry I, in many of its provisions Magna Carta marked a significant break from past practice. Modern-day proponents of a codified, or ‘written’, constitution are not so different. While the act of codifying certainly amounts to a momentous reform in itself, both proponents and opponents realise that it provides an opportunity to make significant changes to the substance (not just the form) of the constitution. The committee’s report is no exception.

There have been numerous attempts at codification over the past few decades, varying considerably in length and scope.The most radical proposal came in the form of Tony Benn’s Commonwealth of Britain Bill, first presented to the House of Commons in 1991. It called for – inter alia – the abolition of the monarchy, a ‘House of the People’ in lieu of the aristocratic Lords, equal parliamentary representation of men and women, and a federal Britain with devolved parliaments in England, Scotland and Wales (British jurisdiction over Northern Ireland would end). Given Benn’s views and history, one should not really be surprised by his proposals. In 1990, the Liberal Democrats published a codified constitution in “We the People…” – Towards a Written Constitution. Its proposed changes embodied party policy which remains largely the same to this day. Notably, it would introduce the single transferable vote and replace the Lords with an elected Senate. Like Benn’s Bill, it is clearly the product of a distinctive political outlook.

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Defining the office of Prime Minister

The British Prime Minister has extensive and growing powers, yet the role is ill-defined in UK constitutional documents. Graham Allen argues in favour of clarifying the role of the Prime Minister. He also suggests it should become a directly elected office, to ensure that it is properly answerable to the UK public.

It is symptomatic of the British constitution that the more important something is, the more vaguely defined it is, and the harder it is to make it democratically accountable.

This principle certainly applies to the office of Prime Minister.

We do not know for certain when it came into existence. Historians tell us that the most important person in this process was Sir Robert Walpole, in the early eighteenth century. His reputation for corruption hardly makes for the most auspicious beginning for any great institution of state. Anyway, he did not actually officially create anything and always denied that he was a ‘Prime Minister’. The fact is that the most important job in British government has come about over a long period of three hundred years without anyone ever knowing precisely what it was; and without Parliament or the public ever having been consulted about it.

The House of Commons select committee of which I am the elected chair, the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, has been looking at the office of Prime Minister for a number of years now, and we recently published a report on the subject. One of the surprising things we learned when investigating the subject was how little formal definition there is, even today, of the office of Prime Minister. The most that can be found is a few lines in a document published in 2011, The Cabinet Manual. Yet this text is – as the name suggests – an operational guide for government, aimed mainly at officials and ministers. It is not a full public definition of the prime-ministership, nor does it have proper legal force.

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Debating the influence of Magna Carta 800 years on

In June, UCL hosted a workshop organised by the Political Studies Association exploring to what extent Magna Carta still influences the UK constitution and British politics. Colin Murray reports.

As the 800th anniversary of events at Runnymede draws closer, 18 June saw a one-day workshop on the influence of Magna Carta organised by the Political Studies Association and hosted by University College London. With official pronouncements on the anniversary talking up ‘celebrations’ of the Magna Carta the time is ripe for a reconsideration of its ongoing influence. If, as Robert Hazell said in his introductory remarks, the UK Constitution can be described as a ‘winner takes all’ system, can we really say much at all for the influence of a document which purports to be at the root of ideas of limited government?

As the eleven panel presentations unfolded, the tenor of debate very much suggested that the Magna Carta has long since ceased to have practical implications as a legal instrument. Its terms have for the most part been repealed or superseded. Only the spirit persists, which of course makes it particularly valuable to political actors as a foundation myth (as explored by Natalie Riendeau) or to judges as a rhetorical device (Craig Lerner). These views were reinforced by Vernon Bogdanor, who considered that accounts of Magna Carta were in danger of remembering the future and forgetting the past. With the present very much in mind, Bogdanor drew an analogy between the power struggles which precipitated Magna Carta and the uneasy constitutional compromise it established and the present shifting relationship between parliamentary sovereignty and the rule of law within the UK Constitution. Expanding upon this theme, Anthony King posed the question of who the barons were within today’s political system. Nora Williams would later reprise this issue by considering Magna Carta’s lessons for contemporary accounts of judicial supremacy in constitutional arrangements.

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Pressures are growing for Commons bill committee reform

In June 2013 the Constitution Unit published Fitting the Bill: Bringing Commons Legislation Committees into Line with Best Practice, proposing a series of changes to Commons bill committees. Last week the issue was brought back into the headlines, as John Bercow emphasised the need for reform.

Last Monday at a lecture for the Study of Parliament Group, the Commons Speaker John Bercow suggested that reform of Commons public bill committees is overdue. His remarks closely chimed with proposals made in a Constitution Unit report published last year (and summarised here). With the end of the current parliament fast approaching, this topic should be high on the agenda for those planning for the parliament of 2015.

Bercow’s lecture commemorated Michael Ryle, who together with the late Sir Bernard Crick founded the SPG in 1964. One of the key proposals coming from Crick (and the Group in its early years) was the establishment of permanent specialist committees for the Commons. This led to the creation of today’s select committee system. But as we summarised in our report reformers originally wanted the committees to deal with government bills as well as general inquiries. This failed to happen, and legislative scrutiny remained in the hands of temporary non-specialist committees. Since then the reputation of the select committees has steadily grown, while the reputation of bill committees has generally been poor. Especially since the reforms recommended by the Wright committee were implemented in 2010, the gap between the two types of Commons committees has grown.

This gap is graphically illustrated by another event of the past few weeks – the election of Conservative backbencher Sarah Wollaston as chair of the Commons Health Select Committee (commented on here). Wollaston is a former GP, elected to the role by fellow MPs under the system facilitated by the Wright committee. Before this system came into force, select committee members were controversially chosen by party whips (albeit with some oversight by the Commons chamber). This could lead to MPs considered too independent-minded (sometimes including subject experts) being kept off. But the old whip-based system still applies to the public bill committees, and its most controversial use in the 2010 parliament applied to Wollaston herself. She had sought appointment to the committee considering the coalition’s Health and Social Care bill, but was kept off – which attracted significant media attention and criticism of parliament. Her treatment under the two systems could not be more starkly different. The (elected) select committee system valued expertise; the (appointed) public bill committee system did the reverse.

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Equality, Community and Continuity: Reviewing the UK Rules for Constituency Redistributions – Part 2

The review of Parliamentary constituencies that ended prematurely in 2013 would have resulted in most of the 600 seats contested at the 2015 general election being very different from the current 650. In this second blog based on their research Ron Johnston, David Rossiter and Charles Pattie outline why electoral quotas, rather than a reduction in the number of MPs, would be the primary cause of disruption in a boundary review.

The redistributions undertaken by the Boundary Commissions in 2011-2013 were aborted by Parliament for political reasons before their completion, so the 2015 general election will be fought in the current constituencies. But implementation of the 2011 Act was merely delayed until 2016 and a new set of reviews initiated then will, if conducted under the same Rules for Redistributions, be as disruptive to the current map of constituencies as those aborted in 2013. However, this will be primarily due to attempts to introduce electoral quotas, rather than any reduction in the number of MPs.

In seeking to reduce the number of MPs, from 650 to 600, the coalition government was less concerned with the impact on boundaries than in reducing the cost of Parliament.  But as MPs and others saw seats disappear from the map amid the general disruption, the two issues became somewhat conflated.  Surely this reduction had to be part of the cause?  Our research suggests the impact was slight, however.  A few more seats might have escaped change had the number of MPs not been altered, but the causes (and possible solutions) of the major disruption were elsewhere.

The imposition of a single electoral quota plus the reduction in the number of MPs meant that the formerly over-represented parts of the United Kingdom would experience larger decreases in their Parliamentary delegations than others: the number of Welsh MPs would decline from 40 to 30 (a 25 per cent reduction) and Scottish MPs from 59 to 52 (a 12 per cent loss); Northern Ireland’s decline was from 18 to 16 (11 per cent) and England’s from 533 to 502 (6 per cent).

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Equality, Community and Continuity: Reviewing the UK Rules for Constituency Redistributions – Part 1

The review of Parliamentary constituencies that ended prematurely in 2013 would have resulted in most of the 600 seats contested at the 2015 general election being very different from the current 650. The potential disruption alarmed many MPs and party organisations. In the first blog based on their recently published research, Ron Johnston, David Rossiter and Charles Pattie assess whether changing the rules for defining constituencies could reduce the disruption to the map of constituencies.

Concern regarding variations in constituency electorates, coupled with a drive to cut the cost of Parliament in the wake of the 2009 expenses scandal, stimulated Conservative Party commitments in its 2010 General Election manifesto to legislate to ‘ensure every vote will have equal value’ and reduce the size of the House of Commons.

Legislation passed in 2011 put that intention into practice and the Boundary Commissions commenced their task of producing a new set of 600 constituencies all, with the exception of four special cases, having electorates within +/-5% of the UK average. They consulted on their proposals and revised them accordingly, but their work was halted by Parliament before its completion because of disagreements within the coalition on the programme of constitutional change. By then, however, MPs and party organisations had become aware that the new system, with its emphasis on electoral equality, disrupted the existing map of constituencies very significantly. Fully 54% of the current seats would be subject to major change, compared to only 30% at the last review, and many more constituencies would cross local government boundaries than previously.

The Boundary Commissions are currently required to begin their task again in 2016, in order to produce a new set of constituencies for the 2020 general election. But the very disruptive consequences of the previous exercise generated questions regarding the nature of the new procedure. Would it be possible to reduce the disruption substantially, yet maintain the general principle of electoral equality, with a more relaxed tolerance around the average? And would there be less disruption if the number of MPs was retained at the current 650, rather than reducing it to 600?

Our research answering these two questions has been recently published, and can be downloaded from the McDougall Trust website. It found that a more relaxed tolerance would reduce the disruption somewhat, but at least one-third of all constituencies would almost certainly have to experience major change – regardless of the size of the House of Commons.

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