Tribute to James Cornford

James Cornford, co-founder of the Constitution Unit and chair of its Advisory Committee, died on 26 September.  James had a longstanding interest in constitutional reform, first awakened when he was a young Professor at Edinburgh, and later developed when he was director of the Outer Circle Policy Unit in the late 1970s.  OCPU did pioneering work on devolution and drafting a freedom of information bill, and James later became chair of the Campaign for Freedom of Information.  He was the founder and first director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, and while there assembled a team of lawyers to draft a written constitution, published with a detailed commentary as A Written Constitution for the UK (IPPR, 1991).

At that time John Smith as Labour leader was developing Labour’s plans for a major programme of constitutional reform.  James was concerned that in government Labour might fail as spectacularly as they had over reform of the House of Lords in 1968, and devolution in the 1970s.  So he persuaded me to leave the Nuffield Foundation and start a project producing detailed plans for the implementation of all Labour’s and the Liberal Democrats’ constitutional reform proposals: devolution in Scotland and Wales, Human Rights legislation, reform of the House of Lords, freedom of information, referendums, regional government in England.  We recruited a team of three others, two coming direct from Whitehall; and in its first 18 months the Constitution Unit produced detailed reports on all these topics, with James reading and commenting on them all.

He was a delightful chair of the Unit’s Advisory Committee, teasing and charming in equal measure formidable public servants like Sir Kerr Fraser and Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, politicians like Tony Wright, and journalists like Andrew Marr.  He was full of fun and mischief, but underlying that was a real seriousness of purpose, and a capacity to puncture any kind of humbug or sloppy thinking.

James was the inspiration and founder of many organisations, of which the Constitution Unit is but one.  For a fuller account of his life, see his obituary in the Guardian at http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2011/oct/05/james-cornford-obituary.

(Photograph: Dartington Trust Hall)

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