The Constitution Unit blog in 2020: the year in review

As was the case last year, 2020 has been a fascinating time to be writing about the UK constitution, its institutions and those involved in working within them (more so than anyone could have predicted in January). As the year draws to a close, blog editor Dave Busfield-Birch offers a roundup of the blog year just gone, as well as a look at the reach of the blog through the lens of its readership statistics. 

2019 was a year of constitutional flux and tension, with a new Prime Minister, a new Brexit deal and a new parliament. As challenging as 2019 was, however, 2020 has proved no less of a test for the constitution, its institutions and actors. It was always likely that the Brexit talks would not prove easy, and that the government’s Commons majority would not mean the Johnson government would automatically be able to bend parliament to its will. The pandemic has, of course, magnified the complexity of the government’s pre-existing challenges and raised a whole new number of policy problems, creating constitutional flashpoints aplenty. 

Below are our most popular blogs from the past year, preceded by a personal selection by me, at the end of my third year as blog editor.

Editor’s picks

The 2019 election campaign shows that abuse, harassment and intimidation of candidates is getting worse, especially for women, by Sofia Collignon.

It’s difficult to call this one of my ‘favourite’ blogs, but it’s definitely one of the most important that we produced this year. Women candidates continue to disproportionately experience intimidation and harassment during general election campaigns, and Sofia Collignon eloquently describes the specific problems they face. I have advised victims of harassment, discrimination and gender-based violence for most of my adult life, so this is a topic very close to my heart: sadly we still have a very long way to go.

The role of monarchy in modern democracy, by Robert Hazell and Bob Morris.

I studied history as an undergraduate and I always tended to focus on periods when the monarchy itself was in crisis and being challenged by other institutions. I therefore always enjoy editing Robert and Bob’s blogs on the subject. At the end of a busy year for the monarchy, which has had to adapt to both ‘Megxit’ and the pandemic, this blog stands out, summarising as it does the main conclusions of their new book, The Role of Monarchy in Modern Democracy: European Monarchies Compared. The book is fascinating, and I would also recommend viewing the launch event (chaired by Jonathan Dimbleby) on our YouTube page, where you can find video recordings of all our 2020 events. 

Our most popular new blogs by month

January

Prince Harry, Meghan Markle and the Sandringham settlement, by Robert Hazell and Bob Morris. 

‘Megxit’ might have taken many people by surprise, but once it was announced by the Sussexes, the terms of their departure were agreed within ten days. In this blog, former Unit director Robert Hazell and Bob Morris discuss how the Sandringham settlement came to be and what it might mean for the monarchy and the Sussexes themselves. 

February

Can Boris Johnson simply repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act?, by Robert Hazell. 

The future of the FTPA is currently being reviewed by a joint parliamentary committee and the government has recently produced a draft bill to repeal the Act, returning the prerogative power of dissolution to the Crown (and therefore the governnment). This blog anticipated that action, arguing that it is not enough to simply repeal the Act and the options for reform should be properly considered.

March

Parliament and COVID-19: the Coronavirus Bill and beyond, by David Natzler.

March was when the government enacted a full lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is therefore unsurprising that the top blog for this month was COVID-related. Former Clerk of the Commons David Natzler outlined the key issues that faced MPs and peers as they considered the Coronavirus Bill and how parliament should function during the pandemic, in circumstances where it was harder for both Houses to meet, scrutinise and vote than at any time in recent memory.

April 

Democracy and the coronavirus: how might parliament adapt?, by David Natzler. 

Former Clerk of the Commons David Natzler returned to the topic of how parliament as an institution was adapting to the pandemic. 

May

Coronavirus and constituents: working for an MP during a pandemic, by Emma Salisbury. 

Emma Salisbury, Senior Parliamentary Assistant to Paul Holmes MP, offers a personal of view of what it was like working for an MP as the UK experienced a change in the way we live and work of a type that few (if any) people have experienced before.

June

The Parliamentary Constituencies Bill: no fewer MPs but a very different constituency map by Ron Johnston, David Rossiter and Charles Pattie. 

Professor Ron Johnston sadly died whilst working on a draft of this post and he will be sadly missed as a scholar and a colleague. In this post, Ron and two of his long-time collaborators discussed how the Parliamentary Constituencies Bill (since passed into law) was likely to result in major disruption to the constituency map. It also was an excuse for me to use one of my favourite blog images, a map of the Pontefract constituency following the 1832 Reform Act. 

July

Boris Johnson’s 36 new peerages make the need to constrain prime ministerial appointments to the House of Lords clearer than ever, by Meg Russell. 

Unit Director Meg Russell is on blisteringly good form in this post, which the government has helpfully made topical by this week announcing yet another batch of peerages, including one person who had previously been rejected by the House of Lords Appointment Commission. Meg argues that Boris Johnson’s new peerages make it clearer than ever that constraints must be placed on the Prime Minister’s power to appoint to the Lords. This post was the most-read blog of the year.

August

Do men and women communicate differently in the House of Commons?, by Lotte Hargrave and Tone Langengen. 

A personal favourite of mine, in which Unit PhD candidate Lotte Hargrave and Tone Langengen discuss how they found compelling evidence for differences in how male and female MPs communicate: women are more likely to evidence arguments with personal experience, discuss policies in a more concrete way, and are less adversarial than men. 

September

MPs are right. Parliament has been sidelined, by Meg Russell and Lisa James.

Unit Director Meg Russell and Unit Research Assistant Lisa James argued that MPs were right to feel marginalised by the government’s approach to the pandemic, and that this was part of a government trend of ignoring or bypassing parliament.

October

Why we need an independent Electoral Commission, by Alan Renwick and Charlotte Kincaid. 

Unit Deputy Director Alan Renwick and Impact Research Fellow Charlotte Kincaid review the evidence submitted to a inquiry into the work of the Electoral Commission, conducted by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. They argue that the debate raises important wider questions about the place of checks and balances in our system of democratic governance.

November

Referendums on Irish unification: how would they best be designed and conducted?, by Alan Renwick. 

Chair Alan Renwick sets out some of the key provisional findings of the Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland, which published its interim report in November. It’s a fascinating report, and still in the consultation phase should you want to submit feedback, which you can do here.

December

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act: should it be amended or repealed?, by Robert Hazell. 

As many predicted, the government has stated its intention to reclaim the power of dissolution. In this post, former Unit Director Robert Hazell argues that the FTPA would be better amended than abolished. 

The year in numbers

As of 22 December, our blog has been read 174,348 times this year, averaging out at about 15,000 blog views per month.  As shown below, the majority of our readers come from the UK, but the blog has been read by people from 191 different countries and territories, including Yemen, South Sudan, Guatemala, Andorra and Vanuatu. The graphic shows the countries in which we were most popular: Malaysia once again makes the top 10, comfortably beating off competition from Italy and Japan, which are twice and four times its size, respectively. If anybody in Malaysia would like to tell us what makes us so popular there, we’d love to know.

And finally…

The blog would be nothing without its contributors. They are too great in number to list here, but everyone at the Unit is very grateful for the time and effort they have put into the posts that we have published this year. In addition, I am personally grateful for the support I have had from everyone at the Unit during my third year as editor of the blog and Monitor. Meg Russell and Alan Renwick (our Director and Deputy Director respectively), as well as our former Director, Robert Hazell, deserve a special mention on that front: the blog would not be what it is without them. Impact Research Fellow Charlotte Kincaid has also been a key colleague, who has provided all sorts of behind-the-scenes assistance. It’s been a difficult year for everybody, so I am even more grateful than usual to work with such a supportive and welcoming group of people.

We hope that you have enjoyed our content in 2020, and that you continue to read the blog in the 12 months ahead. It promises to be another interesting year: the pandemic will continue to dominate the agenda and pose a host of constitutional dilemmas, and we of course have no idea where Brexit will take us. This time last year, the events of 2020 would have seemed fantastical: are we in for a similar constitutional and political earthquake in 2021? We cannot possibly predict what will happen next, but we will continue to do our best to answer the constitutional questions 2021 throws at us. We hope you’ll join the debate, and us, again in January.

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About the author

Dave Busfield-Birch is somehow still lucky enough to be the editor of the Constitution Unit blog and Monitor, and a contributor to the latter.