2021 has been a fascinating time to be writing about the UK constitution, its institutions and those involved in working within them. The government, despite the pandemic, has proposed a raft of policies with constitutional implications, including a restriction of judicial review, changes to the right to protest, human rights reform and an online safety bill shorn of a previous commitment to safeguard democracy from online harms. As the year comes to an end, blog editor Dave Busfield-Birch offers a roundup of the 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. In 2020, COVID-19 upset the political calculus and posed challenges aplenty for the constitution and its watchdogs. 2021 saw the country seeking to find its way as COVID-19 conditions became the new normal, within a context of a government that has persistently broken rules and violated norms (and not always to its advantage). Below are our most popular blogs from the past year, preceded by a personal selection by me, at the end of my fourth year as blog editor.
A woman’s place is in the House: reclaiming civility, tolerance and respect in political life, by Dame Laura Cox.
If I have a constitutional niche, it is parliamentary standards of conduct and the slow evolution of the standards regime at Westminster. Outside of the Unit, I provide free employment law advice to members of the public, with an emphasis on discrimination. This post was therefore always going to be included on this list.
Dame Laura, who produced a seminal report on the bullying and harassment of parliamentary staff, argues with eloquence and passion that the behaviour of too many parliamentarians is misogynistic and a cause of capable women leaving parliament, or having to accept behaviour that would not be permitted in any other workplace. She says that this is in part an institutional problem, and calls for a more open, tolerant, respectful and conciliatory politics.
‘Our travel difficulties haven’t been well-understood by the Government’: life as an MP from the smaller opposition parties during the pandemic, by Louise Thompson and Alexandra Meakin.
One of the country’s foremost experts on small parties and (in my opinion), the go-to source for analysis of Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster, team up here to fantastic effect. They outline how smaller parties have been disproportionately affected by government choices about how parliament should operate during the pandemic. They offer a warning that this might have long-term and unintended consequences: failure to enable the voices of MPs from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales to be heard may lead to constituents in these nations feeling voiceless in an institution that no longer represents them.
The post is one of a long-running series on the impact of COVID-19 on our constitution and its institutions.
Who are the ‘unsung heroes’ of Westminster? Results from a survey of MPs staff, by Rebecca McKee.
Rebecca is an incredibly talented colleague, and I had to include this post – the sixth most popular blog of the year – in which she presents initial data from her project on MPs’ staff.
Her project is ongoing, and you can find more information about it on the Unit website.
Our most popular new blogs by month
Taking back control: why the House of Commons should govern its own time, by Meg Russell and Daniel Gover.
In Taking back control: why the House of Commons should govern its own time, Unit Director Meg Russell and Daniel Gover highlight the problems that result from the government’s default control over the Commons agenda, and make proposals for reform. They argue that the fundamental principle guiding Commons functioning should be majority decision-making, not government control. As you would expect from Meg, the report is a cracker: impeccably researched, and with sensible suggestions to make the Commons work more democratically.
Boris Johnson and parliament: misunderstandings and structural weaknesses, by Meg Russell.
Having identified one major problem with the government’s handling of parliament above, Meg returned to the subject in February to argue that the Johnson government has demonstrated basic misunderstandings about parliament and its role, and that the government’s behaviour has highlighted some of parliament’s key weaknesses. In the wake of the very avoidable Owen Paterson scandal, Meg’s comments ring as true as they did when they were published.
Parliaments and the pandemic, by Paul Evans.
A year on from the first national lockdown in the UK, former Clerk of Committees Paul Evans offered a fascinating overview of how parliaments across the world had adapted to the limitations imposed on them by the pandemic, concluding with a list of pandemic-mandated changes that should be retained once the crisis has passed.
The marginalisation of the House of Commons under Covid has been shocking; a year on, parliament’s role must urgently be restored, by Meg Russell, Ruth Fox, Ronan Cormacain and Joe Tomlinson.
In this post (the most popular new post of 2021), Meg joined forces with writers from the Hansard Society, Bingham Centre and Public Law Project to condemn the marginalisation of parliament since the start of the pandemic, and to call for the urgent and meaningful return of robust parliamentary scrutiny.
Regulating the use of COVID passports in the UK: the need for primary legislation, by Ronan Cormacain .
The Bingham Centre’s Ronan Cormacain argued, in a piece with renewed relevance this month, that the use of secondary legislation would be inappropriate for legislation on vaccine passports. He argued that rule of law concerns necessitate that this sort of change be made via primary legislation, which must be given time for proper scrutiny.
The anatomy of democratic backsliding: could it happen here?, by Stephen Haggard and Robert R Kaufman.
The term ‘backsliding’ has been coined to describe the phenomenon by which leaders come to office within a democratic framework, only to attack some of democracy’s core features when in office. In this blog, which is based on their excellent book, the authors identify some of the key features of ‘backsliding’, discuss how and why it can take hold, and whether there are warning signs that such a process could happen in the UK (spoiler alert: there are).
Post-truth – and post-conservative? How Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party poses a threat to the quality of our democracy, by Tim Bale.
Tim Bale, an expert on the modern Conservative party, argues that the government seems bent on freeing itself from the constraints that we used to take for granted, and has embraced populism in a reckless manner. He calls on ministers to reconsider their attitude to the rules of the constitutional system before it is too late.
This was one of a series of posts written by speakers at our June conference on the Johnson government’s constitutional reform agenda.
Parliament has the right to reverse judicial decisions, but governments must be careful not to undermine the important role the courts play as a check and balance in our unwritten constitution, by Lord (Edward) Faulks.
Another post from a conference panellist, in which the chair of the Independent Review of Administrative Law speaks of its work and the government bill that resulted, which went further than Faulks and his colleagues recommended in terms of limiting judicial review.
Scotland’s place in the Union will not be decided in the courts: only politicians can enable or prevent independence, by Ciaran Martin.
Former senior civil servant Ciaran Martin argues that regardless of the legality of any referendum, it is unrealistic to think that Scotland will leave the Union without the consent of Westminster. So, it is politicians, and not the courts, who will determine Scotland’s future.
Reliance on secondary legislation has resulted in significant problems: it is time to rethink how such laws are created, by Jonathan Jones.
Another serious post from a heavy hitter. Former Head of the Government Legal Department, Jonathan Jones, argues that mass use of statutory instruments is problematic, and that there should be a fundamental rethink of how and when they are used, debated and approved. He calls for a new Statutory Instruments Act to enable this ‘reset’.
Is this what democratic backsliding feels like? Constitutional developments under the Johnson government, by Meg Russell and Alan Renwick.
Whenever our Director and Deputy Director team up for a blogpost, the results are always outstanding. This post also served as the lead article of the November issue of Monitor, the Unit’s triannual roundup of constitutional news, which we send out to our mailing list for free in March, July and November. It expresses serious concerns about a repeated lack of parliamentary scrutiny, proposed changes to the way elections are overseen and conducted, standards in public life, the proper role of government, and the effect of all four on the perception of our public servants.
If you like what you see, you can subscribe to Monitor for free.
Should we be allowed to see MPs’ voting records?, by Ben Worthy and Cat Morgan.
Ben Worthy has a long history with the Constitution Unit, and his posts are always illuminating. This was no exception: writing with Birkbeck colleague Cat Morgan, the post explores how their research has highlighted some of the problems and benefits of MPs’ voting data being provided to the public through websites such as TheyWorkForYou.
The year in numbers
As of 22 December, our blog has been read 184,313 times this year, averaging out at about 15,400 blog views per month. The majority of our readers come from the UK, but the blog has been read by people from 203 different countries and territories, including Turkmenistan, Cuba, Burundi and the Cook Islands. The graphic above shows the countries in which we were most popular. For some reason, we remain wildly popular in Malaysia, with only the USA and UK supplying more readers. This is despite the fact that we have never posted a single item on the Malaysian constitution, a situation we might have to remedy! India, France, Canada, Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands and Australia complete the top 10.
The blog would be nothing without its contributors. They are too great in number to list here, but I am very grateful for their expertise and their time. In addition, I am personally grateful for the support I have had from everyone at the Unit during my fourth year as editor of the blog and Monitor. Meg Russell and Alan Renwick (now, finally, given the Professor title he so richly deserves), 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. Indeed, had Robert not recruited me as a volunteer way back in 2008, then I would not even be here. Even in retirement he is putting in more hours than me: look out for his book on the royal prerogative next year: it’s going to be a barn burner.
Impact Research Fellow Charlotte Kincaid has also been a key colleague: sadly, she has just left us for pastures new, and will be missed in so many ways. The race to replace her is on: you have until 9 January to throw your hat in the ring.
We hope that you enjoyed our content this year and that you come back in 2022. At the start of each of the last five years, the course of the next 12 months has proved impossible to predict. Will this year be quieter and more stable, with a return to constitutional norms? Perhaps, but as Garak, one of my favourite fictional characters, once said: ‘I always hope for the best. Experience, unfortunately, has taught me to expect the worst.’
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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.
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