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

(Photograph: Dartington Trust Hall)

Clegg comes through for the Conservatives on Constitutional Reform

At a joint Constitution Unit/Institute for Government seminar on 11 July I developed three propositions:

  1. The Conservatives are just as much a party of constitutional reform as the Lib Dems, but this has never been acknowledged, not least by themselves.
  2. Nick Clegg in taking the lead on the whole of the government’s constitutional reform programme has taken responsibility for delivering the Conservatives’ reforms as well as the Lib Dem ones.
  3. At the end of the coalition government, Clegg will have delivered more of the Conservative package of constitutional reforms than his own. In particular, he will have failed on the AV referendum and on Lords reform, the Lib Dems’ two biggest priorities.

For proof that the Conservatives are a party of constitutional reform, see the report which I wrote analysing all the Conservatives’ plans for constitutional change in February 2010. To my surprise it ran to 12 chapters, and can be found here.

For proof that Clegg will have delivered more of the Conservative package than of his own reforms, see the table here. It shows on one page the main constitutional reform items in the coalition’s Programme for Government. It is not comprehensive, but it does capture the more important of the government’s constitutional reforms. And it is inevitably a crude score card, in that it lists all the reforms as if they were equal, when some are clearly more important than others.

Columns 2 and 3 in the table show where a commitment in the Programme for Government came from: in the Conservative manifesto, the Lib Dem manifesto, or both. Further proof of my Proposition 1, that the coalition’s constitutional reform agenda comes just as much from the Conservatives as the Lib Dems, can be found by summing those two columns. Of the 14 items analysed in my table, 10 were in the Conservative manifesto, and 8 in the Lib Dem manifesto

The last two columns record the Conservative and Lib Dem manifesto commitments. Columns 2 and 3 summarise these by two symbols:

● = manifesto commitment fully incorporated into Programme for Government

○ = manifesto commitment only partially incorporated.

Column 4, headed Result, indicates whether the commitment is likely to be delivered or not. This requires some educated guesswork, and not everyone will agree with my forecasts. Those who disagree can insert their own, to see if they come to a different overall conclusion. My own conclusion, summing up my forecasts, is that at the end of this government Nick Clegg will have delivered six of the Conservative commitments for constitutional reform, but only four of his own. As I put it at the end of my chapter for the Institute for Government report on the first year of coalition government, One Year On:

‘He will get little credit from the Conservatives for this, because they do not see themselves as constitutional reformers. So he risks being damned by his own side for his failures, and ignored by the Conservatives for his successes’.

– Professor Robert Hazell

Coalition Works! The Independent View

Article from Liberal Democrat Voice

The coalition is working well, but the Lib Dems could do better, is the overall message from the Constitution Unit’s first report on how the coalition works in Whitehall and Westminster. We are conducting a 12 month study, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, with a research team of five, including two former senior civil servants, and one senior broadcaster. David Cameron and Nick Clegg have authorised access to all the key figures in Whitehall, and so far we have interviewed 90 ministers, special advisers, officials, parliamentarians, and external interest groups.

Everyone we interviewed in Whitehall says how much more harmonious the coalition is compared with the rivalries and infighting of the Blair/Brown years. After widespread fears that coalition government would be weak, quarrelsome and divided, in the first year the coalition has proved remarkably stable and united. Cabinet government has been revived; but coalition issues are mainly resolved in informal forums, with weekly meetings between Clegg and Cameron, and regular get togethers between Danny Alexander and Oliver Letwin. The mutual trust and close working relations developed not just between Clegg and Cameron, but amongst all their top advisers, should help the government as it faces tougher times ahead.

And how could the Lib Dems do better? Read the full article at:

Five steps on the road to Scottish independence

Now the SNP have a majority in the Scottish Parliament, Scottish independence is back on the political agenda.  But there are five steps along the road to independence, and the Scottish government needs to negotiate each one.  The Constitution Unit set these steps out in our book Scottish Independence – A Practical Guide, by Jo Murkens and Peter Jones (Edinburgh Univ Press, 2002).

The first step is that a bill needs to be passed by the Scottish Parliament authorising a referendum.  The referendum would ask the people of Scotland to approve the Scottish government entering into negotiations with the British government.

The next step is the referendum itself.  Opinion polls have consistently shown support for independence remaining at around 25 to 30 per cent.  A vote for the SNP in Scottish elections may or may not translate into a vote for independence come referendum day.

The third step, if the referendum is passed, is negotiations with the British government about the terms of independence.  These will include division of the national debt, North Sea oil, the future of the defence bases on the Clyde, Scotland’s membership of the EU.  The Czech-Slovak velvet divorce in 1992 required 31 Treaties and over 2000 separate agreements.  Their equivalents for Scotland and the UK would take a long time to negotiate.  Once concluded they would constitute the terms of independence, on which the people of Scotland deserve a separate vote.

The fourth step would be legislation for a second referendum, asking the people of Scotland to confirm that they want independence on these terms.  This referendum can only be authorised by Westminster, because it is not within the competence of the Scottish Parliament unilaterally to declare independence.  But in formal terms, the passage of the legislation may not prove too much of a stumbling block. Successive British prime ministers have long recognised the Scottish people’s right to self determination.  David Cameron has repeated that he will respect the will of the Scottish people.

The final step is the second referendum, asking the people of Scotland if they want independence on the terms which have been negotiated.  The first referendum, if passed, would give the Scottish government authority to demand independence, and compel the UK government to enter into negotiations.  The SNP have said a second referendum would not be necessary.  But it would give the people of Scotland the opportunity to know the detailed terms of independence before making their final, momentous decision.

Coalition Government 2.0?

The Politics Show on BBC iplayer

In this interview Robert talks about the effect the Lib Dems are having in the coalition and whether a review is necessary to set up coalition 2.0. The Unit has a research project monitoring the coalition government, funded by the Nuffield Foundation and led by Robert Hazell and Ben Yong.

Further Information