Constitutional reform: then and now (1995-2020)

In the latest blog celebrating the Constitution Unit’s 25th anniversary, human rights academic and advocate Francesca Klug recounts how aspects of the constitutional agenda of the mid-1990s were realised, and what lessons we can learn about how to entrench its achievements, prevent democratic backsliding and stop erosion of hard-won rights.

When I was at school, I learned nothing about the British constitution, but one thing I did absorb was this: although we do not have a written founding document, our invisible constitution was apparently uniquely successful and therefore inviolable. However, during the 1980s, I gradually became aware that there was something a bit odd about this perfect constitution. In other democracies, many of the controversial or unpopular measures introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s governments – such as the ‘poll tax’ and broadcasting and book bans – could be challenged in the courts. In the UK, however, there was nothing citizens could do to overturn such policies, except take to the streets to protest or wait up to five years for another election. 

This powerlessness and lack of accountability was a major driver behind the founding of Charter 88 in 1988, led by Anthony Barnett and Stewart Weir. I was lucky as a relatively young activist to be asked to join its council. We called for holistic change: a democratic second chamber, electoral reform, devolution, freedom of information and a bill of rights. And we had one major overall objective: we wanted the people of this country to have more power over the decisions which affected them; what in today’s money might be called ‘taking back control’. We sought this not for its own sake, but as a means of making our society fairer. 

It took a little time, but this message started to persuade people at the highest levels of the Labour Party. John Smith succeeded Neil Kinnock as Leader following the Conservatives’ 1992 general election victory and the following year he gave a landmark speech to Charter 88, entitled ‘A Citizens’ Democracy. For the first time, he articulated a clear objective for wholesale constitutional reform. Its purpose, he said, was to ‘restore democracy to our people – for what we have in this country is not real democracy: it is elective dictatorship.’ The use of the term ‘elective dictatorship’ is interesting, as it partly echoed Lord Hailsham, a former Conservative Lord Chancellor, who had coined the phrase two decades earlier. Notably, in this speech Smith committed the Labour Party to the introduction of a human rights act based on the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), which turned 70 years old this month. 

John Smith died unexpectedly the following year, but Tony Blair, despite some scepticism, largely kept faith with his predecessor’s commitment to constitutional reform. The precise objectives articulated by Smith, however, seemed to wither away and the purpose of the proposed policies became more obscure. In particular, there was no unified narrative to link them together and no sense of what might come next. 

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A Scottish constitution: should it be devised before or after independence?

If voters choose independence in a referendum, Scotland will need a constitution. Elliot Bulmer argues here that there are advantages to creating and debating a new constitutional document before trying to navigate the choppy waters of becoming a separate nation.

Scotland and a written constitution

Despite being rejected in the 2014 referendum, Scottish independence has not disappeared from the political agenda. With a series of recent polls showing clear majorities in favour of independence, the question is sure to be revisited.

The Scottish National Party (SNP) has long had a policy of adopting a written constitution for Scotland. The party’s substantive proposals have remained remarkably consistent since the publication of a first draft constitution in 1977: a written constitution with an enforceable bill of rights largely based on the European convention, a unicameral parliament elected for fixed terms by proportional representation, and a parliamentary executive operating under a trimmed-down constitutional monarchy. In a nod to Harshan Kumarasingham’s description of India and Ceylon (as it then was) as ‘Eastminsters’, I have previously described the SNP’s constitutional plans for Scotland as a kind of ‘Northminster’ system: a Nordic-wannabe proportional variation of the Westminster Model that is infused by a desire to ‘keep up with the Johansens’, or Westminster-on-Forth, twinned with Oslo.

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