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. 

Continue reading

The Johnson government’s constitutional reform agenda: prospects and challenges

thumbnail_20190802_092917.jpgThe Conservative Party’s manifesto for the 2019 general election included a commitment to set up a Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission (as discussed previously on this blog by Meg Russell and Alan Renwick) and engage in a wider programme of constitutional reform. In February, the Unit hosted an event to discuss the new government’s constitutional reform agenda: Sam Anderson summarises the main contributions. 

Page 48 of the Conservative manifesto for the 2019 general election committed to a wide range of constitutional reform proposals – including repeal of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FTPA), an ‘update’ of the Human Rights Act (HRA), and the creation of a ‘Constitution Democracy and Rights Commission’ to examine broader aspects of the constitution. On 4 February, the Constitution Unit held an event to discuss the implementation of this agenda, entitled ‘The Johnson government’s constitutional reform agenda: prospects and challenges. The panel consisted of two Conservatives: Lord Andrew Dunlop, a member of the House of Lords Constitution Committee and former Parliamentary Undersecretary of State for Scotland and Northern Ireland; and Chris White, a former Special Adviser to William Hague, Andrew Lansley and Patrick McLoughlin. Professor Meg Russell, Director of the Constitution Unit, chaired the event. The following is a summary of the main contributions. 

Lord Dunlop

Lord Dunlop suggested that the key question for the new government is what ‘taking back control’ means in constitutional terms. The years since the Scottish Independence referendum in 2014 have been incredibly rich for those interested in the constitution. We have seen a deadlocked parliament, an arguably ‘activist’ judiciary, and fracturing Union, whilst foundational concepts like parliamentary sovereignty, the separation of powers, and the rule of law have come under scrutiny. It would be wrong, however, to see the government’s manifesto commitments as simply a direct response to the political and constitutional crisis of last autumn. Brexit placed a number of areas of the constitution under strain, but for Dunlop, it is the long-term context that is key to explaining the proposals in the manifesto. In his opinion, the proposals are not about ‘settling scores’.

For a number of years, EU membership, the devolution settlements and the HRA have all to varying extents limited parliament’s law-making powers. For example, Lord Neuberger, former President of the Supreme Court, has pointed out the profound changes that the HRA has brought to the role of judges in relation to interpretation of statute law, and retired Supreme Court Justice Lord Sumption’s recent Reith Lectures have contributed to a long-running debate about the proper role of judges in a democracy. In Lord Dunlop’s view, the proposals on page 48 of the manifesto reflect the fact that Brexit has put additional pressure on an already strained constitution, and should therefore prompt us to consider whether the constitution is operating as it should.  Continue reading

Do we need a written constitution?

image1.000.jpgPrior to the general election, several of the parties’ manifestos called for the creation of a codified constitution for the UK. In December, the Constitution Unit hosted an event to debate the merits and downsides of such an exercise. Harrison Shaylor summarises the discussion.

What did the 2019 Liberal Democrat election manifesto and the Brexit Party’s ‘Contract with the People’ (from the same election) have in common? Both advocate the need for a written constitution in the UK. So too did the Green Party manifesto, and that of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland. Meg Russell took part in a discussion on a written constitution in The Briefing Room on Radio 4 in September, and on 28 November, the Constitution Unit held its own event entitled ‘Do we need a written constitution?’. Two distinguished law professors – Sionaidh Douglas-Scott of Queen Mary University of London and Nicholas Barber of the University of Oxford – set out the case for and against a written constitution, in a debate chaired by a former Unit Director, Professor Robert Hazell. What follows is a summary of the presentations made by each participant. 

The argument for a written constitution: Sionaidh Douglas-Scott

‘Someone, I haven’t been able to trace whom, once said: Constitution building is a bit like dentistry: there’s never a good time for it; no one does it for fun; but it’s sometimes necessary and, when it’s done right, it prevents greater pain in the future.’

Professor Douglas-Scott explained that a constitution delineates the relationships between the major institutions of state, such as the executive and the legislature, as well as between the state and its citizens. More abstractly, a constitution says something about legitimacy and power. How does the state exercise power? And when is it legitimate for it do so?

The UK is unusual in not having a written constitution, in the sense of not having the fundamental rules of the constitution codified in a single document. It is one of only a few democracies in the world which lacks one, alongside Israel and New Zealand. The reason for this is historical. Since 1688, Britain has not experienced a revolution or regime change – a ‘constitutional moment’ – like the American or the French Revolution, or the withdrawal of colonial rule. Rather, Britain’s constitution has evolved slowly over time under relative stability; it has never been deemed necessary to list the fundamental laws and principles underpinning the country’s polity. As the Constitution Unit website states: ‘What Britain has instead is an accumulation of various statutes, conventions, judicial decisions and treaties which collectively can be referred to as the British Constitution.’

This arrangement, Professor Douglas-Scott argued, is no longer adequate. The current constitution is deficient for three reasons: its lack of clarity; its failure to properly protect fundamental rights; and the inadequacy of the current devolution settlement. Continue reading