Parliamentary reform and The Constitution Unit

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In the last of our series of posts adapted from presentations at the Unit’s 20th anniversary conference Tony Wright reflects on 20 years of parliamentary change and reform. He argues that parliament has become a good deal better over the past two decades, and points to Unit research as making a major contribution to bringing this about.

I am struck by the fact that if you want to campaign for office in the United States, you have to campaign against Washington. Every candidate has to be going to Washington to sort them out, to break the Washington consensus. What I notice is that this has now started to happen here. Everybody campaigning for office here seems to have to attack Westminster, or the ‘Westminster elite’. This was standard fare in Nicola Sturgeon and Nick Clegg’s general election speeches, and in the Labour leadership contest. Now this is an interesting development, and it is certainly different from twenty years ago. Even at this event today, we have been encouraged by Vernon Bogdanor to organise our thoughts around the idea that parliamentary sovereignty is a busted flush, and the serious ways that power has been cut into pieces. I would actually put a more positive spin on it, and say that there has been accountability explosion over the last twenty years. If you think back about the accountability environment then, and what it is now, we are in a different world. In that respect there is much to put in the positive ledger.

But the problem is where does parliament fit in to that changed environment? The health of our representative institutions is something that matters and getting the right relationship between the old forms of representative democracy and the new forms that we might want to develop is where the challenge comes. The mistake we make is how we think we can embrace new forms, and simply forget about these old institutional bits, when the health of our representative institutions actually matters profoundly. And in some respects – and this is why I react against this Westminster elite trope – parliament has got a good deal better over these last 20 years.

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As devolution has progressed the centre has failed to imagine a new rationale for the union

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In 1999 The Constitution Unit produced a book which set out to forecast what the UK’s constitution would look like in ten years’ time. Sixteen years on, Charlie Jeffery tests the predictions and uses them to assess the direction of devolution in the UK today.

This is the fourth of a series of posts adapted from presentations at the Unit’s 20th anniversary conference, held on 23 June 2015.

Constitutional Futures: A History of the Next Ten Years, a book edited by Robert Hazell, was published in 1999. It set out to predict how events would unfold following the initial stages of Labour’s constitutional reform programme. The question is, how fares that history sixteen years on? On page seven of the book there is a table which outlines ‘mini’ and ‘maxi’ versions of constitutional change, which I will draw on in order to assess where we stand now with respect to devolution.

Turning first to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the mini version predicts that the devolved institutions will stay as they were founded. The maxi option is a move towards legislative and tax raising powers everywhere and the possibility of an independent Scotland. We are headed towards the maxi version in Scotland certainly, in Wales increasingly and in Northern Ireland less so.

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Elections, referendums, political parties and the Constitution Unit

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In the third of our series of posts adapted from presentations at the Unit’s 20th anniversary conference, Alan Renwick documents on how the UK’s electoral framework has evolved since 1995 and illustrates how the Unit has shaped the implementation of changes. Looking forward, he identifies the franchise and the current gulf between citizens and politicians as key areas for future research.

Respondent Ben Seyd adds that the TV leader debates during the election would also benefit from clear guidelines and Jenny Watson reflects on how the Electoral Commission is building on the foundations that the Unit helped to establish.

Electoral law in the UK is sometimes described as unchanging. Speaking in 2011, for example, David Cameron declared that, ‘Throughout history, it [the electoral system] has risen to the demands of the time’. But this is inaccurate. In fact, if we contrast the electoral framework in place today with that in place in 1995, we find many changes.

Transformation of elections and referendums in 1995

Regarding the core of the electoral system, in 1995, all elections in Great Britain used First Past the Post (FPTP); other systems were used only in Northern Ireland. Today, by contrast, voters in Northern Ireland are unique in having to deal with only one system other than FPTP. Three different forms of proportional representation are used: for European Parliament elections in Great Britain; for elections to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh and London Assemblies; and for Scottish local elections and most elections in Northern Ireland. The supplementary vote is used for mayors and/or Police and Crime Commissioners throughout England and Wales. Even the Alternative Vote system – rejected by voters for Westminster elections in the 2011 referendum – is used for local council by-elections in Scotland.

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Human rights, the judiciary and the constitution: Past and future challenges

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At the Constitution Unit’s 20th anniversary conference Dawn Oliver, Stephen Sedley and Richard Cornes assessed the Unit’s contribution to debates around human rights and the judges in the UK, and how it can feed into the challenges that lie ahead. Juliet Wells offers an overview of the session.

This is the second of a series of posts based on presentations at the Unit’s 20th anniversary conference, held on 23 June 2015.

Professor Dawn Oliver took the lead in the session reflecting on the Unit’s wide-ranging contribution to political and legal discourses on human rights and the judiciary, while the respondents were Sir Stephen Sedley and Richard Cornes (who was unfortunately unable to attend on the day, but sent a statement read by the session chair James Melton). The panel therefore reflected rich expertise across public law and offered a thoroughly engaging range of perspectives on the Unit’s impact, and on the possible future direction of these vitally important areas.

Human rights figured particularly prominently in the discussion, and much was coloured by the existential threat now posed to the Human Rights Act 1998. Looking back, Dawn Oliver emphasised the prescience of Nicole Smith’s 1996 report, Human Rights Legislation, in anticipating not only that the Human Rights Act would need a ‘champion’ in future years if it was to survive in the long-term, but also that the legal implications of repealing the Act and replacing it with a ‘home-grown’ bill of rights would be profoundly complicated by the effects of having incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law. In particular, it was identified that the long-term consequences of the relationship between Strasbourg and the domestic courts that the Act set up would generate real controversy, even as it would affirm and entrench the importance of Strasbourg jurisprudence in cases before the UK courts. Looking forward, she reflected on the possible consequences of repeal, as well as on the causes of the apparent ‘tidal wave’ of hostility towards the Act. In considering both of these issues, she suggested that a lack of respect for the rule of law, manifested most conspicuously in the shift towards the view that the courts should not be accorded any responsibility for the UK’s compliance with its international treaty obligations, was at work. This, she thought, could be traced back to the 9/11 attacks, which did much to ‘shake people into hostility’ towards the Human Rights Act. Richard Cornes built upon this by suggesting that enacting a British Bill of Rights, which would in many ways be essentially similar to the Human Rights Act, will serve only to refocus the attention of rights-sceptics onto the UK courts, and thus to intensify claims that judges are ‘self-aggrandising’.

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The Constitution Unit and 20 years of British constitutional reform

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Vernon Bogdanor reflects on how the UK’s constitutional landscape has evolved since Robert Hazell established the Constitution Unit in 1995 and considers whether the time has come to draw up a codified constitution.

This is the first of a series of posts adapted from presentations at the Unit’s 20th anniversary conference, held on 23 June 2015.

I was asked many years ago by OUP to be a referee for the book proposed called Constitutional Futures. I said:

‘This is a book that seeks to outline the issues of constitutional reform. It is being sponsored by The Constitution Unit, an authoritative and highly regarded organisation. The head of the Unit is a well-known writer in this field, Robert Hazell, who has studied the field for years and writes with authority. He is thoroughly familiar with recent scholarship but he also writes clearly and he does not employ the political science jargon which so often disfigures such works. There is no real competitor in the market.’

The book was published at the beginning of the period of constitutional reform. At the time Bagehot’s famous statement about the British constitution was true (in a way I do not think it is any more):

‘There is a great difficulty in the way of a writer who attempts to sketch a living constitution – a constitution that is in actual work and power. The difficulty is that the object is in constant change’. (p.5).

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