Mark Harper: the Quiet Reformer

Interview with Sam Macrory, House Magazine

With constitutional reform generally more a Lib Dem than Tory pursuit, the Conservative minister overseeing it finds himself at the coalface of coalition politics, hears Sam Macrory.

‘Nick Clegg’s babysitter’. As job descriptions go – and that one came direct from a Conservative MP – it’s neither glamorous nor appetising, but nor is it entirely inaccurate. For when Mark Harper was asked to work alongside the Liberal Democrat deputy prime minister and steer through a series of controversial reforms to the constitution, he took on the challenge of convincing hostile colleagues on the merits of both a referendum on voting reform and a radical makeover of the House of Lords.

But while Clegg’s grand plans made headlines, with limited attention Harper has also managed to take Lib Dems with him in agreeing to slash the number of parliamentary constituencies by 50, as well as passing radical legislation to ensure fixed term Parliaments.

“Mark Harper has played his hand brilliantly. He has been completely loyal to the coalition and Nick Clegg, and steered through the Commons measures which were deeply unpopular with his Conservative colleagues, without appearing to be a Lib Dem stooge”, says constitutional expert Robert Hazell. “He has also quietly pushed ahead the Conservative constitutional reform agenda, and at the end of this Parliament it seems likely that more Conservative reforms will have been implemented than Lib Dem ones’.

The more unforgiving parliamentary observer might suggest that Harper’s success is due to his unshowy, rather workmanlike style, but others admire the calm way in which he removes the sting from potentially toxic subjects. Or perhaps, as Hazell has argued, the Conservative Party are closet constitutional reformers.

“That’s interesting. We don’t talk about it as much or have it as a separate strand of policy thinking,” Harper suggests, from his sizeable, if spartan, Cabinet Office quarters. “We never really put it in a box called constitutional reform, but whether that’s to do with the makeup of different parties, I don’t know.”

The Lib Dem presence has certainly, raised the profile of constitutional reform, however, which Harper credits to “the fact that the deputy prime minister has overall responsibility and it is all stacked in one place”.

Read the full article on epolitix.com

Why Written Constitutions are a Good Thing

The historian Linda Colley has written an article in the Guardian on the British experience of constitution-making. It is an argument about the uses of history. For too long, Colley argues, the British (the British elites, perhaps) have had a selective memory about constitutions and constitution making. Until the 19th century, there was a ‘cult’ of devotion in Britain towards various written constitutional documents—the Petition of Right, the Bill of Rights, and above all, the Magna Carta. This receded over time, and although this is not stated in the article, it may have been a response to the proliferation of ‘written’ constitutions, particularly on the Continent, and the need for Britons to distinguish themselves as different. Having said that, the British continued to draft written constitutions for their colonies well into the 20th century.

Colley’s point: it is not un-British to have or engage in a process of drafting a constitution. Britons have been interested and engaged in constitutional processes in the past; it is quite possible they still are. Colley ends by suggesting that years of ad hoc reforms and the increasing disunity of the United Kingdom may make a written constitution more important than ever. Whatever the drawbacks of a written/ codified constitution, one benefit may be it would offer “a single, recognised source from which citizens can learn about how their state is supposed to operate.” As they say, read the whole thing.

As an aside, the finalised version of the UK Cabinet Manual was published last week (more on this another day). I raise it not to point to its (murky) constitutional status, but rather to point to it as a neat inversion of Colley’s description of how constitutional ideas were transmitted from the centre to the periphery: the NZ Manual was the inspiration for the UK Manual. And so, New Zealand gives back to the Mother Country. It’s the least we could do.

The Inside Story: How Coalition Government Works–A Summary

The Coalition in Whitehall

  • Finding a balance between unity and distinctiveness is the key problem for coalition government. The current coalition has successfully ensured unity, and stability; but struggles to allow the two parties to express their distinctiveness.
  • Formal cabinet government has been revived: Cabinet and cabinet committees now meet regularly, but these are mostly forums for dealing with interdepartmental issues rather than specifically coalition issues.
  • The main forums for reaching agreement between coalition partners are informal. Coalition issues are often dealt with before they reach the formal machinery of government.
  • This informality of coalition decision making is based on high levels of trust between the leadership of the two parties. Trust, and the importance of compatible personalities, are essential for coalition government.
  • However, this informality has one drawback: it means that the Lib Dems are often unable to demonstrate their influence in government.
  • Some machinery has surprisingly not been effective in coalition brokerage—in particular, the Deputy Prime Minister’s Office, special advisers, and Liberal Democrat junior ministers.

The Coalition in Westminster

  • Flexibility within the executive is not always matched by flexibility in parliament. Compromise hammered out in government has led to excessive rigidity when policies are introduced into Parliament.
  • The informality and relatively close relationships in the executive are not matched by similar relationships within Parliament. In both houses, the coalition is tolerated rather than embraced.
  • Coalition governments often lead to a divide between the frontbench and backbench. Rebellions in this parliament are historically at record highs.
  • The parliamentary parties have begun to modify their backbench committees to prevent the divide between frontbench and backbench widening.

The Dilemmas for the Junior Partner

  • The Lib Dems are still reeling from the loss of their state funding, given only to opposition parties. This has led to the loss of many of their staff. It may help explain their under powered performance, particularly with the media.
  • By going for breadth over depth, the Lib Dems have spread themselves too thinly. They need to prioritise. Given the numbers they have, what can they realistically do which will have an impact with the public?
  • In a future coalition, the junior partner might seek to specify the support to be made available to them, in terms of special advisers, expanded Private Offices, and additional support for the parliamentary party.

The Coalition and the Constitution

Prof Vernon Bogdanor (Research Professor at the Institute for Contemporary History, King’s College London)

Date: Thursday 12 May, 6.00pm Venue: Council Room, The Constitution Unit

The first anniversary of the Coalition has come and gone. It was the cue for a mass of commentary – which is interesting in itself. It is clear that the British public and media are still coming to terms with coalition. Professor Vernon Bogdanor, long a student of coalition governments, has been looking at the implications for the British constitution. Professor Bogdanor spoke on this yesterday at the Constitution Unit to promote his new book The Coalition and the Constitution (Hart Publishing, Oxford). He drew interesting comparisons between historical coalitions and our current situation. Bogdanor argued that many coalition governments had been formed out of fear. For instance, the current economic stresses at home and abroad caused the Liberal Democrats to form a coalition with the Conservatives and abandon their previous policies and adopt the Conservative policy of immediate and sustained deep spending cuts. Bogdanor argued that this was not going to be a comfortable ride for the Lib Dems. Coalitions have never been happy experiences for the Liberals, often leading to splits within the party –the classic example being the Liberal Unionists who later merged with the Conservatives. His analysis showed that the Conservatives, on the other hand, had largely benefited from these alliances. The reduction of Commons seats from the current figure of 650 to 600 had been overshadowed by the AV referendum, despite being arguably the more revolutionary reform of the two. This meant that many constituency associations will have to pick new electoral candidates which could result in a slew of anti-coalition candidates being chosen. A key point of Bogdanor’s talk was that coalitions collapse from the bottom-up, not from the top down. He also spoke of the effect of the Fixed Term Parliaments Bill, which could provide the Lib Dems with a way out of the Coalition without having to fear immediate annihilation by Cameron calling a general election. During the following question and answers session, some in the audience queried Professor Bogdanor’s historical account. Audience members of Liberal Democrat and Conservatives persuasion both defended the Coalition, trying to distinguish between the circumstances leading to the current coalition and those leading to previous coalition administrations. A question was asked about the application of the Salisbury convention in the House of Lords. A peer in the audience argued that the House of Lords was fully entitled to vote down government legislation and that the Salisbury convention didn’t apply under the present circumstances. The effects of the recent AV referendum were also discussed, with Professor Bogdanor believing that it will galvanise those ‘small c’ conservative elements in both Houses, but that the finality of referendums can be overstated – Britain’s status in Europe is still up for debate 31 years after the Common Market referendum.

Further information

The Black Widow Effect? Consequences of coalition for Clegg and co.

Black Widow

In a recent seminar at the Constitution Unit, Professor Tim Bale confessed to being sceptical of the coalition’s chances of survival, and in particular, the prospects for the Liberal Democratic Party. Prof Bale drew upon a large body of cross-national research to support his opinion.

He began by describing some reasons for being optimistic about the coalition’s chances of survival, such as the fact that it is a minimal-winning coalition, made up of just two parties, which together form a majority. Furthermore, the combination is not counter-intuitive, as the parties are not too far apart. Structurally, these conditions seem to create a stable foundation for coalitions.

But the negatives outweigh the positives. One problem is the way British politics operates: British traditions such as whipped party discipline and cabinet collective responsibility do not allow for the sort of flexibility that might be needed in coalition agreements. Furthermore, British political culture does not have much experience of coalitions.

The main cause for concern, however, relates to the prospects for the Lib Dems. Using parallel examples from coalitions in New Zealand as case studies, Professor Bale indicated that the future for the Lib Dems is bleak.

As the party is relatively new, it is also ‘weakly-institutionalised’, with a number of ‘faultlines’ running through it. The apparent ‘right-left’ split between the party’s leadership and its grassroots support is perhaps the starkest example. In opposition, resolving these faultlines was never a pressing issue, but now in government, they are increasingly seismic. Indeed, as the Lib Dems fail to harvest credit for the government’s achievements, and continue to take the blame for many of the coalition’s unpopular measures, the risk is that many of the party’s members will want to escape. Should this happen, it is possible that most of the party will leave, but the core around the leadership will stay with the Conservatives.

Hence the Black Widow effect: the large spider, after having lured the small spider into a trap, often does not kill it but lets it escape, at the price of leaving part of itself behind. Whether this pessimistic outcome occurs remains to be seen.