Rebuilding constitutional standards: five questions for the next Conservative leader

Boris Johnson yesterday fired the starting gun on a Conservative leadership race which should make the winner Prime Minister. Meg Russell, Alan Renwick and Robert Hazell pose five key questions which Conservative MPs and others are encouraged to ask the party leadership candidates, based on recent public, parliamentary and expert concerns.

Boris Johnson’s premiership has been marked by ever-growing concerns about the maintenance of various constitutional standards, which in recent days have reached fever pitch. These were echoed repeatedly in ministerial resignation statements and calls for him to go. Recent opinion polls meanwhile show strong public support for constitutional standards of integrity and accountability.

Conservative MPs now have an opportunity to choose among candidates to take Johnson’s place, which also creates an important constitutional responsibility. A high priority when picking the next Conservative leader should be to restore the standards essential to UK democracy, in order both to rebuild integrity in politics, and to work towards rebuilding public trust.

This blogpost sets out five key questions for Conservative leadership candidates, reflecting concerns raised by the public, independent expert organisations, and MPs themselves. Conservative MPs and others are encouraged to prioritise these questions, and raise them with the candidates when the party is making its choice.

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What is democratic backsliding and is the UK at risk?

Concerns about the health of UK democracy and the risk of democratic backsliding are rising. Meg Russell, Alan Renwick and Lisa James warn that MPs, who are the ultimate democratic safeguard, cannot afford to be complacent if we wish to prevent backsliding and safeguard our democracy.

Commentators, civil society groups, think tanks and academics are increasingly warning about the health of UK democracy. Such warnings often draw on the concept of ‘democratic backsliding’.

But what is democratic backsliding? And is there good reason to worry about a risk of it in the UK?

What is democratic backsliding?

Democratic backsliding is, in its simplest form, the process by which a state becomes gradually less democratic over time. Scholars emphasise that no cataclysmic state collapse or overthrow is required for backsliding to take place; instead, it is a gradual process, coming about through actions of democratically elected leaders.

Democratic backsliding has been observed internationally, and extensively catalogued by scholars including Stephan Haggard and Robert Kaufman (Backsliding: Democratic Regress in the Contemporary World, 2021) and Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (How Democracies Die, 2019). Such accounts generally define backsliding as involving the reduction of checks and balances on the executive. This might include:

  1. breakdown in the norms of political behaviour and standards;
  2. disempowerment of the legislature, the courts, and independent regulators;
  3. the reduction of civil liberties and press freedoms; and/or
  4. harm to the integrity of the electoral system.

Backsliding has been identified in multiple countries, with frequently cited cases including Poland, Hungary and the United States. Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party has significantly reduced judicial independence, and put pressure on the independent media. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán has repeatedly assumed emergency powers allowing him effectively to bypass the legislature, undermined press freedom, and – as in Poland – curbed judicial independence. Donald Trump’s attempts to delegitimise the 2020 presidential election, as well as longer-term patterns of voter suppression, have shown how backsliding can affect even very well-established democracies.

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Improving standards of conduct in public life

In November, the Constitution Unit hosted Lord (Jonathan) Evans, Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, to discuss its new report, ‘Upholding Standards in Public Life’. Lisa James summarises the discussion.

In November, the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) published its report Upholding Standards in Public Life, the result of a year-long review of the system of standards bodies regulating the UK government. Following the report’s publication, the Constitution Unit hosted a webinar with CSPL’s Chair, Lord (Jonathan) Evans, to discuss the findings. The event also followed closely behind the parliamentary standards scandal over then-MP Owen Paterson, in which the government was forced to U-turn after trying to overturn the House of Commons Standards Committee’s findings against Paterson on allegations of inappropriate lobbying.

The summary below reflects Lord Evans’ remarks and conversation with the Unit’s Director, Meg Russell. A full video of the event, including the audience Q&A, is available on our YouTube page.

Lord Evans began by introducing CSPL and the reasoning behind the Standards Matter 2 inquiry. CSPL is an independent advisory body, with an independent majority and a minority of party-political members. Established by then Prime Minister John Major in the wake of the cash-for-questions scandal, it was originally conceived as an ‘ethical workshop’ for the public sector. Continuing the metaphor, Lord Evans suggested that CSPL’s recent inquiry might be seen as an ‘MOT’ of the regulatory system for government: a wide-ranging review of the whole system, in an attempt to identify problems and suggest improvements. Focusing on ethical standards, the committee did not recommend radical change, but identified a number of moderate, ‘common-sense’ reforms to strengthen the system. These fell into three broad categories: stronger rules; greater independence for regulators; and a stronger compliance culture within government.

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The public appointments system is under strain: it needs more clarity and transparency

In September, Peter Riddell will step down as Commissioner for Public Appointments after over five years in the role. In this post, which summarises comments made at a recent Unit seminar, he explains how the public appointments system is under strain, and how it might be improved. In particular, he calls for more clarity and transparency in both regulated and unregulated public appointments.

The public appointments system rests on two, at times, apparently contradictory principles — ministerial responsibility and selection by merit. These were set out both in the original Nolan report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life in 1995 and in the government’s Governance Code in late 2016. Their existence side by side — along with selflessness, integrity, openness, diversity, assurance and fairness — can cause confusion. Ministers and their advisers understandably want to appoint those who share their values and views, while critics allege cronyism and an undermining of the merit principle.

In reality, as with so much in public life, the answer lies in a balance between the principles, as envisaged in the 1995 report: ‘responsibility for appointments should remain with ministers advised by committees which include independent members’. The system is inherently political, and always has been, but patronage is constrained. The process of competition acts as a filter to identify candidates assessed as appointable in relation to the published job and person specifications. It is then up to ministers to pick one of these candidates.

The integrity of the system is now under strain. The appointment of political allies has happened before and is consistent with the Governance Code. What is different now is the breadth of the campaign led from the top of the government. This raises questions about the overall pluralism of arms-length bodies. That is a matter for ministers to explain and defend.

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Standards in public life: are we in a post-Nolan age?

In 1995, the Nolan report established ‘Seven Principles of Public Life’. Twenty-five years later, questions have been raised about the continuing relevance of the Nolan principles. Lord (Jonathan) Evans of Weardale, Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, argues here that although we are not not yet living in a ‘post-Nolan’ age, there are reasons for real concern.

In recent months we’ve heard a new phrase used by academics, commentators, and members of the public who have an interest in public standards. That phrase is a ‘post-Nolan age’. 

The sentiment is encapsulated in an email sent to my Committee’s mailbox earlier this year. A member of the public told us they ‘feel a great sadness that the moral framework which has guided British public life for the past quarter century appears to be well and truly over’.

The email referred to the growing perception that those in public life no longer feel obliged to follow the Nolan principles of selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership – otherwise known as the Seven Principles of Public Life

These principles have long underpinned the spirit of public service in this country, and were first formally articulated in Lord Nolan’s seminal 1995 report – the first from the Committee on Standards in Public Life, of which I am now Chair.

Since 1995 it has been increasingly accepted that anyone in public service should act in accordance with the Seven Principles. The Principles apply to ministers and MPs, all civil servants, local government officials, public bodies, the NHS, agencies as well as private companies and charities delivering services on behalf of the taxpayer. The Principles are not a rulebook but a guide to institutional administration and personal conduct, and are given a hard edge when they inform law, policy, procedure and codes of conduct. 

In their essence, the Seven Principles are there to govern the legitimate use of entrusted power in public life. All of us in public life, whether through democratic election or public appointment, have some degree of power afforded to us on the public’s behalf, whether it is the power to make decisions on benefits, to spend money on schools, to legislate to protect public health or to influence debate. This power is lent to us to be used for the good of the public.

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