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 Coalition: One Year On

The Coalition: One Year On

Briefing Event

Tuesday 17th May 2011- 09:30-11:30

British Academy, 10 Carlton House Terrace London SW1Y 5AH

The Magna Carta Institute is hosting a briefing session evaluating the first year of the Coalition Government.  The event will feature some of Britain’s leading academics who will present their latest research findings. The programme will feature discussions of a series of key aspects of the coalition’s first year, including parliamentary behaviour, public opinion, electoral performance, Europe and economic policy. It will appeal to journalists, public affairs professionals, political analysts and anyone who wishes to draw upon the latest academic research in evaluating the Coalition Government’s performance to date.

Confirmed speakers:

Prof. Philip Cowley (University of Nottingham) – The Coalition in Parliament

Prof. Paul Whiteley (University of Essex) – The Coalition and Public Opinion

Prof Colin Rallings (University of Plymouth) – The Coalition’s Electoral Record

Prof. Alex Warleigh-Lack (Brunel University) – The Coalition and Europe

Prof. Wyn Grant (University of Warwick) – The Coalition and Economic Policy

Prof. Robert Hazell (University College London) – The Coalition and Whitehall

There is no charge to attend this event, though for planning purposes, we would be most grateful if you could confirm attendance. If you are unable to attend personally, please do pass the invitation on to someone else in your organisation.


Tony Travers: New Localism

Last night Professor Tony Travers examined the ideas behind the Coalition’s New Localism agenda, exploring how it might work and what it could entail. Much of the New Localism agenda can be seen in the Localism Bill. While some of the elements are not particularly ‘localist’, such as more Directly Elected Mayors or the creation of Police Commissioners, many of the plans seek to distribute ‘power’ away from ‘County or Town halls’ by giving community or street groups control of local services, local planning or the ability to initiate local referenda. Here the ‘New Localism’ agenda meets the ‘big society’.

Yet there exists questions over its newness, the capacity of bodies to do the work and over the transfer of risk.

This agenda is not as ‘new’ as it seems. Many authorities already operate through a ‘plurality’ of groups. From Business Improvement Districts, to ‘single service institutions’ such as houses near a park paying extra for its upkeep, this type of ‘street level’ or community provision already exists.

Nor is it certain the charities, NGOs and other bodies who reformers hope take up the reins are able or willing to do so. Some bodies wish to remain small and lack the capacity to take on a service. There is also a question of motivation. While ‘enlightened self interest’ is the best motivator this may only hold for particular issues.

The final concern is that of risk. If a local authority remains statutorily responsible for a service, where does risk go? And can an authority transfer it? While an authority may be able to assist if a community run library collapses, the loss of a valuable service, such as one dealing with children, is far more problematic. Within this issue is that of blame: will an authority still be held responsible even when services are passed to others?

The New Localism reforms may improve capacity at local level and ‘give’ power back to ‘the community’. They may, on the other hand, lead to a fracturing of local arrangements and increased power for central government. The difficulty for all involved is that it depends on the public to make and shape the New Localism, so we can have no real idea of what it will look like until it arrives.