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

Lords reform is back on the agenda: what are the options?

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgSince December’s general election, proposals for Lords reform have abounded – emerging from both government briefings, and proposals floated during Labour’s leadership contest. Meg Russell, a well-established expert on Lords reform, reviews the wide variety of options floated, their past history, and their likelihood of success – before the topic may get referred to the government’s proposed Constitution, Democracy and Human Rights Commission.

Reform of the House of Lords is a perennial in British politics. Elections come and go, political parties often make promises to reform the Lords, and generally political obstacles of various kinds – or simply just other political priorities – get in the way. As indicated below, and chronicled in my 2013 book The Contemporary House of Lords, some proposals still under discussion have been mooted for literally hundreds of years. Occasionally breakthroughs occur: significant reforms included the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949 (which altered the chamber’s powers), the Life Peerages Act 1958 (which began moving it away from being an overwhelmingly hereditary chamber), and the House of Lords Act 1999 (which greatly accelerated that process, removing most remaining hereditary peers). Since this last reform there have been numerous proposals, through government white papers, parliamentary committee reports and even a Royal Commission (which reported in 2000), but little actual reform. The last major government bill on Lords reform — abandoned in 2012 — was under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. Its sponsor, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, no doubt came to agree with renowned constitutional historian Lord (Peter) Hennessy, who has dubbed Lords reform the ‘Bermuda Triangle of British politics’.

Nonetheless, following December’s general election the topic is firmly back on the agenda. The Conservative manifesto flagged it as a possible matter for discussion by the promised Commission on the Constitution, Democracy and Human Rights (which is yet to be established). Various proposals from the government side have been floated in the media – the most eye-catching perhaps being a suggestion that the House of Lords might move to York. Meanwhile, other Lords reform ideas have featured in debates during the Labour Party leadership (and deputy leadership) contest. As often occurs, the topic has also been made salient by concerns about new appointments to the chamber. 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

Rethinking Democracy: three routes to majority government

albert_weale (1)After 65 years of single-party government in the House of Commons, the last three general elections have led to three differently constituted governments: a two-party coalition, a Conservative majority government and a Conservative minority government reliant on a confidence and supply agreement for its parliamentary majority. Albert Weale argues that if a rethinking of British democracy is required, that we must start from first principles and consider how to create ways of institutionalising political negotiation among different groups in a way that embraces an incentive towards encompassing different interests and opinions.

A UK trio

2010 – 2015 – 2017. Three elections; three results; three parliaments varying in their party balance: three types of government. Three types of majority rule.

2010 produced a hung parliament with no one party holding an overall majority of seats in the Commons, leading to a Conservative-Liberal Democrat government, the first UK government formed by a coalition of more than one party since 1945. In 2015 the UK reverted to its familiar type with one party holding a majority of parliamentary seats, and with the Conservatives able to form a single-party government. 2017 produced another hung parliament and the government exhibited yet another form: a minority government dependent on a small party, the Democratic Unionists, for confidence and supply, but without the assurance that it could carry the whole of its programme during its term of office.

These three examples illustrate the different ways in which the principle of majority rule can be interpreted. 2015 exhibits the typical pattern of government formation in the UK: one party gains a majority of seats in parliament on less than a majority of votes in the election, with the Conservatives holding just over 50% of the seats on the basis of 37% of the popular vote. On this view of majority rule, it means government by the party that can secure a majority of seats in the legislature whether or not it has secured a majority of votes in the country. No UK governing government since 1935 has secured more than a plurality of the popular vote. Continue reading

No end to hereditary peer by-elections in the House of Lords?

downloadThe House of Lords is not entirely unelected; July saw two new peers appointed following elections involving a very small, select group of electors. In this post, former Clerk of the Parliaments David Beamish discusses the process by which hereditary peers can be elected to the Lords, how the system came to exist, and the continuing efforts to remove the remaining hereditaries altogether. 

It was announced on 18 July that Lord Bethell had been elected to fill a vacancy among the 90 elected hereditary peers in the House of Lords – the 34th such vacancy to be filled by means of a by-election. The vacancy arose from the retirement of the Conservative peer Lord Glentoran (the House’s only Winter Olympic gold medallist) on 1 June. These by-elections are conducted using the alternative vote system and, despite there being 11 candidates, Lord Bethell did not need any transfers of votes, receiving 26 of the 43 first-preference votes cast by Conservative hereditary peers.

This was the second by-election this month: on 4 July the Earl of Devon was elected to fill a Crossbench place vacated by the retirement of Earl Baldwin of Bewdley, grandson of Stanley Baldwin and a tireless campaigner against water fluoridation. The Earl of Devon received 7 of the 26 first-preference votes of Crossbench hereditary peers and it took five transfers of votes for him to be elected.

Viscount Mountgarret was a candidate in both by-elections, receiving no votes in either. His optimism when deciding to stand the second time might have been fuelled by the success of the Earl of Oxford and Asquith, who was elected by the whole House in 2014 and sits as a Liberal Democrat, having previously been an unsuccessful candidate in a Crossbench by-election in 2011 and in Conservative by-elections in 2011 and 2013.

At least one more by-election is in prospect: Lord Northbourne, a Crossbench hereditary peer, has given notice that he will retire on 4 September.

Where do by-elections come from? The House of Lords Act 1999

The present arrangements whereby 92 hereditary peers sit in the House of Lords derive from the House of Lords Act 1999, which removed most of the 750 hereditary peers but provided, under the so-called ‘Weatherill amendment’, for two office-holders (the Earl Marshal and the Lord Great Chamberlain) and 90 elected hereditary peers to continue as members. The 90 comprised 15 peers willing to serve as deputy speakers or committee chairs, elected by the whole House, and 75 peers representing 10 per cent of the hereditary peers in each party or group: 42 Conservatives, 28 Crossbenchers, 3 Liberal Democrats and 2 Labour peers; they were elected by the hereditary peers in their respective groups. Continue reading