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

The failed Senate reform in Italy: international lessons on why bicameral reforms so often (but not quite always) fail

meg-russell

On 11 and 12 June 2018 the Constitution Unit co-hosted two workshops with Rome LUISS university, the first being on ‘The challenges of reforming upper houses in the UK and Italy’. This post is the first in a series summarising the speakers’ contributions. Here the Unit’s Meg Russell reflects broadly on the international challenges of bicameral reform, drawing on experiences in the UK, Italy, Canada, Australia, Ireland, and Spain.

In reflecting on comparisons between the UK and Italy, in many ways our two parliaments are very different. The UK parliament is traditionally seen as weak (though I have disputed this), while the Italian parliament is seen as strong. Connectedly, the UK House of Lords is a wholly unelected institution, while the Italian Senate is largely made up of directly elected members. Nonetheless, one thing that unites the two systems is long-running pressure for bicameral reform. In both countries there have been numerous proposals made for second chamber reform over decades, most of which have failed. The most recent and fairly spectacular examples were the failure of Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s proposals for Lords reform in 2012, and Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s proposals for Senate reform in 2016, which led to his resignation after voters rejected them at a referendum.

My own interest in bicameral reform dates back to 20 years ago when I began research for my first book, Reforming the House of Lords: Lessons from Overseas. In seeking to learn lessons for Lords reform from other countries, it soon became clear that reform pressures in the UK were far from isolated – if anything, they were the norm. So much so that I dedicated a chapter in that book to comparative pressures for reform.

So why are second chambers worldwide so controversial? And why, given these pressures, do they prove in practice so difficult to reform? The answers to these questions are closely related. Continue reading

The Labour Party’s long-standing lethargy over House of Lords reform

s200_pete.dorey (1)Labour recently announced that any new peers it nominates must commit to abolishing the House of Lords. In this post, Pete Dorey discusses Labour’s track record on Lords reform and why the party has failed to enact serious reforms when in government, arguing that the subject has suffered from a lack of intra-party consensus and a lack of serious interest in reform at ministerial level.

It is a clear reflection of the political turbulence and febrile atmosphere wrought by Brexit that some prominent Conservatives, and pro-Conservative newspapers, have attacked the House of Lords for daring to obstruct ‘the people’s will’, with regard to tabling significant amendments to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. Of course, there is delicious irony in such condemnation, given that support for Brexit has long been couched in a discourse about restoring parliamentary sovereignty, whereby Westminster, not Brussels, should be the locus of all political decisions affecting the British people.

That it is also Conservatives who have recently denounced the unrepresentative and undemocratic character of the House of Lords is even more ironic, not to say hypocritical, given that the Conservative Party has hitherto been a staunch defender of the unelected second chamber – bitterly opposing the 1999 removal of most hereditary peers – particularly when Labour has mooted reforms to render it more politically representative, and/or curb its (limited) power.

That such reforms have only occasionally and sporadically been enacted by Labour governments has not been due to Conservative opposition, however, but to disagreements within the Labour Party itself over the desirability and details of Lords’ reform. Condemning the socially and politically unrepresentative character of the House of Lords, and its veto power, has been easy for Labour MPs and ministers, but intra-party agreement on what exactly should be done to remedy these apparent defects has proved rather more elusive. There are four main reasons why Labour governments have only pursued House of Lords reform sporadically, rather than systematically. Continue reading