Monitor 81. Johnson falls; what’s next for the constitution?

Today, the Unit published the 81st edition of Monitor, which provides analysis of the key constitutional news of the past four months. In this post, which also serves as the issue’s lead article, Meg Russell and Alan Renwick reflect on the collapse of Boris Johnson’s government, increasing concerns about ministerial and parliamentary standards, and continuing doubts about the future of the Union.

The preoccupying question in UK politics over recent months increasingly became when – rather than whether – the Prime Minister would be forced from office. In April, Boris Johnson was fined for breaching restrictions on social gatherings during lockdown, and the Commons referred him to its Privileges Committee for allegedly misleading parliament. In May, the Conservatives suffered steep losses in the local elections, and Sue Gray’s official report into ‘partygate’ was finally published, concluding that the ‘senior leadership at the centre, both political and official, must bear responsibility’ for the culture of disregard for the rules that had emerged. In June, Johnson survived a vote of no confidence among his MPs and the loss of two parliamentary by-elections, followed by the resignation of the Conservative Party Co-Chair, Oliver Dowden. But the resignation of Deputy Chief Whip Chris Pincher in early July, and Number 10’s bungled reaction to it, finally brought the Prime Minister down.

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The 1997 Labour government’s constitutional reform programme: 25 years on

25 years have passed since the Labour election win of 1997, which preceded a plethora of constitutional changes, including partial reform of the House of Lords, devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the Human Rights Act. Tom Leeman summarises the contributions of three expert speakers (Professor Robert Hazell, Baroness (Shami) Chakrabarti and Lord (Charlie) Falconer of Thoroton) at a recent Unit event to mark the anniversary.

This year marked a quarter of a century since the victory of Tony Blair’s New Labour in the 1997 General Election on 1 May. Blair’s first government embarked upon a programme of constitutional reform, many elements of which, such as devolution, the Human Rights Act (HRA), and the status of hereditary peers in the Lords, still spark debate in the UK today.

To mark the anniversary and discuss the Blair government’s constitutional legacy the Unit convened an event with three expert panellists: Professor Robert Hazell, founding Director of the Constitution Unit, who supported the Cook-Maclennan talks on constitutional reform between Labour and the Liberal Democrats in 1996; Lord (Charlie) Falconer of Thoroton, who served as Lord Chancellor in the second and third Blair ministries from 2003 until 2007; and Baroness (Shami) Chakrabarti, who was Director of Liberty from 2003 until 2016. The event was chaired by Professor Meg Russell, Director of the Constitution Unit. The summaries below are presented in order of the speakers’ contributions.

Robert Hazell

Robert Hazell presented slides to summarise New Labour’s constitutional reform programme from their first election victory in 1997 until Gordon Brown’s resignation as prime minister in 2010. The reforms in Blair’s first term (1997-2001) were the biggest package of constitutional reforms in the twentieth century. They included devolution of power to assemblies in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast in 1998; incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law in the Human Rights Act; and the removal of hereditary peers from the House of Lords.

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The anatomy of democratic backsliding: could it happen here?

The term ‘backsliding’ has been coined to describe the phenomenon by which leaders who come to office within a democratic framework, only to attack some of democracy’s core features when in office. Stephan Haggard and Robert R Kaufman outline some of the key features of ‘backsliding’, discuss how and why it can take hold, and whether there are warning signs that such a process could happen in the UK. 

During the presidency of Donald Trump, American democracy suffered the most serious challenge it has faced since the country’s Civil War. Trump and his administration inflamed divisions that jeopardise the rights of women and minorities; attacked the press; defied oversight; sought to stack the judiciary and law enforcement agencies with partisan loyalists; challenged the integrity of the electoral system, and ultimately stoked a violent challenge to the democratic transfer of power. These threats were different from conventional forms of democratic reversion, such as the coup d’etat. Instead, they reflected a more insidious process that has come to be known as ‘backsliding,’ in which illiberal leaders rise to power within a democratic framework and attack core features of democracy from within.

Because the United States occupies a unique position at the heart of the international system, backsliding there commanded worldwide attention. But the United States was hardly alone. In a new study, we identified at least 15 other countries in which duly-elected democratic governments recently moved along similar paths. Not all of these paths lead all the way to autocracy; in the United States, democracy survived the Trump era badly damaged but intact. But depending on the metric used, more than half of these cases slid into ‘competitive authoritarian rule’: systems in which elections persisted but were manifestly rigged. Notably, although many of the failed democracies we examined were weakly institutionalised at the outset (for example, Bolivia, Ukraine, and Zambia), others such as Hungary, Poland, and Venezuela were once considered relatively robust democratic regimes.

These cases raise the question of whether similar adverse developments could occur in other seemingly stable democracies. Could they perhaps even happen in the UK? 

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Sir John Laws and The Constitutional Balance

The Constitutional Balance, a new work by the former judge John Laws, was published posthumously in January. Here, David Feldman discusses the key themes of the book, and pays tribute to the author, a long-serving judge, who served as a Lord Justice of Appeal and was one of the most well-respected public law judges of the last 50 years.

The late Sir John Laws stood out as one of the greatest English public law judges of the last 50 years. Throughout his distinguished and creative career as Treasury Devil – First Junior Treasury Counsel (Common Law), responsible for advising and representing the government in a large range of public law matters – and judge, he was uniquely willing to argue publicly for and apply in his judgments a systematic philosophy of the liberal, democratic state and of the respective roles within it of the people, their representatives, the government and the judiciary. After retiring from the Bench he spent the 2016-17 academic year as A. L. Goodhart Visiting Professor of Legal Science at Cambridge. There he gave a course of 16 lectures, primarily for final-year undergraduates, entitled ‘Judicial Review and the Constitution’. In them he distilled his latest thinking on matters to which, as writer and judge, he had made distinctive contributions to our public law. These included parliamentary sovereignty and the interpretation of statutes, the importance of the common law in constitutional development, the place of human rights in the constitution, the role of judicial review, how government and judiciary should understand and give appropriate respect to each other’s different, equally legitimate roles in the governance of the country, and the proper relationship between religion and the law.

Sir John used his lectures as the basis for a book, The Constitutional Balance. Unfortunately his zest for life was severely dented by the death in 2017 of Sophie, his wife, and his physical health deteriorated. Nevertheless, greatly helped by Nigel Pleming QC, his long-standing colleague and friend, Sir John finished the text before he, too, died in 2020.

At the heart of the book lies a connection between his view of the constitution and his understanding of the human condition. Ideally, he thought, people are rational, enjoy free will (and so are responsible for their actions), are social, communing with others of their kind (pages 6-7) and have to find ways to coexist fairly with them. These characteristics demand freedom of thought and expression, and rigorous rejection of ideology (‘a preconception or preconceptions, an assumption or assumptions, not tested by reason, by argument, by practice or by results; an a priori belief, given or imposed in advance, assumed to be true’: page 2) that forecloses debate about the good and the bad, and reliance on reason and fair process to conduct and resolve disagreement (pages. 2-6 and 134-138). Sir John saw reason, fairness and a presumption in favour of liberty as key values of the common law, that unique system whereby principles and precedents are continuously tested through rigorous argument and gradually developed over centuries, and of a democratic constitution respecting the rule of law.

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