The origins of the Cabinet Office Constitution Unit (1974–79): documenting the pitfalls of constitutional reform

In 1974, the Cabinet Office established a ‘Constitution Unitfollowing a difficult birthing process, which operated until the election of the Thatcher government in 1979. It was this Unit that inspired our own founding Director, Robert Hazell, when naming the newly-formed Constitution Unit 25 years ago. As part of this latter Unit’s 25th anniversary, Joseph Ward examines its earlier namesake, its founding and work, and what lessons we can learn from its role within government.

The 1970s was a decade marked by rising distrust in Britain’s political institutions. Intransigent governing problems, from inflation to nascent nationalism, fuelled a narrative that Britain was in crisis. Commentators in both academia and the press talked of a crisis of ‘governability’, with the state seemingly unable to keep pace with the demands placed on it by the public. 

In response to these trends, the Wilson government(s) of 1964–70 and 1974–76 instigated a series of constitutional reform measures. After creating the Kilbrandon Commission on the Constitution in 1969, Wilson sought to revisit the findings of the inquiry once returned to government in 1974, creating a bespoke Constitution Unit within the Cabinet Office to implement proposals for devolution to Scotland and Wales in particular. This ‘Constitution Unit’ was the conscious inspiration for the name adopted by UCL’s Constitution Unit when it was founded by Professor Robert Hazell in 1995, and which is currently celebrating its 25th anniversary

This blog post examines a selection of the Constitution Unit records held at the National Archives to document how the unit came about and to consider the struggles within the state over its remit. The political turbulence of that period, especially after James Callaghan succeeded Harold Wilson in 1976, presented the Unit with many challenges, as did the magnitude of its task. The post concludes with some reflections on the origins of the Unit to consider any lessons it might hold for constitutional reform in the contemporary context.

Foundations: The Kilbrandon Commission on the Constitution

In response to significant by-election wins for Plaid Cymru and the Scottish Nationalists in the late 1960s, Harold Wilson set up a Royal Commission on the Constitution in 1969, tasked with examination of ‘the present functions of the central legislature and government in relation to the several countries, nations and regions of the United Kingdom’ (Cmnd. 5460: 32). Its course was characterised by turbulence and disagreement: the commission took 4.5 years to report, more than one member resigned before it completed its work and the initial Chairman, Lord Crowther, died in 1972 midway through the inquiry. 

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Why the UK holds referendums: a look at past practice

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Since the first referendum in the UK above the local level was held in 1973, there have been three UK-wide referendums and ten referendums covering parts of the UK. In order to inform its recommendations about the circumstances in which referendums should be held, the Independent Commission on Referendums is examining the circumstances in which UK referendums have been held. In this post, Jess Sargeant explores the political history of referendums in the UK.

1973 Northern Irish Border Poll

The first non-local referendum in the UK, the 1973 Northern Irish border poll, followed the sharp deterioration in the security and political situation in the preceding years. When the UK government imposed direct rule, it pledged to hold a referendum on Northern Ireland’s future status within the UK. The purpose was to demonstrate public support for the Union, which would act as baseline for future negotiations. Although the referendum was largely boycotted by the Catholic population, the overwhelming vote (98.9%) in favour of remaining part of the UK was used legitimise the continuation of the constitutional status quo.

1975 European Economic Community membership referendum

The UK’s first national referendum was held just two years later, in 1975, on membership of the European Economic Community (EEC). The UK had joined the EEC in 1973. In opposition, Labour was deeply divided on this. A referendum was first proposed in 1970 by Tony Benn, who opposed EEC membership. The idea gained little traction at the time, but future Prime Minister James Callaghan described it as ‘a rubber life-raft into which the whole party may one day have to climb’. Labour adopted the policy of putting EEC membership to a public vote in 1973, and this occurred after the party’s return to power in 1974. Continue reading