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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The next steps for reforming the Senedd

In September, the Committee on Senedd Electoral Reform published a report that recommended a wide range of reforms to the Welsh Parliament’s arrangements, including increasing the number of Members of the Senedd, adopting a new electoral system, and implementing measures to improve diversity. In this post, Michela Palese summarises the key recommendations and reflects on the likely next steps.

Reform of Wales’s legislature has been on the political agenda for many years. Earlier this year, the first phase of reform led to the extension of the franchise to 16- and 17-year olds; to changing the name of the Welsh Assembly to the Welsh Parliament/Senedd Cymru and of its members to Members of the Senedd (MS); and to changes around electoral administration. These reforms were part of the Senedd and Elections (Wales) Act 2020, which became law on 15 January.

Another area of reform, which has yet to be taken forward, is the size of the legislature itself. Constitutional developments in Wales, particularly following the Wales Act 2017, have meant that the Welsh legislature has acquired new, primary law-making powers, including in relation to its size and electoral arrangements, and is now recognised as permanent within the UK’s constitutional settlement, alongside the Welsh government. The 2017 Act also moved Wales from a conferred powers model of devolution (an anomaly in the UK’s set-up) to a reserved matters model similar to that of Scotland, as recommended by the Unit in 2016

These significant new legislative powers have not been matched, however, by an increase in the number of members of the legislature (hereafter, MSs or Members of the Senedd, though note their name was Assembly Members/AMs until May 2020), which have remained at 60. 

There has been much, long-standing debate around this issue – it is broadly accepted that 60 MSs are insufficient to carry out the important legislative and scrutiny work of a fully-fledged parliament, with its own committee system, particularly if one considers that 14 MSs (around 23% of the total) are part of the executive.

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Devolution, Brexit, and the prospect of a new constitutional settlement for the four countries of the UK

 

bigpic (1)Over the next 12 months the UK’s national and devolved institutions will be taking decisions that will rank amongst the most significant political events in Britain’s post-war history. In an attempt to contribute to the debate on the role of devolved bodies in the Brexit process, the Welsh Assembly’s Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee has produced a report on the subject. In this blog its Chair, Mick Antoniw AM, offers his personal view on the government’s current approach to Brexit and calls for a constitutional reordering of the UK once Britain leaves the EU.

Leaving the EU has turned out to be more than a mere decision to leave a Europe-wide economic and social bloc and has brought into sharp focus the future role and status of the UK in the world. What do we represent and how are we perceived? How much influence in world economic and political affairs do we really have? These questions, however, go even deeper in that they also call into question the very purpose, long-term future and stability of the UK as a country. 

For almost 50 years, since the passing of the European Communities Act, the answers to these questions have been masked by our membership of a European project that with economic and technological globalisation has been developing into a political and social union based on its collective economic strength. 

The Social Chapter, the central role of the European Court of Justice, the developing role of the European Investment Bank and the development of the EU as a trading bloc in its own right created a legal as well as an economic framework for an expanding Europe. Within this context the UK’s increasingly dysfunctional and conflicting internal constitutional arrangements have been masked and constrained by the broader EU constitutional framework and jurisdiction. 

Pandora’s Box has now been opened. British nationalism’s nakedness has been revealed and our political and constitutional nudity is now there for all to see, exposed by the absence of any clear post-Brexit plan. Now that Article 50 has been triggered, the countdown to leaving the UK has begun and on 29 March 2019 we will be out of the EU, ready or not.  Continue reading