Constitutional reform: then and now (1995-2020)

In the latest blog celebrating the Constitution Unit’s 25th anniversary, human rights academic and advocate Francesca Klug recounts how aspects of the constitutional agenda of the mid-1990s were realised, and what lessons we can learn about how to entrench its achievements, prevent democratic backsliding and stop erosion of hard-won rights.

When I was at school, I learned nothing about the British constitution, but one thing I did absorb was this: although we do not have a written founding document, our invisible constitution was apparently uniquely successful and therefore inviolable. However, during the 1980s, I gradually became aware that there was something a bit odd about this perfect constitution. In other democracies, many of the controversial or unpopular measures introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s governments – such as the ‘poll tax’ and broadcasting and book bans – could be challenged in the courts. In the UK, however, there was nothing citizens could do to overturn such policies, except take to the streets to protest or wait up to five years for another election. 

This powerlessness and lack of accountability was a major driver behind the founding of Charter 88 in 1988, led by Anthony Barnett and Stewart Weir. I was lucky as a relatively young activist to be asked to join its council. We called for holistic change: a democratic second chamber, electoral reform, devolution, freedom of information and a bill of rights. And we had one major overall objective: we wanted the people of this country to have more power over the decisions which affected them; what in today’s money might be called ‘taking back control’. We sought this not for its own sake, but as a means of making our society fairer. 

It took a little time, but this message started to persuade people at the highest levels of the Labour Party. John Smith succeeded Neil Kinnock as Leader following the Conservatives’ 1992 general election victory and the following year he gave a landmark speech to Charter 88, entitled ‘A Citizens’ Democracy. For the first time, he articulated a clear objective for wholesale constitutional reform. Its purpose, he said, was to ‘restore democracy to our people – for what we have in this country is not real democracy: it is elective dictatorship.’ The use of the term ‘elective dictatorship’ is interesting, as it partly echoed Lord Hailsham, a former Conservative Lord Chancellor, who had coined the phrase two decades earlier. Notably, in this speech Smith committed the Labour Party to the introduction of a human rights act based on the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), which turned 70 years old this month. 

John Smith died unexpectedly the following year, but Tony Blair, despite some scepticism, largely kept faith with his predecessor’s commitment to constitutional reform. The precise objectives articulated by Smith, however, seemed to wither away and the purpose of the proposed policies became more obscure. In particular, there was no unified narrative to link them together and no sense of what might come next. 

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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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Choosing a Prime Minister: their exits and their entrances

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Seventeen of the Prime Ministers to take office since 1900 left office for reasons other than defeat at a general election. In this blogpost, Rodney Brazier, author of the recently published Choosing a Prime Minister, reflects on how those Prime Ministers have secured and surrendered the keys to Number 10, and the Queen’s role in their appointment.

It’s unlikely that Boris Johnson spends much time thinking about the next election. Thanks largely to him the government obtained an 80-seat Commons majority at the polls just over six months ago, and each member of his Cabinet gave pledges of personal loyalty before getting their jobs. What could possibly go wrong? But if any of his close advisers were to read my book Choosing a Prime Minister then brows might furrow. The book notes that 17 of the two-dozen individuals who have occupied Number 10 since 1900 were forced to leave without any push from the voters. Illness or old age, revolts in the governing party, loss of the confidence of the House of Commons, or personal political blunders all contributed to that high total. Indeed, three of Johnson’s four immediate predecessors (Tony Blair, David Cameron and Theresa May) quit without the electorate’s help. Ill health and party coups were the main, but not at all the only, causes of all those 17 exits. Johnson himself had a brush with death in March. I would bet good money against the present Prime Minister leading the Conservatives into the next general election.  Continue reading

Losing political office: what next for the Prime Minister?

com.google.Chrome.wa6yx7 (1)Theresa May has formally resigned as Leader of the Conservative Party after almost three years as Prime Minister, a decision that will bring to an end a nine-year period of ministerial office. Before she formally leaves her post, Jane Roberts discusses how losing political office impacts on a person, and what the outgoing Prime Minister might do next.

The experience of losing political office

Spare a thought for Theresa May just now, consigned to an unkind history, yet still required to fulfil her official duties as Prime Minister whilst the jockeying amongst her potential successors takes place in the full glare of the media.

Of course, the transition from the highest political office in the land is never easy. Whatever the accomplishments in prime ministerial office, the end when it comes is almost inevitably a fall from grace. As John Keane has said, democracies specialize in bringing leaders down to earth. Harold Wilson is probably the only exception in the UK to this in recent times. Internationally, the former New Zealand Prime Minister, John Key was, in 2016, one of the very few heads of government to step down at a time of his own choosing, when he still remained popular and likely to win a fourth term in office. Few leaders, Key said, know when it is time to go and he was determined not to be one of them. Rather, he wanted to go whilst at the top and make way for new talent, echoing Thomas Jefferson in 1811 when he wrote that there is ‘a fullness of time when men should go, and not occupy too long the ground to which others have a right to advance.

Tony Blair was able – albeit under considerable pressure from his successor – to plan his own departure, but after a decade at Number 10, cocooned from the everyday realities of life, he had reportedly no idea even of how to book his own travel. But it is not just the practicalities of life that former prime ministers have to adjust to. Far more challenging is the psychological transition from no longer holding sway in office, in charge of the domestic agenda and with considerable influence internationally, hobnobbing with leaders across the globe. One moment, your every word and nuance are the subject of constant, intense interest and scrutiny; the next, you are a political has-been, no-one noticing, much less caring what you think. Simply, you no longer matter; people have already moved on to your possible successor. The long, patient moving up the political greasy pole that may well have involved considerable personal sacrifice comes to a likely sudden, hasty and inglorious end. In democratic terms, political exit is both inevitable and desirable but on a personal level for any prime minister – indeed for most elected politicians – it is a very significant loss. And it hurts badly, even if there is some relief in the mix too.

Yet, public and academic debate tends not to dwell on the experience of politicians leaving office – except perhaps for a brief, almost salacious focus on visible tears. My research, which involved in-depth interviews with former MPs (including former cabinet members but not former PMs) and council leaders, demonstrates that the experience of losing political office is more complicated for individuals and for their partners than many predict. This may be the case both for those former politicians who have been defeated and for those who have stood down, albeit with varying degrees of voluntariness. Continue reading

A second Brexit referendum looks increasingly likely: what key questions need to be addressed?

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Widespread negative reactions to Theresa May’s Brexit deal have focused increasing attention on a possible further EU referendum. With MPs appearing poised to vote down the Withdrawal Agreement, a referendum could provide a way out of the apparent deadlock. But how would it work in practice? Ahead of the parliamentary debate, Meg Russell and Alan Renwick summarise the conclusions of their recent report on this topic.

When the Constitution Unit published The Mechanics of a Further Referendum on Brexit in October, it was still unclear if the government would successfully reach a deal with the EU, what that deal would contain, or how parliament and the public would react. Now that those facts are known, increasing numbers of MPs are demanding that the Brexit issue be returned to the public in a fresh referendum. But many unanswered questions about the practicalities remain. Here, we offer short responses to the most pressing of those questions, drawn from our report, to inform the parliamentary and growing public debate.

1. Is a referendum possible in the time available?

To hold a referendum, the UK parliament must first pass legislation. Before the bill leaves parliament, the Electoral Commission must assess the ‘intelligibility’ of the wording of the proposed referendum question – which usually takes ten weeks. This limits the ability to pass a bill very rapidly. Once the bill has received royal assent, sufficient time must be set aside to allow the Electoral Commission to designate lead campaigners, and for the campaign to take place.

In total, we estimate that the whole process – from introducing legislation to polling day – could be compressed to around 22 weeks. This is significantly less time than for previous referendums: for example the equivalent gap for the 2016 EU referendum was 13 months. But similar levels of urgency did not apply in these earlier cases.

The timetable could potentially be compressed even further, but doing so would risk delegitimising the result of the referendum – it is important given the sensitivity of the topic that the legislation is seen to be fully scrutinised, the question fair, and the campaigns adequately regulated. Continue reading