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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Five years of ‘EVEL’

In the wake of the devolution settlements of the Blair years, political pressure to answer the ‘West Lothian Question’ persisted. In 2015, the proposed answer was ‘English Votes for English Laws (or EVEL). Today, on its fifth anniversary, Daniel Gover and Michael Kenny assess how EVEL has worked, during one of the most volatile political periods in living memory.

On 23rd October 2015, the ‘English Votes for English Laws’ (or EVEL) procedures came into force in the House of Commons. Introduced by David Cameron in the aftermath of the Scottish independence referendum, these new rules were designed as an answer to the notorious ‘West Lothian Question’ – the late Tam Dalyell’s resonant enquiry about why Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs should continue to be able to vote on matters that only affected England after devolution, while MPs in England were not able to reciprocate in devolved areas.

When EVEL was introduced, the procedures were sharply criticised by opponents. For some, the reform would not only be logistically difficult to implement – likely to be ‘incomprehensible’ to MPs and the public alike – but would also threaten the UK’s constitutional makeup. In particular, it was argued that EVEL would establish ‘two classes of MP’ at Westminster, undermining the ability of non-English MPs to represent their constituents’ interests. Others, meanwhile, criticised the procedures as too tame, and falling short of providing adequate representation to England.

The five-year anniversary provides an opportune moment to review how this contentious reform has fared in practice. Yet the wider territorial politics of the UK have also undergone significant changes in the intervening period. The questions to which these complicated rules were a response have become ever more pressing, but whether EVEL can provide a sustainable response to the increasingly fraught question of English devolution is increasingly doubtful.

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What does the election result mean for territorial representation in the House of Commons?

jack_sheldon.1We have a new parliament, a new majority government and a significant number of new MPs. As Jack Sheldon explains, the distribution of MPs by party is not even across the UK, which could have a significant impact on how the Commons handles key matters related to Brexit and the devolved administrations. 

The general election result has underlined that there are substantially different patterns of electoral competition in each of the four territories that comprise the United Kingdom. For the third consecutive election, a different party secured the most seats and votes in each of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Moreover, the large majority secured by Boris Johnson’s Conservatives relied overwhelmingly on an exceptionally strong performance in England – of the 365 seats won by the Conservatives, 345 are in England.

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The territorial divergence that the UK’s politics has experienced over recent decades has important implications not just for election outcomes, but for the substantive activity of representation performed by MPs in the House of Commons. MPs often seek to act as ‘territorial representatives’, focusing on the specific concerns of their nation or region. This has not so far received much attention from academics, a gap which my PhD project is seeking to fill by examining the parliamentary behaviour of MPs from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and two English counties, Cornwall and Yorkshire, between 1992 and 2019. Early findings suggest that substantive territorial representation is particularly prevalent among members of nationalist parties and other parties that run candidates only in one territory, but that it is also a relatively common feature of the parliamentary contributions of many members of the UK-wide parties, at least in more recent parliaments. It can take various forms including representation of the material interests, public opinion and culture and/or identity of the territory in question, or of sub-state political institutions. With crucial questions pertaining to the future of the Union set to be up for discussion, how can we expect MPs from the different parts of the UK to go about representing their territories in the new parliament?

England 

Despite being drawn so overwhelmingly from English constituencies, there are few indications that the enlarged group of Conservative MPs will explicitly focus on England as a unit. While the Conservatives introduced English votes for English laws in 2015 and some prominent Conservative MPs have called for an English Parliament in the past, the ‘West Lothian question’ has slipped down the political agenda over the past few years as Brexit has emerged as the dominant issue for the right. That seems unlikely to change now, despite some interest from external commentators such as Nick Timothy, Theresa May’s former special adviser. Conservative interest in the constitutional English question was always motivatived to a significant extent by concern that a Labour-led government might be able to force through policies applying only to England even though a majority of English MPs were opposed, as happened on a few occasions in the New Labour years. With the Conservatives now having a large majority overall, the political incentive to focus on the English question just isn’t there at the moment. Continue reading

A ‘dual mandate’ English Parliament: some key questions of institutional design

meg_russell (1)Jack.000Almost 20 years after the creation of the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, England is the only country of the United Kingdom without its own devolved executive and legislative body. Meg Russell and Jack Sheldon offer their view on whether or not a dual mandate English Parliament is desirable or if it has the proper characteristics to be considered a parliament at all. 

Calls for establishment of an English Parliament have been made for years, particularly following Labour’s devolution in the 1990s to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Initially such proposals were largely confined to the right of politics, and appeared a relatively fringe interest. But in the aftermath of the Scottish independence referendum, and the new powers devolved to the Scottish Parliament, proposals have also begun to be heard from the political left. Nonetheless, advocates have rarely elaborated on their proposals in detail, and there are many unresolved questions relating to the likely powers, functions, structure and composition of such a body. Since autumn 2016, the Constitution Unit has been working on a research project exploring the options, and a detailed report is due to be published shortly. This post will concentrate primarily on the key institutional questions raised by what is known as the ‘dual mandate’ model for an English Parliament, which some proponents suggest could be implemented as an incremental next step from ‘English votes for English laws’ (EVEL). We ask whether this model for an English Parliament is as innocuous as it looks, and indeed whether what it proposes is a parliament at all.

Models for an English Parliament

The most instinctively obvious model for an English Parliament is to create a completely new body, elected separately from the House of Commons, to mirror the legislatures in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Variants of this separately-elected model have been proposed by such figures as David DavisFrank Field and Paul Nuttall. It is also favoured by the Campaign for an English Parliament, founded in 1998. Establishing such a body would be a big decision, entailing significant political upheaval and cost. The idea has many opponents, including experts such as Vernon Bogdanor and Adam Tomkins. A key concern is that a new elected body representing 85% of the UK population would, in the words of the House of Lords Constitution Committee, “introduce a destabilising asymmetry of power”. For all of these reasons, adoption of this proposal continues to appear politically unlikely.

The second model is what we call the dual mandate model, which is presented as a more incremental change. Here Westminster MPs representing English constituencies would meet as an English Parliament at certain times. Proponents see this as building on the existing EVEL procedures, creating a far clearer delineation at Westminster between England-only and UK business (and thus dealing once-and-for-all with the famous ‘West Lothian question’). The most prominent supporter has been John Redwood, but similar arrangements have also been proposed by MP Andrew Rosindell, Welsh AM David Melding, journalist Simon Heffer and writers from the Adam Smith Institute think tank. Nonetheless, this model is rejected by the Campaign for an English Parliament as ‘English Parliament lite’. Continue reading

What might an English Parliament look like? The Constitution Unit is consulting on the design options

Jack_SheldonMeg-RussellThe Constitution Unit has recently begun work on a new project examining the design options for an English Parliament. This was once seen as an unrealistic proposal but support has grown in recent years and it therefore now deserves to be taken more seriously. Nonetheless many major questions about what an English Parliament might actually look like remain unaddressed. In this post Jack Sheldon and Meg Russell set these questions out and invite views on them through a consultation that is now open and will close on 27 January 2017.

Calls for an English Parliament have long existed, but frequently been rejected by academics and mainstream politicians. Although a Campaign for an English Parliament was set up in 1998, as the devolved institutions were being established for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the idea did not get off the ground. A central argument has been that such a parliament, thanks to representing almost 85 per cent of the UK’s population, would, in the words of the 1973 Kilbrandon Commission on the Constitution, result in a Union ‘so unbalanced as to be unworkable’ (para 531). As critics such as Vernon Bogdanor (p. 13) have pointed out, no major existing federation has a component part this dominant, and unbalanced federal systems (e.g. the former USSR and Yugoslavia), have tended to fail. Elites have thus often proposed devolution within England, rather than to England as a whole, as the preferred solution to the ‘English question’, and considered an English Parliament an unrealistic proposal. As the Constitution Unit’s Robert Hazell wrote in 2006, ‘An English Parliament is not seriously on the political agenda, and will never get onto the agenda unless serious politicians begin to espouse it’.

Growing salience of the English question

But various factors have increased the salience of questions around England’s place in the devolution settlement, and the idea of an English Parliament has gained new friends as a result. One factor is the gradually greater powers of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly beyond those bestowed in the 1990s – including legislative powers in an increasing number of fields and significant tax-raising powers. This means that a growing amount of business at Westminster concerns England (or sometimes England and Wales) alone. In turn, this brings the famous ‘West Lothian question’, concerning the voting rights of MPs elected from the devolved nations, more to the fore. The Conservative government consequently introduced a form of ‘English votes for English laws’ (EVEL) in 2015, through changes to House of Commons standing orders. But the new arrangements have been rejected by opposition parties, so might not survive a change of government. Furthermore, the version of EVEL that has been introduced does not actually prevent Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs from vetoing English-only legislation. It is therefore far from clear that this will prove to be a satisfactory long-term solution.

Another contributing factor is growing interest in the future of the Union pre- and post- the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. Various unionist politicians, pundits and other political observers have considered how Scottish demands for greater autonomy may be satisfied within the UK, and federalism is being increasingly discussed. The EU referendum result has led some such as Professor Jim Gallagher (Director-General, Devolution Strategy at the Cabinet Office from 2007–10) to suggest that the devolved nations, whilst remaining within the UK, might each pursue different relationships with the EU post-Brexit. Heavyweight political support for something similar has come from former Prime Minister Gordon Brown and former Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander. The threat of a second Scottish independence referendum, announced by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote and repeated since, means the government needs to take such proposals seriously. This would clearly require the consequences for England to be addressed.

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