New paper by Professor Matt Qvortrup: ‘A Tale of Two Referendums’

A Tale of Two Referendums: Elite Manipulation or Civic Engagement?The Constitution Society paper, ‘A Tale of Two Referendums: Elite Manipulation or Civic Engagement?’ by Professor Matt Qvortrup, is available online.

Can we make referendums work? This pamphlet provides a brief overview for the perplexed and provides an understanding of how referendums operate before the vote on British membership of the European Union.

The author holds that the two major referendums held by David Cameron’s governments so far have been qualitatively very different. The referendum on Scottish independence in 2014 was a model of civic engagement; the one on electoral reform in 2011 was the archetype of elite manipulation. After considering the historic background to referendums and some of the theoretical issues, he makes recommendations designed to ensure that the EU referendum is conducted in the most appropriate way.

(This pamphlet presents the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society, which publishes it as a contribution to debate on this important subject). 

21st September 2015

‘Constitutional Standards, Constitutional Change and EVEL’: A blog by Dr. Jack Simson Caird

Today the Constitution Unit UCL, with the support of the Constitution Society, is publishing the second edition of ‘The Constitutional Standards of the House of Lords Constitution Committee’. The report, by Robert Hazell, Dawn Oliver and myself, contains a code of 140 constitutional standards, covering five areas: the rule of law, delegated powers, the separation of powers, individual rights and parliamentary procedure. The second edition extracts and codifies standards from all 168 reports of the House of Lords’ Constitution Committee published from its inception in 2001 to the end of the 2010-2015 Parliament.

When the first edition of the code was published in January 2014, I made the basic case for the use of a code of constitutional standards within Parliament. In this post, I focus on the role that a code of constitutional standards could play in the specific circumstances facing Parliament today: that of the first parliamentary session of a newly elected government intent on making major constitutional changes. In particular, I will examine the introduction of English votes for English laws (EVEL) as an example of constitutional change, and explore how the use of this code in both Houses of Parliament and in government could enhance the scrutiny of those proposed changes to parliamentary procedure.

A defining feature of the UK’s constitution is that a government fresh from the polls can use its majority in the House of Commons to implement major constitutional change in their first parliamentary session. If the policy was in the manifesto of the winning party then the Salisbury Convention means that it will not be blocked in the second chamber. And the change will be able to ‘bed down’ during the whole of the Parliament. In one sense this is a strength of the UK constitution. A weakness of this arrangement is that it can result in changes being made to the constitution without the detailed analysis and scrutiny within Parliament that they deserve. This is where a code of parliamentary constitutional standards, such as the one included in this report, could make a difference. Read more ›

27th August 2015

New Advisory Board members announced

We are delighted to be able to announce four new appointments to The Constitution Society Advisory Board. They are: Prof. Vernon Bogdanor, The Rt. Hon. the Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, The Rt. Hon. Dominic Grieve MP and Sebastian Payne.

Professor Vernon Bogdanor CBE

Vernon is Research Professor at the Institute for Contemporary British History, King’s College London. He was formerly Professor of Government at Oxford University and Senior Tutor and Vice-Principle at Brasenose College, Oxford. He has written widely on government and politics. Vernon has been an adviser to government and parliamentary bodies. He is a fellow of the British Academy.

The Rt. Hon. the Lord Foulkes of Cumnock

George Foulkes is a Labour member of the House of Lords. He was a Member of the House of Commons from 1979 – 2005 and a Member of the Scottish Parliament from 2007 – 2011. From 1997 to 2001 George was Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Department for International Development and from 2001 – 2002 he was Minister of State at the Scotland Office.

The Rt. Hon. Dominic Grieve MP

Dominic has been Conservative MP for Beaconsfield since 1997 after working as a barrister and serving in the Territorial Army and as a Hammersmith councillor. He first joined the front bench of the opposition in 1999 as a spokesperson on Constitutional Affairs. He was Attorney General from 2010 to 2014. Presently he is a member of the House of Commons Standards and Privileges Committee.

Sebastian Payne

Sebastian is President of the United Kingdom Constitutional Law Association, a Lecturer in Public Law at the Kent Law School and a Barrister of the Inner Temple. As well as publishing on the law relating to terrorism he is the editor (with Professor Maurice Sunkin) of The Nature of the Crown (Oxford University Press 1999).

Details of all Advisory Board members can be found here:

29th June 2015

New Paper on the Human Rights Act

Repeal of the Human Rights Act, its replacement with a British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, and withdrawal from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights are core parts of the constitutional programme of the newly-elected Conservative government. For this reason, the recently-published Constitution Society and UK Constitutional Law Association paper, “‘Common Sense’ or Confusion? The Human Rights Act and the Conservative Party” by Stephen Dimelow and Alison L Young, available online, is of particular salience.

The enactment of the Human Rights Act 1998 was undoubtedly a significant moment in the United Kingdom’s legal and political history. But while many view it as a positive development, many others view it much more negatively, regularly voicing the need for far reaching reforms. Of the main Westminster parties, unhappiness with it has long been most prominent in the ranks of the Conservative Party. The publication of a policy document in October 2014 entitled ‘Protecting Human Rights in the UK: The Conservatives’ Proposals for Changing Britain’s Human Rights Laws’, was an important step towards understanding both what the Conservative Party believes is wrong with the current regime and how it plans to resolve these perceived problems. This paper scrutinises the Conservative Party’s proposals in an attempt to determine the Conservative Government’s likely success in both achieving the proposed reforms and addressing the perceived problems. 

Read more ›

28th April 2015

A United Kingdom Constitutional Convention

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Reform, Decentralisation and Devolution in the UK has published its paper ‘A Parliament for Reform 2015-2020′ which can be downloaded here.

The paper includes the following proposed wording for inclusion in the manifestos of all parties at the coming General Election:

“We will establish a UK Constitutional Convention to mark the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta in 2015. The Convention will operate independent of government and will include members of the public as well as representatives of the political parties, local authorities and the nations and regions of the UK. Members of the public will make up more than half of the total membership.

Sitting for no longer than a year, the Convention will consider, and publish recommendations on:

  1. The relationship between the nations, and all parts within the UK, including their fair representation in the Westminster Parliament.
  2. Arrangements for the governance of England.
  3. Other issues that may require the attention of a successor Convention.
We will bring before Parliament proposals to respond to the recommendations of the Convention within six months of its reporting.”

12th March 2015

New paper by Vernon Bogdanor: The Crisis of the Constitution

The Constitutions Society’s paper, ‘The Crisis of the Constitution: The General Election and the Future of the United Kingdom’ by Vernon Bogdanor, is available online.

Who governs Britain? That is the question being put to the voters on 7th May. But there are other questions lurking in the background, constitutional questions, that are the subject of this pamphlet. The first of them is – how is Britain to be governed in an era of party fragmentation in which the electoral system either fails to yield a single-party majority government; or, if it does yield such a government, it is likely to be a government enjoying little over one-third of the popular vote?

The second and even more fundamental question is – will there remain a Britain to be governed, or will the election give a further push to those forces in Scotland calling for separation? But these are not the only constitutional questions that Britain will face. There are in addition a European Question, a Human Rights Question and an English Question. The constitution, which many politicians hoped might have been disposed of after the Scottish referendum, has returned to the political agenda with a vengeance. Vernon Bogdanor discusses both the problems and possible solutions. Read more ›

12th February 2015

BGI Report – ‘Financing Scotland: Is there a workable financial settlement for Scottish devolution?’

The Better Government Initiative‘s latest report – “Financing Scotland: Is there a workable financial settlement for Scottish devolution?” – points out that the airy assurances given in the heat of the referendum debate, that financial devolution could go ahead while retaining the Barnett formula, may not prove so easy to deliver in practice.

The settlement recommended by the Smith Commission and welcomed by the PM will mean that more services (employment and training provision for example) will be devolved and so will fall within the scope of Barnett. Some welfare spending will be devolved for the first time. Scotland will be given the revenue from income tax in Scotland and a share of VAT revenues, and powers to change income tax rates and thresholds.
Where does all this leave Barnett? Suddenly an obscure but very simple formula has been caught up in a welter of complicated adjustments and indexations. Can it take the strain?

25th December 2014

‘Entrenchment and the United Kingdom constitution’ – new discussion paper

In recent times developments in the UK system have suggested a more widespread attraction to the idea that some constitutional rules should have a protected position, and should not be as easy to alter as more regular laws and arrangements. Current constitutional turmoil may make entrenchment of this kind a necessity, though to do so would entail a challenge to more traditional constitutional traditions.

In ‘Entrenchment and the United Kingdom constitution’, Andrew Blick considers the different options available for any effort to entrench constitutional principles and provisions.

Download this paper here. 

16th December 2014

New paper by Scott Kelly: The slow death of the ‘Efficient Secret’

The Constitution Society’s paper, ‘The slow death of the “Efficient Secret”: The rise of MP independence, its causes and its implications’ by Scott Kelly, is available online.

In recent years, MPs from the main political parties have become increasingly rebellious, defying their Whips on a regular basis. While this trend has been thoroughly analysed, the reasons behind it and the consequences of it have not received comparable attention. This pamphlet assesses the causes and constitutional implications of this dramatic development in the workings of UK political institutions.

The author concludes that the growth in rebellion, more usefully described as the rise of MP independence, coincides with the ‘professionalisation’ of the job of being an MP and, in particular, the increasing amount of time MPs devote to constituency work. In the tug-of-war between the national party and the local constituency for an MP’s attention, it is the constituency that is gaining greater pulling power. The pull of the constituency has important implications for constitutional principles such as Collective Responsibility, that lies at the heart of accountable government in the UK. Read more ›

25th November 2014

‘Electoral Collision Course?’ paper

The Constitution Society paper ‘Electoral Collision Course? The Boundaries and the Register after May 2015’ by Lewis Baston is available online.

A common complaint about the constitutional reform programme pursued by the Labour governments of 1997–2010 was that it was disjointed. The same problem has recurred under the Coalition since 2010, even in those bits of ‘the biggest shake up of our democracy since the Great Reform Act of 1832’ (Nick Clegg, 2010) that have been seen through to completion.

Two of these changes have created a particularly malign combination. These are the changes that were introduced in 2011 to the way parliamentary constituency boundaries are drawn, which were paused rather than cancelled in 2013, and the radical changes to the basis of electoral registration.

After May 2015 the two measures will collide horribly. The current government intends (subject to Parliamentary approval) to purge the electoral registers in late 2015. Even if (and this is doubtful) Individual Electoral Registration produces a more complete and accurate register in due course, the post- transitional register in December 2015 is likely to be severely incomplete. Read more ›

28th October 2014