Commentary by the Better Government Initiative: The Chilcot Report – Lessons for the Machinery of Government

The original article can be found on the Better Government Initiative website here.


A commentary by the Better Government Initiative

Key Issues

1. The Chilcot report offers many lessons on how the government tackled policy towards Iraq

over an 8-year period. We now need to ask what, if anything, is there to prevent a future prime

Minister in some future crisis behaving as Mr. Blair did?

2. The government has promised that the statements and debates on the report before the

summer recess will not be the last word on the lessons to be learned. It will be important to

test this commitment in the coming months. We believe Select Committees have an important

role to play in this. Read more ›

15th September 2016

New Research Paper by Professor George Jones: ‘The Power of the Prime Minister: 50 Years On’

New Constitution Society Research Paper: ‘The Power of the Prime Minister: 50 Years on‘, by Professor George Jones.

With a new Prime Minister taking office today, The Constitution Society is publishing a pamphlet providing a timely discussion of the nature of the British Premiership.

A little over 50 years ago in 1965 the journal Parliamentary Affairs published an article by George Jones titled “The Prime Minister’s Power”. He wrote it against a then fashionable view. According to this outlook the British Constitution had radically changed. It was held that the power of the prime minister had grown to such an extent that it had supplanted cabinet government with a system of almost presidential government or of an elected monarch. Contrary to such theses Jones concluded “The Prime Minister is the leading figure in the Cabinet whose voice carries most weight. But he is not the all-powerful individual which many have claimed him to be. His office has great potentialities, but the use made of them depends on many variables, the personality, temperament, and ability of the Prime Minister, what he wants to achieve and the methods he uses. It depends also on his colleagues, their personalities and temperaments and abilities, what they want to do and their methods. A Prime Minister who can carry his colleagues with him can be in a very powerful position, but he is only as strong as they let him be.” This last sentence has been much quoted in later years, especially by students writing their essays. This pamphlet updates the Jones thesis. Taking into account all that has transpired in the intervening period, it concludes that the basic principle Jones advanced in 1965 remains true. 

13th July 2016

New paper by Professor Vernon Bogdanor: ‘The Crisis of The Constitution’, 2nd Edition

The Constitution Society paper, ‘The Crisis of the Constitution’ (2nd Edition) by Professor Vernon Bogdanor, is available online.

The general election of 2015 answered conclusively, to the surprise of most commentators, the question, ‘Who governs Britain?’ by yielding a single-party government with an overall majority in the House of Commons. But it did not answer two of the fundamental constitutional questions facing Britain. The first is how Britain is to be governed in an era of party fragmentation in which the electoral system, even when, as in 2015, it produces a single-party majority government, yields one enjoying just over one-third of the popular vote.

The second and even more fundamental question is – will there still be a Britain to be governed, will the United Kingdom remain in being, or has the outcome of the election in Scotland, where 56 of the 59 seats were won by the SNP, given an irreversible push to separatism. Read more ›

3rd February 2016

New paper by Professor Dawn Oliver: ‘Constitutional Guardians’

The Constitution Society paper,‘Constitutional Guardians: The House of Lords’ by Professor Dawn Oliver, is available online.

This pamphlet explores the arrangements for guardianship of the UK constitution and its values and the role of the House of Lords in particular.

Effective constitutional guardianship is important in any liberal democracy. In most democracies the courts have important roles in deciding whether laws breach the constitution and striking them down if so. This is not a role that the courts are able to perform in respect of legislation passed by the UK Parliament, since it possesses legislative supremacy. Protection of constitutional values in the UK is therefore essentially a matter for parliamentarians, and particularly a responsibility of the second chamber and its committees: party political partisanship is less strong there than in the Commons, the government does not have a majority in the House of Lords, and an independent and professional element in the membership of the Lords enables that chamber to carry out its guardianship roles authoritatively and fairly. However the composition of that chamber presents political problems for the guardianship role which need to be overcome.

(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). 

19th December 2015

‘Labour and the electoral system: The myth of defeat and the chimera of victory’ – by Nat le Roux of The Constitution Society

The political commentariat comprehensively failed to predict either the Conservative victory in the May general election or the emergence of Jeremy Corbyn as the eventual victor of the Labour leadership contest. Following a perhaps inappropriately brief period of reflection, the mainstream media have lighted on a consensus interpretation of these events which many in the Parliamentary Labour Party apparently share. Two soundbites of received wisdom now seem to frame most conversations about the result of the general election and the future of the party. They can be summarised succinctly:

Labour lost the 2015 general election because it lost the argument with the Conservatives on the economy’

‘Labour is unelectable in 2020 with Jeremy Corbyn as leader’ – and is thus by implication electable under a different leader

An analysis of the electoral arithmetic provides very limited support for either proposition.  

Read more ›

4th November 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

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