Debating the constitution

During yesterday’s debate on the Queen’s Speech, one of the topics covered was the constitution.   In my speech, I identified what I regarded as three key points to guide Government in addressing constitutional change.

First, don’t expect too much of it.  Constitutional change is not going to solve our economic or social problems, or indeed our political problems.  Grand claims are made for it, but in practice it may be used by politicians to absolve themselves of responsibility: ‘it’s not our fault, it’s the system’. 

Second, make sure it relates to a clear view of what is expected of our constitutional arrangements.  The point I made in my earlier post about putting Lords reform in the context of Parliament’s place in our political system was very salient to this point.   The last Government implemented major constitutional changes but they were essentially disparate and discrete changes.  They were not embedded in an intellectually coherent approach to the constitution.

Third, make sure it is evidence based.  Constitutional change should not be the product of a minister’s sudden idea or the result of some back-of-the-envelope calculation or deal.  Constitutional change – indeed all public policy –  should be grounded in clear empirical evidence. 

Ensuring proposals for constitutional change are sound may take time.  In the interim, we could utilise the time to enhance our means of ensuring such proposals are subject to rigorous and informed scrutiny.

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About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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2 Responses to Debating the constitution

  1. A fine opening salvo from Lord Norton on constitutional change; I look forward to further responses from his cannon as respective bills—his ‘detailed comments on specific measures’—come into the line of fire.

    If I may add to his three considerations on constitutional reform—proportionality, complementarity, and effectiveness—a thorough ‘metaphysics of reform’ should also be among constitutional first principles; namely: (i) an identified abuse; (ii) a realistic remedy; and (iii) consideration of long-term consequences.

    In the House, Lord Norton cautioned: ‘We need to ensure that this is a thoroughly well grounded proposal and not some back-of-the-envelope approach of the sort that we have seen in the past.’ One of the strengths of tradition is not that it is old, but that it is tested, and that its benefits (as well as its weaknesses) are known. Edmund Burke called this knowledge prejudice:

    Many of our men of speculation, instead of exploding general prejudices, employ their sagacity to discern the latent wisdom which prevails in them. If they find what they seek, and they seldom fail, they think it more wise to continue the prejudice, with the reason involved, that to cast away the coat of prejudice, and to leave nothing but the naked reason; because prejudice, with its reason, has a motive to give action to that reason, and an affection which will give it permanence.

    For Hamlet, knowledge of these prejudices—and of the ignorance of consequences pending their removal—‘makes us rather bear those ills we have / Than fly to others that we know not of’.

    Burke’s aversion to this rationality of ‘naked reason’ is the same source for Lord Norton’s appeal that ‘constitutional change – indeed any public policy – should be grounded in clear empirical evidence.’

    The ease with which this Government (and its predecessor under Labour) enters into legislating for reform betrays a disconcerting cavalier attitude, inconsistent with conservative dispositions. When His Lordship says, ‘Our constitution is not the plaything of any government. We need to ensure that change is justified both in principle and practice’, he echoes the wisdom of Disraeli:

    Are we never to learn that a Constitution, a real Constitution, is the creation of ages, not of a day, and that when we destroy such a Constitution we in fact destroy a nation?

  2. ladytizzy says:

    Substitute ‘constitution’ for ‘life’ and your advice seems like a pretty good template for us all, Lord Norton.

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