A century of constitutional change

I am still on the continent – I return to Hull late tomorrow.  The value of travelling by train is that I am able to get on with a mass of work. 

I have been using some of the train journeys to work on the contributions to a special issue of the journal Parliamentary History, which I am editing, on a century of constitutional change.  It is being published next year on the centenary of the passage of the Parliament Act 1911.  I have had to select six major pieces of legislation of constitutional significance.  I have opted for the Parliament Act 1911, the Representation of the People Act 1918, the European Communities Act 1972, the Human Rights Act 1998, the Scotland Act 1998, and the House of Lords Act 1999.   There were several other candidates for inclusion, but these struck me as the most appropriate for analysis. 

There are some interesting points to note about the legislation.  One notable feature is that few Bills of constitutional import were the subject of a political consensus.  The norm was for the Bill to be contested.   Another obvious feature is the concentration of measures in the period since 1997.  For much of the twentieth century, the constitution was not a subject of political debate and relatively few major constitutional measures were enacted.  There were some in the period from 1918 to 1997, but in terms of concentration they were overshadowed by the Acts that have been passed since 1997.   We may of course be seeing others enacted in this Parliament.  

Another notable feature is that the measures enacted, and planned, since 1997 do not obviously derive from any intellectually coherent approach to constitutional change.  The Labour Government pursued measures that were essentially disparate and discrete, each justified on its own terms and not deriving from an over-arching theory.   When I initiated a debate in the Lords on constitutional change, the then Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, conceded there was no such theory.  The coalition government is now pursuing measures agreed by parties that have very different approaches to constitutional change.  I have just completed a paper (to be published next year) on the Conservative view of democracy.  The constitutional measures embodied in the coalition agreement are compromises that derive from no clear philosophy.

About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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6 Responses to A century of constitutional change

  1. ladytizzy says:

    The history around at least a couple of those Acts could be made into plays for theatre or TV (to be shown on BBC Parliament during recesses instead of the crushingly boring repeats of the last few months).

    Which Acts, not just the six you mentioned, do you think could make compelling viewing?

  2. Lord Norton says:

    ladytizzy: The events surrounding the Parliament Act 1911 and the House of Lords Act 1999 were probably the most vigorous and worth viewing. I don’t think any of the others involved the heir to an hereditary peerage climbing on to the Woolsack to deliver a protest!

    • Chris K says:

      He has a lifetime ban from the Palace of Westminster, which is quite a honour indeed!
      Presumably if being an hereditary peer still entitled one to sit, that ban would have to be lifted one day?

      I will certainly buy this book. The Peerage Act of 1963 would have been interesting as well, having had the major (and unexpected) impact it did. It interests me to hypothesise how different life would be had Douglas Home not been PM.

      • Croft says:

        Chris K: As I remember their was a committee vote on the act over whether to allow only future peers to disclaim or all those presently holding a title as well. The split was tight, being the latter by two votes which would have left many peers stuck on the lords. I’m not convinced that the Tories choosing any other PM would have changed the result even though it was a tight election.

      • Lord Norton says:

        Chris K: The Life Peerages Act 1958 was another contender. It has had a major impact on the House of Lords.

  3. djb13 says:

    Sadly, I think there is an overarching theme to the constitutional changes since 1997; partisan advantage. I can think of few bills presented or suggested that did not benifit that party most associated with it’s introduction. The main exception is the House of Lords Act 1999, which can only be described as an accidental shot in the foot by Labour, which they (along with the Tories) have been trying desperately to undo pretty much ever since.

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