Conservatives and constitutional change

Lady Margaret Hall

It has been rather a peripatetic week.  Last Sunday, I was in Louth for the Mayor’s civic parade before heading for London in the evening, ready for the launch of the Joint Committee report (and the Alternative report) on Monday.  It was a case of travelling back to Hull on Wednesday evening, ready for teaching on Thursday, and then departing for Oxford yesterday (Friday), where I delivered the first in a series of  Beaufort Seminars on ‘Dimensions of Conservatism: Ideology, Policy and Strategy’.

My paper was on ‘Constitutional Issues and the Conservative Party’.  This provided me with the opportunity to cover how the nature of constitutional debate has changed in post-war decades, moving from a settled state to one where different approaches compete with one another, and how the Conservative Party has responded to that debate.  Part of the problem has been that it has tended to play catch-up, reacting to specific events, rather than thinking through the Conservative position in order to shape its stance when in office.  The party faced the 2010 election without having collected its thoughts on constitutional change and was then faced with a situation where it had to negotiate a coalition agreement.  This entailed a compromise in some areas (as with the referendum on AV) or conceding a position in others (as with fixed-term parliaments) and, indeed, conceding an approach.  The agreement proceeded on the basis of the liberal approach (our political system is broken) rather than the (Westminster or traditional) approach adopted by Conservatives – our system may occasionally need change in order to strengthen, but it is not broken.  This not surprisingly has given rise to some tensions.  The way in which the Government has approached constitutional change has not been dissimilar to that of its predecessor.  Instead of a sharp change, the stance has been marked by continuity.

About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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4 Responses to Conservatives and constitutional change

  1. An excellent post, Your Grace.

    I concur that Conservatives should adhere to the Burkian idea that reform must preserve the essence of the institution and improve upon it. We should embrace the Westminster system for what it is: the antithesis of constructivism. In other words, Parliamentarism was never “designed”; it emerged. Our system of Responsible Government (I’m not sure if the British use this term as much as we Canadians do) came into being almost entirely through the conventional constitution.

    • franksummers3ba says:

      Philip Norton Earl of Lincoln?? —

      “The agreement proceeded on the basis of the liberal approach (our political system is broken) rather than the (Westminster or traditional) approach adopted by Conservatives – our system may occasionally need change in order to strengthen, but it is not broken.”
      It seems to me that while the exact context and expression of the problem you discuss varies by time, nation and polity the problem is sort of common to all manner of conservatives. A true conservative with a lower case knows that the kinds of huge constructions of political ideas that typified a large portion of that nebulous period known as the French Revolution, Communist Revolutions in Russia and China and the Rise of National Socialism or even Conservatism’s closes relative of that type — Italian and Spanish Fascism. This view can lead one to overlook all the many conservatives who have had a comprehensive political idea, have organized it into a working facsimile of an ideology and have been able to shape Policy. In Britain, one cannot help but think that rather extreme examples of such people might include Churchill, Thatcher and (though oldest example the least conservative) Henry VIII. Burke I think speaks to all conservatives of how the Biritish system can embody a sense of unity, a respect for precedent, pragmatism and a respect for institutions. By analogy most true conservatives in countries familiar with his thought would prefer Burke as a model more often they can they feel they can select him.

  2. Tory Boy says:

    Who is going to be the next Chairman of Committees? How is this decision made?

  3. Graham says:

    What an interesting paper this sounds! Do you have plans to publish it somewhere? (I’ve read a number of posts over the last year or so in which you refer to papers on constitutional reform; do you have details of where those have been/will be published? The link to your publications on the Hull webpage doesn’t seem to work; it seems to link to the publications of Justin Morris instead).

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