Debating the constitution…

On Monday, the Lords debated reports from the Constitution Committee on The Union and Devolution and Inter-Governmental Relations in the UK.  I spoke and used the occasion to pick up on a theme common to both, namely the failure of government to look at the relationship between different changes to the constitution.  I argued, as I have for some time, that successive governments have undertaken constitutional change without having a coherent view of the constitution they consider appropriate for the United Kingdom.  Some governments have promoted changes, justifying each on its particular merits, and others have engaged in a fire-fighting approach to pressures for change.  There has been no attempt to look holistically at the constitution and delineate the basic principles that underpin it.

I mentioned that I had been asked to pen an article entitled ‘Constitutional change in the UK; unfinished business?’  My response was to say I thought it was more accurate to refer to never-ending business, as unfinished business suggests there is an end point.  As governments have no clear view of what they are working towards, there is no obvious end point.  We will end up with a constitution that is the sum of disparate and discrete changes.

As is clear from the reports, there is a structural feature militating against looking at the constitution as a whole.  There is no Cabinet minister with dedicated responsibility, there is no Cabinet committee on constitutional change.  If anything, things are going backwards rather than forward.  (There was a Cabinet committee, though that only met once in nine months.)  It is left to individual ministers to consider the implications of change for citizens.  Cabinet therefore is in response mode, waiting to discuss specific proposals or problems as they arise.  This is not a desirable situation.

I asked the minister to delineate the principles underpinning constitutional change and what plans there were to restructure government to enable it to address such change.  The minister, Lord Duncan, was making his maiden speech in responding to the debate (which meant he was listened to in silence and without interruption).  His speech was fluent and exceptionally well delivered.  It also gave nothing away and addressed neither question.

About Lord Norton

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

  1. Andrew Turvey says:

    I’m not sure that a “coherent” government – led approach to constitutional reform would be a good idea at all! Just imagine the harm that could do!

    Perhaps a parliamentary committee – or even a joint committee with the devolved assemblies – could make a positive difference.

  2. Croft says:

    “It also gave nothing away and addressed neither question.”
    Sounds like some civil servant in a dark room got a few more brownie points on their way to an honour then!

  3. Mark Shephard says:

    I agree with Andrew, coherence is not enough. Legitimacy is a paramount and prior variable and this can only come from including the four nations in the creation of a coherent approach. Otherwise coherence from London might = the end of the UK. A very tricky juggling act.

    • Croft says:

      The problem with both your and Andrew’s argument is it presupposes the devolved administrations want ‘the creation of a coherent approach’. The SNP certainly do not. The will simply throw spanners into the machinery; any proposal will be wrong and used to further their grievance based politics.

      • Andrew Turvey says:

        The SNP are a small component of the House of Commons and an even smaller component of the Lords; their ability to throw a spanner in the works in therefore also small – even if I agree with you that they may well try!

      • Croft says:

        Legislative consent motions makes legal changes difficult regardless of parliamentary maths.

  4. tizres says:

    Letter from Lord Lexden to The Times, originally published in 2011:

    Sir, the separation of the crown of Hanover from that of the United Kingdom on the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837 (report, Oct 15, and letter, Oct 20) would not provide a happy precedent for any division of the monarch’s realms today.

    A bitter controversy over the ownership of some of the finest jewels in the royal collection soured Anglo-Hanoverian relations for 20 years. After two lengthy commissions of inquiry Queen Victoria was forced to hand over some of her favourite pieces, leaving her “desperately annoyed”. She was prohibited from buying the distinctive Hanoverian cream and black horses which had drawn the royal coaches on state occasions since 1714. Her uncle, the King of Hanover, who was extremely unpopular in England, infuriated her by demanding precedence over the Prince Consort. That led to unseemly scenes at a royal wedding when the Hanoverian king nearly fell over after “a slight push” from Prince Albert. He was caught and led away by force by the Lord Chamberlain “fuming with ire”. Could members of the Royal Family today avoid similar wrangling if the Queen’s realms were split?

    And could Brexit provide Her Majesty with an opportunity to get even?

  5. When California votes on Secession this post may get more hits from my side of the pond.

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