Winning Here!

A view from the doorstep: South Cambridgeshire edition.

I do love a tour. I also love free stuff. So, when my good friend Kirk Taylor promised me not only a whistle stop tour of the mayoral campaign for Rod Cantrill in Cambridgeshire plus the county council election campaign plus a much-coveted “Rod for Mayor” mug (as seen recently at the York Lib Dem Pint) I was very much in!

After a reasonable journey through the English countryside (via the M25 and M11) I arrived in a village called Sawston to meet Kirk. After a cup of coffee and a catch-up we wrestled what has to be the largest orange diamond in existence into the back of his Fiat 500 (no mean feat I can tell you) and off we went.

The biggest diamond in existence!

The biggest diamond in existence!

First stop was a bit of canvassing just up the road in Great Shelford. We were canvassing on behalf of Peter Fane and Brian “bar chart” Milnes as the other candidate in Sawston and Shelford, as well as Rod Cantrill as the mayoral candidate for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. We were knocking on the doors of postal voters and possible supporters, so the canvassing was very targeted. Finding people in was a challenge (but then it was the Bank Holiday weekend) however the response overall was good. I also was lucky enough to meet Peter as well as Alex, another member of the team. They carried on where we left off, proving that teamwork really does make the dream work.

The next stop was actually Waitrose for a spot of lunch! Then on to another village called Over for more lunch (well, a superb chocolate cake) and to catch up with Sarah Cheung-Johnson. She is a newbie who is standing in the county council by-elections for Longstanton and is one of the most inspiring candidates I have met in a long time. Inspired to join after the EU referendum last June; she is hard working, motivated and definitely one to watch for the future! Also, the large diamond we had shoehorned into the car was for her and it was good to pass it on.

Julian Huppert with Sarah Cheung-Johnson

Julian Huppert with Sarah Cheung-Johnson

The action day here (and they seemed to be happening all over Cambridgeshire that day) was a slick and organised operation. It was being hosted by another newbie called Anne. It is great to see so many new members getting stuck in and with such enthusiasm! We also bumped into former MP for Cambridge (and future MP with any luck) Dr Julian Huppert who was more than happy to pitch in and help with the campaign. The combination of new members and more experienced ones is great; it means that everyone learns something new and those of us who have been doing this for a while receive inspiration from the newbies who are always fired-up and ready to go!

After the obligatory campaign photos, we hit the village with Tom, a former councillor. Response here was a lot more positive; not only because people were in their homes which always helps, but those we were speaking to planned to vote for both Sarah and Rod! Local people here are unhappy with the way the Conservatives are running things and are certainly not happy with the prospect of a hard Brexit looming, therefore will not vote Conservative again on any level. Going out with someone who is well-known to local people is also a good boost; he was a face that everyone not only knew but were very happy to talk to. Tom is clearly still held in high regard which is heart-warming to see.

I left South Cambridgeshire filled with positivity and motivation. Everyone here wants to do well; they work well together as a team and are all in constant communication with each other. It is always great to visit a team that is organised, knows what they want to achieve and are willing to work across the division to achieve it. I was only sad not to catch up with John Berkeley-Grout who is another friend of mine working hard on the campaign team. I also did not get to meet the man himself; Rod Cantrill, however I suspect he was a bit busy elsewhere.

The man himself! Rod Cantrill.

The man himself! Rod Cantrill.

If you are at a loose end and fancy a day out in beautiful countryside twinned with some positive canvassing, then this would be a good place to be. From what I saw in Longstanton and Sawston we can easily win this one back from the Tories, but of course the team always need help. Especially as this was an area that only lost by 1% in the 2015 General Election, meaning that nothing should be taken for granted. Looking at recent polls in the local press, it would appear that Rod is the only alternative to the Conservatives in this area. I can promise a warm welcome, lots of positivity, beautiful countryside and maybe cake. I can’t promise a free mug though.

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Westminster Wednesday: The Conservative Party

In this post, we will briefly examine the history of the Conservative Party; next week, we will do the same for the Labour Party. Through this, we will be able to see how the UK’s two current main parties have evolved over time – a history that informs their current view of the country and the wider world. By doing so, it is hoped we can reach a richer understanding of how British politics operates more widely, as well as of these two parties in particular.

Since the party was founded in 1834, half of the individuals who have served as Prime Minister in the UK were from the Conservative Party. During the 20th Century, the party was in government for 57 years in total. It is also, for a political party, extremely old – either the oldest or second-oldest party in the world (the US Democrats compete for the title). As we will see shortly, this is because there was not a clear point at which the Conservative Party appeared; it emerged over centuries, and the conventional foundation date noted above is not an uncontested concept.

 

Beginnings

From the first emergence of the labels “Tory” and “Whig” in the 17th Century until the early 19th century, British party labels were very loosely worn. The House of Commons was divided into factions often more loyal to individuals than overarching ideals. Members would flow into and out of government based on a variety of factors; party loyalty, as we understand it today, did not figure. It was in the latter part of the 18th Century, and on into the early 19th century, that the system began to crystallise. Divisions over reform – with Tories generally opposed, Whigs generally in favour – drove a coalescing of the two factions into firmer forms.

The end result of this process might be dated to 1834 for the Conservative Party, with the issuing of a document called the “Tamworth Manifesto”, issued by Tory Prime Minister Robert Peel. This document set out the broad principles of conservatism in the UK – that is, not to resist all change, but to embrace enough change to cope with the demands of the age, and to resist change for its own sake. It was, in Norman Gash’s description, a manifesto that stated the Conservatives would “reform to survive”. It was around this time that the party began to be referred to more and more as “Conservatives”, rather than “Tories”, and stood for election as such.

Peel remained Prime Minister until 1846, when the party was split over the issue of tariffs on the importation of corn – the “Corn Laws”. The reformist, free trade wing would eventually join the Liberals, whilst those who had supported keeping the Corn Laws (and were ultimately defeated) remained in the Conservative Party. But they had to endure many years of being either in opposition, or in insecure governments without a Commons majority, until the 1870s. Even then, their position was precarious – whilst Benjamin Disraeli was able to win a majority in the 1874 election, he lost it again in 1880. What ultimately made their rise to the dominant position they enjoyed in the 20th Century more certain was the crisis that overtook the Liberal Party in the 1880s.

The Liberal Party split in the 1880s over the issue of Ireland – how to govern it, whether it should be party of the UK or have some other status – with those Liberals in favour of retaining Ireland within the UK (the Liberal Unionists) joining up with the Conservatives. Between the Liberal split in 1886 and 1905, the Conservative Party was in power for 14 years, predominantly under Lord Salisbury. It was only in 1905 that they lost office again – after another divisive split over trade, with a faction led by Joseph Chamberlain demanding the imposition of tariffs on goods from outside the British Empire.

The most important figures for the Conservative Party in this period were Robert Peel – who, as we’ve seen, shaped the outline of conservatism as well as laying the foundations of the Conservative Party itself, Benjamin Disraeli, and Lord Salisbury. Disraeli and Salisbury are between them credited with the creation and embedding of a philosophy known as “One Nation” conservatism. This, briefly, is a paternalistic creed – one that identifies the values and interests of the working class with that of the Conservative Party, and paints the party as the one best able to act to help them, because it best shares their values. This was particularly important because, after 1867, the electorate had been widened to include more members of the working class.

 

The Twentieth Century

 This creed of One Nation Conservatism came under strain, however, during the early 20th Century. In 1906, the party lost to the Liberals in a landslide, and faced a difficult immediate future. Yet, by 1910, they were almost level with the Liberals in terms of Parliamentary seats again, and seemed to be gaining ground. Events now overtook the UK party system, and drove significant changes – principally, the First World War. The war would ultimately be the primary force that broke the Liberal Party, splitting it irreparably and leaving it as the UK’s third party by the end of the 1920s.

For their party, the Conservatives entered government during the war as part of a coalition, which they went on to dominate after the 1918 election. During the 1920s, they faced minority Labour governments, but broadly held on to the levers of power alone – headed first by Andrew Bonar Law (the UK’s shortest serving Prime Minister) and then by Stanley Baldwin. As before, the party adapted to changing circumstances; in this case, by working to attract women voters after they had been enfranchised. Baldwin proved to be an adept manager of the party – mixing social reforms and stability in a way that seemed in short supply during the interwar period.

Baldwin eventually resigned in 1937, and was replaced by Neville Chamberlain (son of Joseph Chamberlain, mentioned earlier). Chamberlain inherited from Baldwin a country that was facing the rising challenge of fascism in Europe, whilst still reluctant to commit to large-scale rearmament. He is now best remembered for his failed efforts to contain fascism through a policy called “appeasement”, but domestically he was a continuation of the One Nation Conservative trend. He had to resign in 1940, after the invasion of France, with his government under attack from within the Conservative Party and outside for its handling of the war. He was replaced by Winston Churchill.

Churchill went on to lead the country to victory in Europe over fascism, and called a general election for the summer of 1945. Before victory over Japan was secured, and to considerable shock, he was replaced as Prime Minister by Labour’s Clement Attlee, with the first majority Labour government. Churchill remained on as party leader, and eventually came back as Prime Minister in the 1951 general election. However, his health began to fail him soon after, and in 1955 he resigned, to be replaced by Anthony Eden. Eden, in turn, made a colossal error of judgement in attempting to use armed force to seize control of the Suez Canal in Egypt (the Suez Crisis) and had to resign within little over a year; he was replaced as Conservative leader by Harold Macmillan.

Macmillan is perhaps the best embodiment of the One Nation Conservative philosophy ever to serve as Prime Minister. He mixed an appearance of steadiness and reliability with incremental reforms – he was, for example, the man who introduced Premium Bonds. During the 1930s, he had strongly endorsed more government spending on the economy, and during his time as Prime Minister he faced down ministers who called for spending cuts to deal with inflation. Ultimately, he was laid low by a combination of personal health issues and a rising tide of scandal within his party. He was replaced as Prime Minister in 1963 by the Earl of Home (pronounced ‘hume’), who sought election in the Commons shortly afterwards as Sir Alec Douglas-Home. Home was only Prime Minister for a little over a year, before narrowly losing to Labour in 1964.

Home was, however, responsible for a considerable change in the Conservative Party after losing that election. Until then, Conservative leaders had “emerged” from an informal internal process – Home now put in place a proper system for electing Conservative Party leaders, and this was implemented in 1965, when he resigned. Edward Heath was elected to replace him; and in 1970, would go on to be elected as Prime Minister. Whilst Heath’s government promised considerable change when first elected, it essentially reverted to One Nation policies throughout – and was defeated in two elections in 1974, as industrial action, inflation, and trouble in Northern Ireland flared. Despite having lost 3 of the four general elections he contested as leader (the exception being 1970), Heath only agreed to a leadership election in 1975 in an effort to renew his mandate – he finished behind former Secretary of State for Education Margaret Thatcher on the first ballot, and had to resign.

Thatcher’s period as leader of the opposition was not an especially radical departure from what had gone before; in many ways, her positioning echoed that of the newly elected Heath government of 1970. When the Conservatives won the 1979 general election, Thatcher became the UK’s first female Prime Minister – she would go on to win two more elections in 1983, and 1987, before being forced out by the party in 1990 over the issues of Europe, and her style of leadership, to be replaced by John Major. Major would win more votes than any other UK party leader before or since – over 14 million – in 1992, but then go down to a crushing defeat to the Labour Party in 1997. None of three successors – William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Howard – would serve as Prime Minister, a record breaking streak for the party. Indeed, Hague was the first leader of the party (since the position was formally established in the 1920s) to never be elected as Prime Minister. It was only under David Cameron’s self-consciously modernising leadership of the party that they would return to office in 2010 – in coalition with the Liberal Democrats – and finally alone in the 2015 general election.

During this later period, the party also changed ideological direction. Mrs Thatcher’s three governments drove forward a radical set of changes in Britain that totally departed from the previous One Nation perspective. They were founded on a notion that might best be summed up as “free economy and the strong state”; that is, cutting both spending and taxes, whilst being tough on issues such as defence, crime and immigration. Unlike Macmillan, Thatcher was prepared to sell off state-run businesses, radically reduce levels of taxation, and engage in other dramatic economic and social policies. She was also, by the end of her term in office, willing to take an increasingly strident tone towards Europe.

In many ways, the modern Conservative Party is the product of Mrs Thatcher’s terms in government, and her world view. There are still One Nation Conservatives left; there are still pro-European Conservatives left; but they are both comparatively small minorities within the party compared to Thatcherites of various intensities. It is not unreasonable to argue that Thatcherism’s radical position means the Conservative Party is no longer merely “reforming to survive”; that is has abandoned fundamental conservative values in some sense; though the present author would note that this is not a settled argument. Whether Thatcherism is “right” or “wrong” is another matter – what is absolutely clear is that every Conservative leader since then has been defined in terms of Thatcherism. Whether Theresa May will – or wants – to change that, will be a matter of great interest to historians.

 

Conclusion

As we have seen, the Conservative Party has a long history – often in government, but also often tumultuous. The party has split several times, changed its ideological view point – in recent years quite radically – but has survived and indeed thrived in spite of that. The direction of the country has often been significantly influenced by internal Conservative Party politics – Europe being the most recent, but by no means the only, policy area where this is true.

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Westminster Wednesday: Political Culture

The institutions and challenges we have identified in previous weeks’ editions of Westminster Wednesday do not exist in a vacuum. They sit within and among us, and therefore our understanding of them – what they are, what they should do, where they came from – and so on, informs the way they operate, and how we respond to that. The concept of ‘political culture’ is one worth introducing here. Philip Norton defines it as “denoting the emotional and attitudinal environment within which a political system operates.” All of us exist within the UK’s political culture, and have been influenced by it – consciously and unconsciously. Here, we will look at two things – first of all, some of the influences on the process by which we acquire our political culture (this is called political socialisation) and secondly, some of the ways in which our political culture shapes our view of politics.

 

Socialisation

There are many places from which we, as humans, draw our understanding of how the world both is and should be. From our families, to teachers, friends, work colleagues, and beyond, we are all informed by the environment in which we live. In terms of how we understand politics, those listed above are important, but not exclusively so. Here, we will consider three key factors in the UK’s political socialisation process; class, location, and history.

The UK is a deeply class conscious society; as anthropologist Kate Fox noted “class pervades all aspects of English life and culture.” Class is, as Fox, Norton and others have observed, more than merely a function of how much you (or your family) earns; it is also a social statues, and has measurable impacts on our behaviour in everything from how we speak and dress, to what we do with our front gardens. Naturally, therefore, it shapes our view of politics. Traditionally, those of a working class background voted for the Labour Party, and those of a higher class background voted Conservative. But the class distinction also operates in terms of interest in politics – surveys have indicated that people of a lower social class report less interest in, and less optimism about, politics, than those of a higher class.

Secondly, our location plays a critical role in shaping our culture. On the grandest scale, there is a sheer geographic fact which shapes British political culture – that the country is an island (or series of islands), dwelling close enough to a major landmass to be unable to ignore it, but far enough away that it is able to rely on the sea as a means to be permanently distinct. Below that, we are confronted with an array of nations, regions and localities, each with their own identity. These identities are informed in part by their location within these islands – rural areas and urban areas have developed different value sets, different views on the importance of aspects of politics, based on their geography.

Finally, there is history. The history of the UK, and the countries that would form it, is told to us through a host of mechanisms – schools, the media, politicians, our families. We are told about the UK’s relationship with Europe over time, our relationship with monarchs and powerful leaders, our attitudes towards values such as liberty, justice, and peace. We are told about what we have fought for, built for, lived for – and so carried on in ourselves, and the world. Sometimes, we are told things that we are ashamed of now, as a warning to keep away from repeating past mistakes – more often, we are told things we should be proud of, things that are worth preserving. This is not just a lesson about old buildings or pieces of paper – it informs what we believe are politics are for, what makes them valuable, and how we can impact them.

 

Impacts

We can measure the impact of political culture in a host of ways; for now, we will focus on three key areas – its impact on problem solving, political systems, and co-operation. Each of these is a distinct area, with clear impacts on the way we, as the British, think about and “do” politics.

The UK’s approach to problem solving can be characterised as focused on the empirical, as opposed to the rational. Whilst this division was theorised by the Italian thinker Giovanni Satori, other writers such as George Orwell have identified this distinction that marks the UK out from its continental neighbours. What this means in practice is that the UK tends to justify things in pragmatic terms – that is, they’re good because they work, rather than they’re good because the theory is sound – and to look to policy issues when something goes wrong, rather than an overarching theme of the state, or democracy, or similar, to understand these issues. The UK is perhaps the clearest example of an empirical political culture anywhere in the world.

The British political culture towards its own political systems exists in a strange state of semi-deference, and semi-approval. Individually, the British often disapprove of the actions of their governments, or the way that the system is seen to respond to their expectations and demands. But, on the other hand, there is no significant effort to overturn the fundamental basis of the constitution, nor has one seriously been threatened in the UK since the end of the 17th Century. There have been changes, but the process is seen as incremental – and that is understood to be a good thing. Whilst the British political culture does not entail whole-hearted deference to, and approval of, its political system, it would be wrong to state that the British reject these systems.

Finally, the British conceive of their politics in terms of individual liberties. Here we see the history coming through strongly – a story about the UK’s attachment to individual freedom often begins with the Magna Carta of 1215, and may include such events as the Civil War and the Great Reform Act. British political culture places great emphasis on the right of individuals to go about their lives without what is seen as undue interference from the state, and this manifests itself in frequent angry resistance to government efforts to invade the privacy of citizens.

 

Stories

There is a caveat to all of this. Some of you will have read this, and immediately produced a red pen to correct my history or evidence here and there. But that in some sense is wrong – because political culture, like a nation, relies not on evidence to function, but on a common story. These stories aren’t necessarily true in an objective sense – Magna Carta was, for example, mostly concerned with restating existing land rights for nobles, rather than any kind of effort to establish some sort of widely held rights for the citizenry – but they are held to be one thing or another, and so become a part of the story.

This, here, is a truth that has been forgotten and uncovered again in recent months – politics, political culture, the very essence of a community – rely as much on stories and narratives as they do on objective, recoverable facts. We tell ourselves stories to give our communities a sense of higher, wider, nobler purpose than the cold light of day would seem to allow for. It might be comforting to some of you to image these fairy tales will blow away on the wind; but they remain critical to our lives, giving meaning and texture to the world around us. Without understanding them, the institutions that run our lives can seem arid and strange. Put them back into the picture, and context draws them into full life.

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Westminster Wednesday: Federalism in the UK

This week, we will be considering the issue of federalism in the UK. In previous weeks, we’ve discussed both local and devolved government in Britain – how they came to be and what powers they have. Here, we will look at the tensions that exist within the current set up, particularly in regards to the two largest nations in the UK; Scotland, and England. Of course, the devolution settlements for Wales and Northern Ireland both face significant challenges, and many would argue there are other nations within the UK that should be considered, such as Cornwall. But for reasons of space, and in an effort to draw out some of the bigger themes more clearly, we’ll be focusing on these two examples first and foremost.

Naturally, we need to define our key terms – here, the concept of federalism. Federal states divide their power between two key levels of organisation on an equal basis – devolution, the concept that the UK has adopted, implies an unequal power relationship between the centre (the stronger) and the regions (the weaker). Outside the UK, many states have adopted federal systems – two key examples being the United States, and Germany. This post uses federalism as the theme both to be distinct from the post on devolution, and to give indication of one possible future direction – one that has been endorsed by the Liberal Democrats themselves.

Scotland

During the 1990s, the Labour MP George Robertson declared that the plan to devolve power to Scotland would “kill Nationalism stone dead”. This quote has become something of an embarrassment for Labour since; not only has the primary vehicle for Scottish nationalism, the Scottish National Party (SNP) thrived, but the Scottish Labour Party has imploded – whereas once it dominated Scotland, it now has a single MP, and is reduced to the third largest party in the Scottish Parliament.

The Scottish Parliament was created as a stronger body than either the Welsh or Northern Irish Assemblies; with a stronger mandate in the referendum that led to its creation, with the power to modify income tax to raise additional revenue. Since 1999, two further acts of Parliament have transferred additional powers to Scotland – the 2012 and 2016 Scotland Acts. These have granted the Scottish Parliament an array of new powers over areas such as its finances, elections, and criminal law. But this is a reactive process; the UK government is constrained in some sense by the result of elections in Scotland. In 2007, the Scottish people returned a Scottish Parliament where the SNP was (just) the largest party, and they proceeded to form a government. In 2011, despite the electoral system, the SNP won a majority – and negotiations began within months on granting them the power to hold a referendum on Scottish independence. The result of these negotiations was the Edinburgh Agreement, which granted the Scottish Parliament the power to hold a referendum on the matter by the end of 2014 (it was eventually held in September 2014) that would be “fair, legal, and decisive”. The result was a lengthy two-year campaign on the matter of whether Scotland should become an independent country, with supporters arguing for a “Yes” vote, and opponents arguing for a “No”. The result, in the end, was that independence was defeated by 55% to 45%, in a referendum where over 80% of Scottish voters turned out.

Of course, as we are all now aware – that was not the end of the matter. In May 2016, despite losing their majority, the SNP were re-elected as the government of Scotland, and with the support of the Greens, had a majority in the Scottish Parliament to vote through a motion for another independence referendum. Since the EU referendum in June 2016, the Scottish government has been building an argument for a second referendum in the near future, preferably before the UK leaves the EU, to decide if Scotland should leave the UK. Opponents of this have been seeking to build a case against this; in some cases, by arguing that more powers should be devolved to Scotland.

The two principle reasons for the referendum, identified by supporters of Scottish independence, are the UK’s exit from the European Union and the election of a majority Conservative government in Westminster. On the first matter, it is argued that, as Scotland voted to Remain in the EU, it should have the right to a different Brexit to the rest of the UK – at the very least. The second matter focuses on the collapse of the Labour Party, which makes the likelihood of a length period in power for the Conservatives extremely high – a government which currently only includes 1 of Scotland’s 59 MPs. The first one poses a considerable difficulty for the UK government – it is very unlikely that the UK could negotiate a deal where part of the country leaves the EU less than other parts of the country. So either the government would need to disappoint its own supporters, or risk alienating Scottish opinion further. On the second point, it is worth noting that it is by no means a fixed situation that the Conservative Party will only have 1 MP in Scotland come 2020. The Scottish Conservative Party is now the main opposition to the SNP in the Scottish Parliament, and are consistently polling higher than the Scottish Labour Party. The possibility that the Westminster Parliament elected in 2020 might contain more than a single Scottish Conservative MP should not be understated.

In summary, the issue here is that Scotland’s government is positioning itself to try and remove Scotland entirely from the UK; causing a considerable domestic issue for Westminster to face. Regardless of the rights or wrongs of the cause, the issue here is how much the UK – traditionally a unitary state – can accommodate such a movement well enough to relieve these strains on the whole.

England

The ‘gap’ in devolution is England. Outside of London, the devolution process has been fitful – a series of “metro mayors”, which will first be elected this May, representing further devolution of power to local regions. But, unlike in the other nations of the UK, there is no consistent pattern of devolution across the whole nation. In 2004, the Labour government held a referendum on the creation of a devolved assembly for the North East of England – a proposal that was defeated by 77%-23%. After that, the matter went quiet for a while, but it has since re-emerged, partly due to the process of devolution elsewhere.

The key issue was succinctly posed by former Labour MP Tam Dalyell, who termed it the “West Lothian Question”. This asked how it could be right that Scottish MPs could vote on legislation affecting only England, but English MPs could not do the same for Scotland. There were some efforts to try and take the edge off this question – by reducing the number of Scottish MPs in particular – but the fact remained that the question was without a satisfactory answer in Westminster. In 2015, the newly elected majority Conservative government introduced a rule called “English Votes for English Laws” (EVEL). Under this procedure, the Speaker of the House of Commons decides if a bill contains provisions that only apply to England (or England and Wales). During the passage of the bill through the House of Commons, a new stage has been introduced, where only English (and perhaps Welsh MPs) may sit and consider a “motion of consent” to the legislation, and then vote on whether to grant it or not.

EVEL is, however, at best a temporary measure. As academics like John Curtice have noted, there is an emerging English identity – it is much less intense than that of Scotland or Wales, and it is often overlapped with Britishness – but there is an emerging identity within England, and an emerging discourse within that identity about England’s place in the UK, particularly with regards to devolution. As Englishness continues to grow within the UK – even if it is conflated with Britishness – the question over what to do about England will become more pressing.

What compounds this issue is that England is very unlike any other state in any federal country in the world. In none of the current federal democratic states does one state control such a large share of the landmass, or share of the population, or share of the wealth, as England does within the UK. Giving England as a whole a devolved Parliament would present considerable challenges to do with the relative power of that Parliament against the other devolved assemblies; and against Westminster itself. But breaking England into smaller units poses questions of identity and effectiveness – whilst some regions have clear identities (Yorkshire being a key example) others, like the South East, have a variety of much smaller identities and other challenges, such as a lack of a clear urban centre to take on the role of ‘capital’ of that region.

What is clear, however, is that England and the English are not going to go away. Like any nation, England is an imagined community – the English are people who imagine a story about themselves. This story covers their history, language, culture, relationship with the divine, values, and more. Nations like to have institutions that can represent and embody their story to the world; to defend their values, cherish their history, and so on. Just because these communities are imagined, however, does not make them less powerful or indeed less real to the people who live within them. If the English nation continues to expand, then the pressure for a settlement for the whole of the UK will grow. The UK government will then face a similar situation to Scotland – mounting pressures for change, and limited tools to relieve that pressure.

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Westminster Wednesday: Electoral Reform

In previous instalments of Westminster Wednesdays, we’ve looked at some of the most important institutions of the UK’s political landscape – the constitution, Parliament, the executive, local and devolved government. Now we’re going to move on to touch on a variety of important issues confronting the UK’s politics, beginning with the topic of electoral reform. As Liberal Democrats, generally, one of the things we have in common is a belief that the system we use for choosing MPs should be changed. To begin with, I will briefly outline the three main electoral systems used in the UK – First Past The Past (FPTP), Single Transferrable Vote (STV), and the Additional Member System (AMS). Then we’ll move on to consider the Lib Dem position on electoral reform, and the recent history of that topic in the UK.

Electoral systems in use

Let’s begin by defining our terms – what is an electoral system? An electoral system is the means through which votes are considered valid, and then converted into representatives in an elected body. There are a variety of ways of doing this, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. There is not a single part of the UK that uses one electoral system to choose its elected represents – a situation that will likely change when the UK leaves the EU and so no longer elects MEPs. In some areas – Scotland, for example – at least 4 separate electoral systems are used for different elections. Rarely, however, are there days when voters are called on to use more than one system at once.

Elections to the House of Commons are held using the First Past The Past electoral system, with the country divided in 650 constituencies, each one electing a single MP. The candidate that wins the largest number of votes – not necessarily a majority of votes cast – wins the seat contested. This means that parties can, and indeed always have since 1931, win a majority of seats in the House of Commons without a majority of votes cast in the country behind them. In 2015, the Conservatives won a majority with just under 37% of the vote.

For elections to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, the Additional Member System is used. Under AMS, a voter has two votes – the first elects a constituency member, using FPTP. The second is a regional vote – Scotland has 8 regions for this, Wales 5 – where candidates are elected proportionately based on party votes. However, the more constituencies you win in a region, the less likely you are to win list seats in that region, balancing out representation.

Finally, elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, and local government in Scotland and Northern Ireland, use the Single Transferrable Vote system. Again, voters are divided into constituencies – but each one will be represented by multiple elected representatives, like the AMS regions. Rather than placing a cross in a box, as with FPTP and AMS, voters rank the candidates on the ballot paper – 1, 2, 3 – giving as many votes or ‘preferences’ as they like. Then, all the votes are counted and that total, plus the number of seats in the constituency, is used to calculate a number of votes required to win a seat – this is called a quota. If any candidate has enough first preferences to meet the quota, they are automatically elected. Votes over that quota are re-allocated to the second preference on the ballot, and then any candidates who reach the quota are also elected. If there are seats remaining – as there often are – the candidate with the fewest first preference votes is eliminated, and their second preferences are handed out. This continues until all the seats are filled.

So those are the three most important UK electoral systems, but what of their future?

Electoral reform in the UK

One of the key policies that the Liberal Democrats wanted from entering a coalition at Westminster was a change in the way MPs are elected to the House of Commons. Opponents of FPTP argue that it is disproportionate – that is, the number of votes cast and the number of MPs won is not as closely related as under other electoral systems. The largest number of votes will get you a majority, but smaller parties struggle to make a break through, and governments are often elected with the support of fewer than 40% of the electorate. The concession that the Lib Dems gained on electoral reform in 2010 was the promise of a referendum on changing the voting system for the House of Commons to the Alternative Vote – which is somewhat similar to STV. That referendum was held in May 2011 and resulted in a heavy defeat for electoral reform – 32% to 68%. Despite this, there have been other, more successful Lib Dem efforts to implement electoral reform. During the first government of Tony Blair (1997-2001), the Lib Dems helped drive through the AMS voting system for Scotland and Wales; they subsequently, in coalition with Labour in Edinburgh, implemented the STV system for Scottish local government.

But why change the electoral system in the first place? Defenders of FPTP argue that it produces stability – a majority government is almost always elected (only two elections since 1945 in the UK have failed to do this; February 1974 and May 2010) – and can readily take decisions and lead the country. As we’ve already noted, opponents argue that it is disproportionate, discriminating against smaller parties and resulting in governments elected by considerably less than a majority of voters. They argue that a system that is more proportional – that more closely ties the number of votes to the number of seats – is fairer, because any government will need the support of parties that attracted a majority, or nearer a majority – of seats. Opponents of reform often argue that the result is chaos; they point to countries such as Belgium, which once went over 500 days without a government while its political parties struggled to reach agreement to form a coalition with a majority in its parliament.

At the moment, the defenders of FPTP have the upper hand – they are able to use the AV referendum as a tool to push back on demands for electoral reform, and the Conservative Party, which is currently in power, shows essentially zero interest in extending electoral reform to Westminster, or to English and Welsh local government. But advances continue around the world – Maine, in 2016, voted to move to the Alternative Vote. Proponents of electoral reform in the UK have a steep hill to climb, but as 2011 recedes into the distance, their chance will likely come again.

ChamberRearIIHR20101006

Westminster Wednesday: Devolution

This week, we’ll be looking at the devolved assemblies of the United Kingdom – in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Each of them presents a different case study, and so we will tackle them one by one, rather than going by theme as we have in previous weeks. We’ll briefly see how these bodies came to be, what powers they have, and how they function in turn. We’ll also consider, right at the end, the missing piece of the puzzle, as it were – England.

 

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland has not had a happy history – since the division of the island of Ireland in the 1920s, the province has been the scene of tensions between the Catholic (Nationalist) and Protestant (Unionist) communities. For the first 50 years of its existence, there was a Parliament of Northern Ireland, dominated by the Protestants. However, in the 1970s, a spiralling surge of violence in the province led to the dissolution of the Parliament and the assumption of direct control by the government in London. This continued up until the late 1990s, when a lengthy, tangled peace process finally resulted in an agreement between Nationalist and Unionist politicians. The centrepiece of this agreement was a new Northern Ireland Assembly, which came into being after the peace agreement was approved in a referendum in 1998.

The Assembly has power over agriculture, education, health, infrastructure, justice, and a variety of other areas, with members of the Assembly (MLAs) serving as members of the Northern Ireland Executive. Both the Assembly and the Executive function differently to how similar bodies in the UK function. In the Assembly, for example, certain votes require majority support of politicians from both the Protestant and the Catholic communities. The Executive is comprised of members of both communities – and sometimes from parties that define themselves as “other” – and there is no collective responsibility. Each minister is scrutinised by an Assembly committee chaired by someone from another party.

Since its creation, the Assembly has been suspended several times – most notably between 2002 and 2007 – when agreement between the two communities represented in the body broke down. Most recently, it has been dominated by the two largest, and traditionally less moderate, parties of those communities – the Nationalist Sinn Fein, and the Unionist Democratic Unionist Party. At the moment, there is an election campaign in process for a new Assembly, after the previous one was dissolved in the midst of a political scandal. This election, like all others, will be held using the Single Transferrable Vote system, but will see fewer MLAs than before – 90, rather than 108 – elected.

 

Wales

Wales’ path to devolution has been a far less violent one than Northern Ireland, but also a far less enthusiastic one. In a referendum in the 1970s, the people of Wales rejected the offer of a devolved assembly – when asked again in 1997 by the Labour government, they very narrowly voted (a margin of just over 6,000 votes) – in favour of the proposition. Wales is not a nation with a long history of independent political institutions from the rest of the UK – since the 16th Century it had broadly been governed on the same basis as England, and only after the Second World War did a party dedicated specifically to advocating for Wales – Plaid Cymru – emerge.

The Welsh Assembly that was approved in the 1997 referendum has typically had far fewer powers than its Scottish cousin – most notably with regards to tax, which the Assembly has no power to vary. It does have power over areas such as agriculture, education, health, local government, policing and transport, and an executive to carry out the responsibilities attached to these areas. But it has lagged behind Scotland in the scope and strength of powers it has had devolved to it by Westminster. The Assembly has long been dominated by Labour – though they have rarely had a full majority – and comprises 60 members, elected originally every 4 years using the Additional Member System.

 

Scotland

The Scottish Parliament is perhaps the most complete, and stable, example of devolution in the UK. Much as with Wales, the Scottish people were offered a chance at devolution in the 1970s – and indeed voted in favour of the proposal, but a clause in the Westminster legislation requiring 40% of eligible voters to support the proposal meant that devolution was not pursued. Again, it was left to a 1997 referendum, offered by the Labour government, to re-open the issue. On a higher turnout than Wales, the Scottish people backed a Scottish Parliament by 75% to 25%, and giving it tax raising powers by 63% to 37%. Scotland had retained a host of independent institutions after joining the UK in the 18th Century, including its own legal and education systems, and its nationalist party – the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) was much more electorally successful than Plaid Cymru managed to be.

Subsequently, there have been further rounds of devolution to Scotland, as with Wales, most notably after the 2014 referendum on independence. The Scottish Parliament and Executive have control over a wide range of policy areas – cultural, education, health, environment, local government, justice, housing and planning are some of them. There are 129 Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs), elected, as in Wales, with the Additional Member System. The system originally delivered Parliaments where Labour were the largest, and formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats – 1999, and 2003 – but since 2007 the SNP have been the largest party, and indeed from 2011 to 2016 they maintained a majority in the Parliament.

 

England

The ‘missing nation’ in this equation is, of course, England. The Labour government elected in 1997 was open to devolution to England, on a regional basis – in 2004 they held a referendum in the North East of England on the establishment of an assembly, a proposal that was very firmly rejected by voters there. Whilst London experienced a form of devolution through the Greater London Assembly, the rest of England has yet to gain devolved institutions.

local government

Westminster Wednesdays: Local Government

This week, Westminster Wednesday’s is on the UK’s system of local government. This is a complex component of the UK’s politics, and also an incredibly important one. UK local government employs well over 2 million people, and is responsible for 23% of all government spending (around £95 billion in 2015-16). Whilst in three of the nations of the UK – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – it is relatively simple in structure, in England it remains a perplexing mix of structures and powers. This post aims to try and provide an outline of local government, especially in England – by looking at its structure, and its powers.

Structure

The structure of British local government, as indicated above, varies between the various home nations. In three of them, the structure is relatively simple. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, there is a single (principle) level of local government – 32 councils in Scotland, 22 in Wales, and 11 in Northern Ireland. In two of these – Scotland and Northern Ireland – councillors are elected using the Single Transferrable Vote system; whilst in Wales, the First Past the Post system is used (the same as is used for the House of Commons).

In England, the situation is more complex. To understand why, we need to recall a principle from the very first posts in this series – that of parliamentary sovereignty. Because Parliament has the ability to make or unmake any law, Parliament alone is responsible for the creation, redesigning, or removal of local authorities. Their boundaries, responsibilities, and financing is designed or set centrally. If Parliament wished to do so, it could remove all local government – but, given the important role that it plays in the running of the UK, that would be extremely unlikely! What Parliament has done, over many years, is continually give force to large-scale and repeated redesigns of UK local government. It was the Conservative government in the 1980s that gave Scotland and Wales their single-tier system of councils, for example. In England, however, the process has resulted in that more complicated picture.

In 1931, for example, England’s local government looked like this – a mass of local authorities, some very small, (very) broadly divided into two categories; boroughs, and counties. This was the result of a considerable reform process in the 19th Century, but after the war this system was under growing strain. It took until 1974 for a comprehensive review to be pushed forwards, resulting in these boundaries. The 1974 review was extremely comprehensive – everything that had existed before was swept away, and replaced with two levels of local government. At the top, there were counties, and below them were districts (in rural areas) and boroughs (in urban areas).

Unfortunately for people seeking to understand English local government, but perhaps fortunately for people such as myself and Jonn Elledge, this simple two-level system has not lasted to the present day. There were a myriad of problems created by the 1974 boundaries, summarised in two key ways – where the lines were drawn, and what the new authorities were called. For example, Humberside was regarded as a monstrous creation by the people on the north bank of the Humber – who considered themselves part of Yorkshire – and on the south bank, who considered themselves part of Lincolnshire. Other unpopular authorities included Cleveland and Avon – these were done away with in the 1990s. What replaced them, and other bodies such as Wiltshire County Council and all of its districts, were unitary authorities. These are single-tier councils which have all the powers previously divided between two. There are periodic pushes to create more of these, but they aren’t always popular – take, for example, the Coalition’s decision to prevent Norfolk from becoming a unitary authority in 2010.

Things become even more confusing in urban areas. Here, the Conservative government of the 1980s did away with the county councils that had been created, turning metropolitan boroughs into a single level authority; but with formal structures to help them co-operate on issues such as transport. Then there’s London – which until 1986 was divided into 32 boroughs (which had only existed since 1965) – and a Greater London Council, in a similar structure to other urban areas. When the GLC was abolished, along with all the other urban county councils, there was created instead a variety of bodies to try and carry on co-ordination among the 32 boroughs – an unpopular choice, which was ultimately overturned in the late 1990s by the Labour government. They created a new Greater London Authority, with a Mayor (the position currently held by Sadiq Khan) and an Assembly, who have a variety of powers over the London region as a whole. Similarly, since 2010, the Coalition sought to grant more powers to urban regions throughout the UK – creating combined authorities for regions such as Greater Manchester, Teesside and the West Midlands. These, in many cases, share boundaries with abolished councils, and hold a variety of powers. It is the heads of many of these that will be elected for the first time this May.

Therefore, there are broadly 6 flavours of council in England – counties, which are divided into districts; unitary authorities, metropolitan boroughs, combined authorities, and London boroughs. This is to say nothing of smaller, much more local authorities – parish and town councils – and the total anomaly that is the City of London. Today, when we map them out, it looks something like this. Each of them has a different set of powers and responsibilities, to which we will now turn.

Powers

As we’ve already clearly established, the structure of local government is determined by Parliament, and so (traditionally) have been its powers. Local government does not get involved in such issues as defence or foreign policy, but instead focuses on delivering a variety of more immediate services to the communities within its area. Each different type of authority will, naturally, deliver slightly different services to another – perhaps the easiest way to lay this out is to begin by considering the county/district divide set up in 1974, and seeing what each half of that equation does.

County councils are broadly responsible for; education, social services, transport, strategic planning, fire services, consumer protection, refuse disposal, smallholdings, and libraries. District councils cover local planning, housing, local highways, building regulation, environmental health, and refuse collection. Unitary authorities, or metropolitan boroughs, combine all these responsibilities into a single authority. The new combined authorities combine all these powers, and in some cases considerably more – Greater Manchester’s new regional mayor will have control over the healthcare budget for the region, for example.

But these powers come at a cost – quite literally, in some cases. The majority of funding for local government comes from grants from central government; money handed out by the government to cover the provision of important services. In this, there will be requirements attached as to how to spend the money, whether particular programmes should be prioritised, and so on. Local government can raise its own money, principally through two key taxes (council tax, and business rates) but these raise relatively small amounts of money for councils, compared to their needs, and what they receive from central government.

There have, however, been some positive changes here for local government – perhaps the largest of which was the Localism Act of 2011. The key provision here was what’s called the “general power of competence”. Briefly put, prior to this point, local government could only do what Parliament specifically authorised it to do – this power allows local government to do anything that is not explicitly forbidden. If retained, and coupled with a less tight financial situation, this could give councils considerable scope to experiment in future.

Broadly, though, local government is responsible for delivering a variety of services that can often seem almost invisible to us – or have relatively small levels of awareness. We generally only consider them when they impact directly on us – when our bins fail to be emptied, or the pothole outside our home grows ever larger. But councils are responsible for almost a quarter of all government spending in the UK, and their services are vitally important to our communities.

Number 10 Downing Street is the headquarters and London residence of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

Westminster Wednesdays: The Executive

In previous posts, we have discussed Parliament and the constitution – this week, we will consider the executive branch of government, so named because it is responsible for executing and enforcing laws. In the UK, this is centred on the Prime Minister and their cabinet, though it extends out to a host of other bodies. We look at these two key components in turn, and see how they relate back to the concepts and bodies we discussed previously, as well as trying to understand how they interact with each other.

Prime Minister

Whilst the post of Prime Minister sits at the very top of government, and commands considerable public attention, most of their powers do not come from statute or common law, but rather from convention. They are exercised on behalf of the monarch, who appoints the Prime Minister – who has traditionally been the leader of the largest party in the House of Commons. So long as they are able to retain the support of a majority of MPs, the Prime Minister and their government should remain in power – by convention, if they lose this support (known as confidence), they would resign. Their powers range from appointing ministers to head government departments, through to attending international summits, and on to dispensing patronage through the honours system (knighthoods, MBEs, and so on).

The most important of these powers is the Prime Minister’s power to appoint and dismiss other members of the executive – ministers, who either head or help to oversee government departments. There are currently over 100 ministers, all of whom are appointed by the Prime Minister. By convention, these ministers are drawn from Parliament, and particularly the House of Commons – by necessity, it may be that the Prime Minister has to include certain MPs in government, in order to appease party factions, or may be forced to exclude others on political grounds. Nevertheless, this is a formidable power, and allows a Prime Minister to shape the government to suit their policy preferences and desired direction of travel for the country.

The next key power to consider is the Prime Minister’s role as chair of the cabinet. In this role, the Prime Minister determines who can attend cabinet, when its meetings will be heard, what will be on the agenda, and will sum up its discussions. This is not a process that involves a formal vote – it is rather rare for Prime Ministers to seek a vote in cabinet on any point. As we shall go to see, the ability of a Prime Minister to mould their ministerial team and the cabinet as an institution has considerable importance.

The other powers of a Prime Minister include their ability to appoint senior civil servants – they decide who the senior civil servant will be in each department (the permanent secretary) and it is only with their approval that a minister can have a senior civil servant moved. They also represent the country at international summits, such as those of the European Council, granting them considerable influence over foreign policy. Finally, we should remember the media and political attention that comes with being Prime Minister – giving one access to a significant reserve of influence to try and shape the direction of the country, and of policy in Parliament.

There are, however, a variety of restraints in place on the Prime Minister. They attend a weekly questioning session in the House of Commons, known as Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs), as well as making annual appearances before a Parliamentary committee called the Liaison Committee. They are required to retain the support of a majority of the House of Commons – and the support of their party colleagues. If either of these fail, then they can find themselves removed from office, and often find the agenda set after their departure contrasting with much they had laid down.

Cabinet

The cabinet is the collective decision-making body that the Prime Minister chairs. It serves three key functions; finally determining what will be submitted to Parliament by the government, overall control of the executive in line with what Parliament agrees, and co-ordination between the many component parts of the state. It meets on Tuesdays, in the cabinet room in Number 10 Downing Street, the official residence of the Prime Minister in London.

Its composition is decided by the Prime Minister – who has broad scope to make and unmake the government departments that ministers run. For example, since 2007, the department responsible for overseeing universities has been, in order – the Department for Education and Skills, the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and now the Department for Education. Very few departments do not experience this process, which is driven entirely by the Prime Minister’s desire to shape government, with the exception of the Treasury. It is traditional that all the heads of government departments are members of the cabinet – the Prime Minister can also ask a range of other ministers to attend. Currently, there are 23 members of the cabinet, and 4 others who attend.

As with the Prime Minister, the cabinet’s powers and functions exist by convention. Aside from the key functions laid out above, to which we will return in a moment, two other key conventions apply. The first is one already stated – if the government loses the support (confidence) of the House of Commons, it will resign. The second is the principle of collective responsibility, which states that once a decision has been made by cabinet, all members collectively accept responsibility for it, even if they disagreed prior to the decision being made. Ministers who cannot do this are expected to resign, or will be removed by the Prime Minister if they openly disagree after the decision is taken.

In executing its three key duties outlined above, cabinet faces a huge workload – the UK government is responsible for hundreds of billions of pounds of spending, almost 3 million public sector employees, and of course the executing and enforcing of a vast array of laws and regulations. As a single committee, cabinet and its members would struggle to cope with this workload – so two tiers of support are in place. First are junior ministers; every departmental head has a number of these, with whom they can share their workload, delegating particular areas of their department to the junior minister. Secondly, there are the cabinet committees – these are made of members of the cabinet, and perhaps some junior ministers as well. They are constituted by the Prime Minister, and assigned particular areas of responsibility. Like cabinet, they are there to assist in determining policy, ensuring it is implemented, and co-ordinating policy on a variety of areas – they act to clarify issues before the main cabinet decides them, dividing up the workload. Decisions of cabinet committees have the same power as those of full cabinet, and matters are only referred from them to the whole cabinet if the chair agrees.

Summary

We have seen that the UK’s executive branch, particularly the Prime Minister, has considerable powers at their disposal to make and change government, and to set the direction of the country. We have also seen how they shape the cabinet, which in turn serves a key function at the heart of the executive – as a body to make decisions, oversee the operation of government, and settle disputes. When they operate together, government can deliver policy quickly, effectively, and with an assurance of easy passage through Parliament. Disunity between them, however, can lead to disorder and perhaps even the fall of ministers – or the Prime Minister themselves.

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Westminster Wednesdays: The Constitution

The Constitution

Last week, we discussed Parliament, and described it as the “central component of the UK’s constitution.” This week, we are going to briefly survey that constitution, and understand where we might find it – its sources – and the basic rules that it lays out for UK politics – its provisions. Before we do so, as ever, we need to define our terms. A constitution is a “body of laws, customs, and conventions that define the composition and powers of organs of the state and that regulate the relations of the various state organs to one another and to the private citizen.” The UK’s constitution is very different to the model of constitution present in most other states, in that it is uncodified. This means that there isn’t a single document which contains all, or at least most, of the laws, customs, and conventions that make up the constitution. Rather, it is spread across four key sources, to which we will turn first.

 

Sources

The UK’s constitution draws on four sources – statute law, common law, conventions, and works of authority. Statute law in the UK simply refers to Acts of Parliament, and particularly those with key significance to the relationship between the parts of the state, and the state and its citizens. For example, the Scotland Act 1998, which created the Scottish Parliament, is a prominent constitutional act, because it created a new body in Scotland to handle certain Scottish matters, and outlined relations between that body at the existing Parliament in Westminster.

Secondly, we have the common law. This refers to legal principles created by the courts in making decisions, and ones so ancient that the courts treat them as law. This is a shrinking part of the constitution – more and more law is now in statute form – but nonetheless retains an important role. For example, the principle of parliamentary sovereignty that we introduced last week is considered to be an aspect of common, rather than statute, law. Similarly, what are called prerogative powers are used under common law – these are powers that are recognised as belonging to the Crown, but are exercised by the Prime Minister or other ministers. We will return to these next week in more detail.

Thirdly, there are conventions. These are the least tangible form of the UK’s constitution – they don’t exist in statute form, nor are they enforced by the courts. Rather, they are abided to by the parts of the state because to break them would disrupt the normal operation of politics. For example, it is only by convention that the monarch grants their approval to all Acts of Parliament – a convention dating back to the early 18th Century. Sometimes, conventions can be breached temporarily, and then restored to use afterwards – some conventions are stronger than others.

Finally, there are works of authority. Whilst these are much more tangible than the conventions – but their power in the constitution is persuasive only, and they are rather poorly defined. Clearly the work of scholars such as A. V. Dicey, who we encountered in last week’s discussion of Parliament, and Erskine May, count as works of authority – they lay out key principles of how the constitution is meant to operate, and how one of the most important organs of the state is meant to be regulated on a day to day basis, respectively. They are most useful, therefore, in interpreting the conventions and common law that form a part of the constitution.

 

Provisions

The UK constitution, drawn from the four sources above, lays out four basic provisions – parliamentary sovereignty, the rule of law, a unitary system, and parliamentary government under a constitutional monarchy. We can restate the definition given last week from Dicey to cover the first provision, parliamentary sovereignty, as being the power to “to make or unmake any law whatever, and, further, that no person or body is recognised by the law of England as having a right to override or set aside the legislation of Parliament.”

Dicey also argued that the rule of law was a key provision of the UK constitution. This is a little trickier to define (Dicey himself gives three definitions!) but here we will use Lord Bingham’s definition in his book on the subject: “all persons and authorities within the state, whether public or private, should be bound by and entitled to the benefit of laws publicly made, taking effect (generally) in the future and publicly administered in the courts.” This might be characterised as the idea that no-one should be above the law; as Bingham and other scholars on this note, this principle is not evenly applied in the UK constitution, but it remains an important provision all the same.

The third provision also causes us a little difficulty – the idea of a UK as a unitary state. These are often contrasted with federal states such as the USA. In a federal state, power is divided between the national and more local units by the constitution – in a unitary state, it is the national government that holds all the power. Parliament, as the sovereign body, can create local government bodies, such as councils, hand them powers, withdraw them, redesign them – or even abolish them outright. This constitutional principle holds over even bodies such as the Scottish Parliament – but here the difficulty lies. Whilst it may be constitutional to abolish the Scottish Parliament, arguably the political pressures against doing so would be too great.

Finally, there is the idea of parliamentary government under a constitutional monarchy. This covers the relationship between parliament, government, and monarch – with the government the distinctly stronger component. It may broadly be expressed as the idea that the government governs through Parliament, rather than the country being governed by Parliament, with the monarch having a ceremonial role. The Prime Minister and other Ministers are appointed by the monarch, rather than Parliament, but are politically responsible too Parliament for their actions.

 

Summary

We have seen where the UK’s constitution is drawn from, and what its basic provisions are. It is worth remembering that, like any constitution, these are continually under pressure to change as circumstances do. Unlike most constitutions – which are codified – the UK’s uncodified constitution has no special provision to make amending it exceptionally difficult. There was no need, for example, for two-thirds of MPs to vote in favour of the creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1998 – it was created through a statute that holds the same basic status as any other statute. Whilst this makes the UK constitution flexible – a strength for some – it also means it can be changed very easily – which is alarming for others. As the UK withdraws from the EU, this will impose further strains on the constitution, a point worth bearing in mind.

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Westminster Wednesdays: Parliament

1st edition of Tim Oliver’s Westminster Wednesday – Understanding Politics series. Today’s post is about understanding Parliament.