How far is it possible to carry out piecemeal reform of a constitution when we do not know and cannot agree on the rules governing such amendment, and are not even clear about the nature of the constitution in question?
In most democracies – that is to say, in the overwhelming majority that have written constitutions – the main rules of governance are set out in a single document or set of interlinked documents (though how well they perform this task can vary). This text also includes certain requirements that must be fulfilled – such as legislative supermajorities and/or assent by the electorate through referendums – if it is to be amended.
In the UK – famously – we have no such provisions. The constitution is scattered across various Acts of Parliament, codes, judicial decisions and unwritten (and often contested) understandings. Alterations to it can be carried out in a wide variety of ways. Sometimes a referendum is deemed necessary; sometimes it happens with few outside the government knowing it has occurred. No clear, consistent system exists. Continue reading
Late last year, the Cabinet Office published in draft form a document called the Cabinet Manual. Subtitled ‘A guide to laws, conventions, and rules on the operation of government’, it was initially intended by Gordon Brown, when instigating it as Prime Minister, as a possible first step towards a written constitution for the UK. This plan has subsequently been dropped, but the manual has survived.
In a pamphlet co-authored by Peter Hennessy and myself, published this week by the Institute for Public Policy Research, we analyse the significance and content of this document, and come to the conclusion that it is the fullest publicly available, official statement of the UK constitution ever to have been produced, but it should not be confused with a full codified constitution. Continue reading
Recently I blogged on this site on the subject of elected police commissioners, being introduced by the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill, which is now passing through its final parliamentary stages before receiving Royal Assent.
I noted the concerns raised by the House of Lords Constitution Committeethat there was a risk of ‘politicising operational decision-making’ by the police and that the principle of ‘accountability…to the law, and not to government’ might be undermined.
Revelations associated with the phone-hacking scandal make the arguments for reconsideration of this policy even more powerful. Continue reading