The Future of the Constitution
Over the past 8 years, the Labour government has introduced a series of constitutional reforms that have transformed Britain’s political landscape: devolution, the Human Rights Act, freedom of information legislation, and most recently the establishment of a Supreme Court and a Judicial Appointments Commission. The list of achievements is impressive, especially so given the difficulty past British governments have encountered in pushing through reform.
Yet New Labour’s endeavours in this area have the feel of unfinished business. Old problems persist and new problems have arisen. Some reforms, like regional assemblies for the North, have failed, while others, like the Human Rights Act, have not won broad acceptance, or like Lords reform, remain incomplete. Little has been done to check the power of Britain’s mighty executive, while new tensions between the executive, legislature and judiciary have emerged. Taken as a whole moreover, the reforms have failed to increase public confidence in Britain’s system of government or stem political disengagement. Indeed, trust in the political system has declined, not increased, since 1997.
It is of course, easier to talk about constitutional change than to achieve it – attempts at reform are bound to meet with setbacks and have unexpected consequences. But looking back, it's hard to avoid the view that some of the limits to New Labour’s constitutional legacy were of its own making. Most of its reforms represented responses to specific grievances – the Scottish Parliament was intended in part to see off Scottish nationalists, while the Human Rights Act was promoted by, among other things, the desire to end the embarrassing spectacle of the European Court of Human Rights challenging the British legal system. From the beginning, little thought was given to how the various components of the reform process hung together. New Labour’s approach was never underpinned by a clearly defined set of principles or a coherent account of how the government hoped to modernise the constitution.
Against this background, ippr’s ‘Future of the Constitution’ project will undertake the thinking necessary to ensure that the next wave of constitutional reform builds on the achievements of the past seven years, while avoiding some of their mistakes.
In particular, it will:
- identify the principles that should guide constitutional reform
- look at the constitutional challenges facing 21st century governments and explore international innovations
- conduct a ‘stock take’ of Labour’s constitutional reforms, exploring how the constitution has changed in the round, and examining the main features of the new constitutional settlement
- analyse the key constitutional problems which remain unresolved and the new tensions which have been created as a result of recent reforms
- draw out the lessons of recent successes and failures
- explore ways of winning widespread support for any future reform programme, so ensuring that it becomes part of a permanent ‘progressive legacy’
- identify main priorities for further reform, recommending specific and practical policy changes.
In particular, we want to look at how Labour’s recent reforms have affected the relationship between the three branches of government, explore the degree to which we are moving from a ‘political’ to a ‘legal’ constitution and examine the implications of these changes. We will also investigate the impact constitutional reform has had on levels of public confidence in the way we are governed and try to identify if and how both the process and substance of constitutional reform might be used to promote greater trust in our political system.
Associate Director for Politics and Power