Scott Kelly is a Lecturer in Politics, NYU in London and Chief of Staff to the Rt. Hon. John Hayes MP.
Prior to the 2005 election I was a member of the Conservative Party Policy Unit, in the unenviable, if enjoyable, position of formulating plans for a Conservative Government that was never likely to be formed. One of the areas of policy work I proposed at this time was a project on a written constitution. The off-hand and unthinking manner by which the Blair Government abolished the ancient post of Lord Chancellor, for reasons that appeared no more substantial than personal whim, convinced me that more needed to be done to entrench our constitutional traditions.
Although I was later informed that at least some interest was expressed in the Shadow Cabinet for my idea, it never got off the drawing board. Ultimately, it’s difficult for Conservatives to take a rational and objective approach to the constitution. Talk to many Conservatives about our ‘unwritten’ constitution and they become uncharacteristically misty eyed over what’s perceived as its almost mystical quality. The 1997 Conservative Manifesto reflected this view, noting that our constitution ‘has been woven over the centuries – the product of hundreds of years of knowledge, experience and history.’ But as this knowledge and tradition had not been embedded in a written document it was left dangerously exposed to Labour’s wrecking ball.
Labour pushed through extensive changes that have left our constitution fundamentally unbalanced. The unequal distribution of power between the component parts of the UK, created by devolution, was always likely to be unstable. But this is not the only poisonous legacy of Blair’s constitutional vandalism. Reform of the House of Lords has rendered it the plaything of Prime Ministers who have packed it full with so many appointments that Peers are left fighting over office space and somewhere to sit in the chamber. Potentially even more damaging is the formal separation of the judiciary from the other two branches of Government, emboldening judges to openly question the status of parliamentary sovereignty.
Labour left the constitution in such a mess that we are now facing a constitutional crisis greater than that which resulted in the 1911 Parliament Act. As every politics student knows, the main reason why Britain doesn’t have a written constitution is because the circumstances have not arisen when it was necessary to write one. Yet the result of the Scottish independence referendum means that such a ‘constitutional moment’ may soon be upon us. It is impossible to envisage that further devolution to Scotland is possible without examining the ‘knock-on’ effect on the rest of the UK. Any solution to these issues must be strong enough to withstand the impact of the election of a Labour government that does not enjoy majority support in England.
Such a stable, lasting settlement will only be achieved if it is built on strong foundations. An unthinking rush to localism – where every power that isn’t nailed to the floor is devolved to local government in a Westminster ‘fire sale’ – should be resisted. Greater power for local government is not the same as a powerful devolved parliament representing a nation. Besides, local isn’t always better. If we rush through changes we risk repeating the mistakes of the Blair years, ending up with a constitutional settlement that is equally unstable.
We must look at the constitution as a piece – at how the various elements fit together. We should step back and look systematically at the relationship between different levels of Government. And it is important that changes in Scotland go hand-in-hand with those in England, Wales and Northern Ireland as part of a UK wide settlement. The best way to achieve these objectives is if discussion is framed by the need to draft of a written constitution, forcing politicians to consider the overall impact of any proposed changes.
A written constitution could clearly establish what will in future be determined at a local, national, and UK level and, equally importantly, why. It could also help to strengthen British identity by outlining a clear set of British values, entrenched in the form of a British Bill of Rights.
Advocating a written constitution was once the prerogative of radicals who wanted to render our traditions asunder. Today, a written constitution represents the best hope for those of us who want to protect our traditions, our values and maybe the future of the United Kingdom itself.