Conference review – A crisis in UK democracy?

By: Alys Thomas

In 1647 the Putney Debates brought people together to discuss the future of democracy following the victory of the Parliamentarians in the English Civil War. On 24th March 2023, The Constitution Society brought together academics and constitutional experts from across the UK and Ireland to St Mary’s Church, the original site of the Putney Debates, to discuss the future of democracy in the UK and the extent to which it is in crisis.

Across the day, an audience of over 100 sixth form students and members of the public were treated to papers from a range of panellists. Professor Andrew Blick (King’s College London and The Constitution Society) opened the conference, remarking on the urgency of many of the issues to be discussed, not least given the oral evidence heard by the Privileges Committee two days before. 

The United Kingdom Constitution Monitoring Group (UKCMG) panel then took to the stage. The UKCMG had released its biannual report the previous day tracking important developments in the UK’s uncodified constitution. 2022 had exposed tensions and weaknesses within the UK and devolved systems of government. The report also said it feared that ministers had demonstrated a propensity to exploit and aggravate these problems. 

Professor Alison Young (University of Cambridge) addressed the key issue of the rule of law and the need for laws to be clear to be properly understood. She suggested that, all too regrettably, this was not necessarily the case at present. Professor Katy Hayward (Queen’s University Belfast) referred to the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill which is intended to “switch off” all currently retained EU law and the challenge this represented for scrutiny at Westminster and for the devolved institutions. Professor Hayward highlighted the duty we each owe to coming generations to uphold the best standards of constitutional practice, and to strive to create a better nation for those generations to inherit. Professor Blick, as editor of the UKCMG’s report, then addressed the far-reaching events of last half of 2022, with the change in the head of state and the office of Prime Minister changing hands twice. He expressed concern about the trend of decline in constitutional standards.

After well-deserved coffees and teas, there followed a lively session with a panel on Electoral systems and reform with David Klemperer (Queen Mary University of London and The Constitution Society), Dr Jess Garland (Electoral Reform Society) and Neal Lawson (Compass). David Klemperer addressed the widespread usage of alternative voting systems across UK elections, but also highlighted that care should be taken in regarding electoral system reform as a panacea. Fairer elections were one tool for achieving much needed reform, he said. Dr Garland focused on the progress being made towards electoral reform and the work that was needed going forward. Lastly, Neal Lawson gave an impassioned speech on the crisis facing our democracy, brought about in no small part, he argued, by the inequities of the First Past the Post system. There followed a lively question and answer session on the merits of the different systems of Proportional Representation; whether voting should be compulsory and the possible effects of the new requirement for voter ID.

After lunch we moved to the keynote speech, delivered by Sir Vernon Bogdanor (King’s College London). He addressed the question of parliamentary sovereignty and its reinstatement in the wake of the UK’s exit from the EU. Key to his lecture, Professor Bogdanor argued that when Britain was in the European Community/European Union, from 1973 to 2020, there was a constitution. While Britain remained in the European Union, parliamentary sovereignty had been voluntarily differed, but in its place we had clearly defined parameters within which we were to operate. This had changed with the vote to leave the European Union. However, he argued that if the Union of the United Kingdom is now to survive, clear ground rules are required for what has hitherto been an unplanned and ad hoc process. He suggested that this could be provided by a legal charter laying down principles concerning which powers are suitable for devolution and which need to be preserved at the centre to retain not only the constitutional and political union, but also the economic and social union. Professor Bogdanor addressed the “problem” of devolution and the fact that territorial devolution did not recognise public services should be available to all based on need rather than geography. Such a Charter would go some way to addressing this issue, he suggested. The lively lecture produced an equally vigorous question and answer session with the professor, who was happy to take points and debate the issues and ideas which had studded his contribution. 

The conference then heard from the final panel of the day on the devolved nations. Dr Mary C. Murphy (University College Cork) gave an overview of the situation in Northern Ireland, the implementation of the Windsor Agreement and the prospect of direct rule returning to Stormont. Dr Murphy argued passionately for the reinstatement of the NI executive, which she suggested was the necessary first step before further progress could be made. Professor Michael Keating (University of Aberdeen) claimed that Scotland was experiencing a battle of sovereignties – Scottish and British – between two apparently antithetical conceptions of sovereignty. He argued that on the one hand, there are those who believe that the Westminster Parliament is sovereign and supreme. On the other are those who insist that it is a union of nations, bound by the terms of union and periodically renegotiated. 

He contended that a modern understanding of sovereignty is of something shared and divided. This is very different from the Brexiter vision, which insists that all sovereignty must be concentrated in one place.  Dr Alys Thomas (The Constitution Society) spoke about the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future set up by the Welsh Government in 2021. It has issued an interim report which has ruled out the status quo as unviable and is considering three options: an improved settlement; federalism and independence. The challenge was that each of these would require the assent of the UK Government. This would seem unlikely given the toxic state of intergovernmental relations between Cardiff and London. An engaging Q and A with the audience then followed. 

By half past three, all that was left was for Professor Andrew Blick to close out the day and thank both contributors and audience for their time. If we are indeed at a moment of crisis for our democracy, events like this conference organised by the Society are crucially important. In a historically significant venue, an audience of all ages were able to grapple with the issues and ideas which are shaping our politics and our constitution. Action is required to if we are to improve our situation, but action must come first from a place of understanding. A crisis in UK democracy? marked a step towards that. I look forward to the next one.

Alys Thomas.

Alys Thomas has researched and written about constitutional issues for many years, particularly on the devolution settlement in Wales. From 2003 to 2019 she worked for National Assembly for Wales’ Research Service in the Constitution Team. She is a contributing writer for the Constitution Society.

The Constitution Society is committed to the promotion of informed debate and is politically impartial. Any views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society.