Constitutional reform: Sustaining a viable United Kingdom through the 21st century by Thomas Legg, Stephen Green and Martin Donnelly

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This new report from the Policy Reform Group offers the expert analysis of Sir Thomas Legg, Lord Stephen Green, and Sir Martin Donnelly on the constitutional challenges facing the United Kingdom. These highly-experienced, former senior practitioners set out the fundamental reforms they believe are necessary to ensure the effective functioning and continued viability of the UK into the future.

Executive Summary

The UK faces an existential challenge which demands far-reaching changes to governance. The Brexit process has exposed deep divisions that could presage the end of the union between England and Scotland. But even without the threat of Scottish independence the unwritten constitution would be under strain. Confidence in politics is at an all-time low; the response to the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted weaknesses in an over-centralised administration; and conflicts are growing between the centre, the English regions and devolved nations and between the executive and the judiciary.

A fundamental review of the institutions of government is needed to safeguard the UK’s integrity and viability as a state. This would aim not just to patch up the fraying devolution settlement with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but also to extend a much greater measure of devolution to English cities and regions.

We suggest this would involve creating a federal system of government underpinned by a codified constitution including entrenched clauses set out in a “Basic Law” enacted by Parliament and interpreted by the Supreme Court. The House of Lords would be reconstituted, in effect, as a federal upper house, elected by a form of proportional representation, to uphold the new constitutional settlement and represent the interests of a radically decentralised UK. The Commons should retain control of taxation and spending, but in a second stage it, too, requires reform in numbers, mode of election, and culture.

Such a programme of radical reform, with closely inter-related constituent parts, needs to be launched by government with a measure of cross-party consensus, as well as the involvement of the devolved nations and English regional representation. It will require extensive public consultation and discussion.

Such is its complexity that creating a detailed blueprint should be the task of a special constitutional commission, with suitably diverse membership and an effective supporting team.

Sir Thomas Legg is former Permanent Secretary to the Lord Chancellor’s Department (now the Ministry of Justice), Lord Stephen Green is former Minister of State for Trade and Investment, and Sir Martin Donnelly is former Permanent Secretary at the Department for Business, Innovation, and Skills.

This publication presents the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society, which publishes it as a contribution to debate on this important subject.