A Constitution Society report, ‘Good Chaps No More? Safeguarding the Constitution in Stressful Times’ by Andrew Blick and Peter Hennessy argues that recent turbulence affecting the British system of government has revealed flaws that require urgent attention.
The period since the European Union referendum of June 2016 has seen a series of disputes about whether or not constitutional abuses have taken place. They have touched upon many of the main governmental organs: the Cabinet, the Civil Service, Parliament, the judiciary, the devolved institutions, and even the monarchy. Collectively they serve to demonstrate potential weaknesses in the traditional model of constitutional regulation. If general standards of good behaviour among senior UK politicians can no longer be taken for granted, then neither can the sustenance of key constitutional principles.
The authors call for a process to establish a consensus around a new constitutional settlement for the UK. They put forward a menu of proposals for approaching this task after the coming General Election. All of them would need to include representatives of all parties and none, and have a strong link to Parliament, if they were to succeed. Equally, they would need to find means of engaging with the public in a constructive, considered and meaningful way.
The authors conclude that there is a genuine opportunity for the incoming Speaker of the House of Commons to make a major contribution in this area. He could convene a Speaker’s Conference of the type that paved the way for the Representation of the People Act 1918, that expanded the parliamentary franchise to women of 30 and over and previously excluded men.
Other options could include the formation of a Royal Commission or a special parliamentary select committee. There is also scope to work with a Citizens’ Convention comprising a representative sample of members of the public chosen at random.
The authors said:
‘Our purpose in preparing this paper is not to be alarmist. But the system by its normal standards has experienced a genuine shock, not confined to but exemplified by the great prorogation stand-off. It needs urgent attention.’
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.